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TSN host Kayla Grey, whose online-only show, The Shift, premiered in May 2021.Bell Media

Kayla Grey wasn’t taking any prisoners.

Late last year, she opened an episode of her TSN sports and lifestyle show The Shift with a searing indictment of the culture of the NHL. To be sure, Grey wasn’t the first pundit to breathe fire after revelations over how the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks had handled historical allegations of sexual assault, which had recently come to light. But she went one stark step further, arguing the league “half-assed everything when it came to social justice, and almost always needs to be hand-held into doing the right thing.”

And then she concluded with what could only be interpreted as a call for the resignation of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: “Culture starts from the top,” she declared, “and if the NHL expects, or even wants, things to change, the top is exactly where that change needs to start.”

Not for the first time, Grey was going where no one else dared to tread.

Since last May, when TSN launched The Shift to capitalize on her growing following, Grey has regularly unloaded on professional sports associations and leagues, bolstering her reputation as a rare TV sports commentator in Canada who is unafraid to speak plain truth to power. The fact that the network, a broadcast partner of four Canadian NHL teams, allows her to go to such places is a testament to her talent. But it also speaks to a nascent, er, shift under way in the Canadian broadcast landscape, one that makes this particular project something of a high-wire act, burdened with outsized importance.

All of which has made Grey one of the most important Canadian sports broadcasters to watch in the new year.

Grey’s resilience is an affirmation of hope

Last March, a couple of months before The Shift debuted, Grey worked sideline duty for a Toronto Raptors game as part of a broadcast featuring an NBA first: an all-woman on-air crew.

She had previously made her own individual bit of history, though it went unnoticed at the time. That was back in January, 2018, when TSN tapped her to co-host an episode of SportsCentre, thereby becoming the first Black woman to anchor the flagship highlight show of a Canadian sports channel. There was no breathless press release from the network, no fizzy celebration on social media, though Grey herself did eventually announce the significance of the moment with a post on her personal Instagram account, six months after the fact.

So there is plenty of meaning to tease out in the contrast between that unheralded event and TSN’s approach to The Shift, a biweekly show hosted and co-executive produced by Grey that launched with an extraordinary blitzkrieg of publicity and promotion. Since her debut as a SportsCentre host, Grey has developed into a magnetic broadcaster with a forceful point of view, and TSN doesn’t often launch new shows, so you can understand why they might be excited. But it is also true that she is a Black woman operating in an industry that has recently become very aware of its historical failings, and of the necessity for those in front of and behind the camera to better represent the country it serves.

That sudden change in attitude might make you cynical, if you were so inclined. Grey can strike many notes – earnest, joy-seeking, empathetic, no-nonsense – and she can be skeptical, too. But cynicism? That’s the bitter reflex of those who have resigned themselves to the calamitous state of things. And Grey’s resilience – maybe even her very survival – is an affirmation of hope.

The Shift is itself an expression of hope, its optimism embedded in the title’s implication of positive change. Episodes open with Grey in an exposed-brick studio delivering an impassioned essay straight to camera, often one that reverberates with elements of her own story: Here she is, pounding the table on the need to prioritize athletes’ mental health; issuing a call for executives to recognize the growing popularity of women’s basketball; celebrating the contributions of first-generation Canadian athletes; cheering on pro players as they tilt the balance of power away from the leagues and teams that have long called the shots.

The show’s centrepiece is a feature interview, usually with an athlete (recent guests included Tajon Buchanan, Hayley Wickenheiser, BMX rider Nigel Sylvester, Andre De Grasse, Fred VanVleet and Akil Thomas) a local music artist (Alessia Cara, Majid Jordan, Arkells), or actors from Marvel movies and TV shows. One episode was shot on location at Chubby’s, a Jamaican restaurant in downtown Toronto, giving Grey an opportunity to share her enthusiasm for the foods she grew up eating. (Her mother is from Jamaica.)

There are segments on sneaker culture as well as product reveals (including a clunky one spotlighting a laptop from Dell, the show’s signature sponsor).

Like many sports shows, The Shift also includes panel discussions, though they’re probably unlike any you’ve seen. One mid-summer episode featured Grey and three other women of colour breezily ranking the fashion appeal of each CFL team jersey. During the segment, Tekeyah Singh, a producer who works on TSN’s youth-oriented Bar Down unit, gushed over the logo of the new Edmonton Elks, riffing: “It gives me John Deere vibes, like – Tractor Dad, ‘I’m gonna take my horse to the Old Town Road … ride ‘til I can’t no more.’ I love this logo!”

In a phone interview from her home in the Leslieville area of Toronto, Grey explained that one of the primary goals of the show is to offer a sense of “fun in how we present, how we talk, how we dress. I think for awhile, especially for people of colour in our industry, you just felt like you had to confine yourself a little bit, not crack certain jokes or not dress a certain way, because people might say something.” The Shift was conceived as “a space where I wanted people to just show up authentically as themselves.”

Grey, 29, has made authenticity a centrepiece of her public persona, readily sharing her passion and personal travails in a way that feels part of the generational arrival of those who grew up on social media. The approach pays dividends in the connection she forms with viewers. When she advocates for sports organizations to provide more mental health support, or for Black athletes to be treated with respect, the audience recognizes her point of view comes from personal experience.

Authenticity is a word that will echo through any conversation you might have with Grey. It’s what drew her to her first real sports hero, Allen Iverson, as she was growing up in Scarborough, on the eastern edge of Toronto, in the late nineties. “Watching him come to games, and like, just doing interviews his own way, and the swag and fur coats and the bling – to me, it was like, this person is so damn interesting, this person is so authentically himself, and it made the game more enriched for me,” Grey said. “You wanted him to win, because you saw who he was off the court. And I think that’s, for me personally, when sports became ‘sports and entertainment.’”

“Allen was that portal. He also helped encourage other basketball players to dress as they wanted to dress, and talk how they wanted to talk, and then the whole culture really took off and I was like, Damn, the NBA is not just about the game!” she said. “It truly makes it way more enjoyable.”

For Grey, as for many people, sport and its flamboyant personalities were an escape. Growing up, she was a willful handful who frequently locked horns with her mom, a single mother. She left home at 15. “Sports saved me a crapload of times,” she said. It gave her friends, both in high school and at the West Scarborough Boys and Girls Club. “It’s given me joy in the darkest of times. It’s made me feel something at times when I didn’t think feeling was possible. So that, to me, is why I just love it so much – sometimes I feel like I owe it everything.”

Her teenage years were rough: There was an abusive relationship, and other challenges. And then, at age 18, someone gave her a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s 1997 book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Oprah Winfrey had said the book “helped me discover how to live in the now – to not linger on past mistakes, but to learn from them and then let them go.”

It was, evidently, exactly what Grey needed to hear at the time; it helped spur her out of a cycle of despair. “The lesson I got was to let that crap go, and to move forward. And so I did.” She applied for sports journalism school and was accepted, “even though I’d failed English a couple of times,” she laughed. “And so I just went for it, because I left that idea of disappointment – of what I did or who I was – go, and gave myself a fresh start.”

After graduating, she paid her dues at local stations in Manitoba and British Columbia, then made her way back to Toronto, joining TSN Radio in 2015, and, eventually, the network’s TV operations.

And when much of the Western world erupted in paroxysms of grief and reckoning over racism during the summer of 2020, Grey became one of the most prominent commentators on TSN’s airwaves, given licence to chastise whichever sports organizations she felt were dragging their feet on the social justice file.

Still, when asked what she makes of her increased power, she demurs. “I think maybe people just found more tolerance for what I had to say. Because, if anyone was following me before, they’d know that I’ve always kind of said these things, I’ve always believed these things, I’ve always tweeted these things.” Rather, she believes it’s the audience who has more power now – or at least, has discovered its own power and is finally demanding change. “They’re asking, ‘Why are we not seeing diverse faces? Why are we not hearing diverse voices?’” she said. “I think we are now listening and we are now delivering.”

There is an asterisk to all of this: Despite TSN’s promotional push, the company has not put its ultimate imprimatur on the show by finding a spot in its television schedule. The Shift is not on any of TSN’s linear TV channels.

This week, a TSN spokesperson told The Globe that the show “has recorded more than one million views across digital/social platforms since launch, and garnered more than 44 million social media impressions,” adding that, based on Instagram metrics, the audience is “more than 60-per-cent female viewers.” Still, other metrics seem underwhelming: the program’s Instagram account has just less than 3,200 followers, a small fraction of Grey’s own 25,000-plus Instagram followers. It also has fewer than 2,500 followers on Twitter.

Why isn’t the show on TV? “I don’t know,” Grey says, with a hint of frustration. “And maybe that’s an ongoing conversation. I don’t really know what goes into that decision-making.

“I think right now what makes the most sense is to have it online, because that is where we engage with most of our audience. And what I love is that it’s so easily accessible.”

Still, even though the show is only online, Grey understands it might blaze trails for other BIPOC broadcasters and therefore carries risks alongside the opportunity.

“That’s what happens when you’re ‘an only,’ in certain spaces, because you do feel this immense amount of pressure to get it right every single time. And if you don’t get it right, then you mess it up for the next program or show or person that wants to also come in and do their thing,” she said.

“I just try to just let all that go, because I can’t control it all. People need to know that Blackness is not a monolith. So I’m different than another Black creator, than another Black sports reporter,” she said. “But I think I have to just let it go, in the sense of saying, ‘Listen, you do your best and that will be good enough.’”

The Shift is certainly an expression of Grey’s personality, especially in her support of athletes in their battles for power. Last summer, as the tennis Grand Slams took a heavy-handed approach to one of their biggest stars, Grey declared in one of her opening monologues: “Protect Naomi Osaka at all costs. … In fact, protect Black athletes at all costs.”

Her support of athletes does have limits: last fall, she took swipes at Kyrie Irving’s stance on vaccine mandates. Still, she was gentle and upbeat in her criticism of the star; she saves her scolding tones for the multibillion-dollar leagues and associations. In her drill down of the Antonio Brown saga at the top of this week’s episode, she didn’t quite excuse the star wide receiver for his recent temper tantrum, but she did point out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers knew what they were getting into when they signed him at the behest of Tom Brady.

She believes the media should recognize the varying standards to which it subjects different athletes. “There’s a huge difference in the ways in which sometimes media speaks about Black athletes,” compared to its treatment of white athletes, she said. “It feels as though media do wait for a particular athlete to get it wrong, and then they pounce.”

“It is tricky,” she continued, “because I am coming from it as a journalist, so I understand the element of storytelling, but also I am viewing it as a Black woman. … There are hundreds of people, I’m sure, that are waiting for me to fail or mess up, to prove their narrative – a preconceived narrative – about me, correct. So I do have a level of empathy in that regard.”