When Meghan McPeak considers where she is in her broadcasting career, against the backdrop of racial unrest and the bleak employment numbers of Black people in her business, she says she feels like Tom Hanks’s character in the movie Castaway.
Alone on an island.
The 33-year-old from Hamilton calls games for both the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the Capital City Gogo, the G League affiliate of the Washington Wizards.
While the NBA, WNBA and G League are among the most racially diverse leagues on the planet, McPeak, who is biracial, is the lone play-by-play broadcaster who’s both female and a person of colour.
“I’ve never really had a Black woman that does play-by-play that I can honestly say I look up to because I didn’t grow up with one,” McPeak said. “And now it’s kind of me in a weird way. And I don’t mean that in an ego way or a conceited way. It’s just realizing that I’m doing something that in men’s sports that is not known.
“In women’s sports it’s acceptable to be a woman that does play-by-play, because for whatever reason in society, that’s where we are accepted in sports – and even then, we’re kind of not accepted in a weird way.”
McPeak is one of less than a dozen play-by-play announcers of colour in North America’s biggest pro basketball leagues, including fellow Canadians and brothers Mark and Paul Jones. Mark Jones works for ABC and ESPN, while Paul Jones calls Toronto Raptors games part-time for TSN and is an analyst for Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
Eric Collins is the voice of the Charlotte Hornets for their TV broadcasts, while Adam Amin is a Pakistani Muslim who got his start at ESPN and was recently hired as the voice of the Chicago Bulls.
“I feel like we’re now on an island by ourselves. And trying to get more people to join us on our island,” McPeak said. “I’ve gone from Castaway to now being part of the cast of Lost, where at least I’m not by myself, but we’re still trying to figure out how to live and how to maintain a civilization with just the [few] of us.”
“It’s disappointing that there isn’t more of us, male or female, especially when you think about the fact that the NBA is like 70 to 75 per cent Black, and the people who cover the league, whether it’s writers, analysts, play-by-play, doesn’t reflect that.”
McPeak chose broadcasting over interior design while at Toronto’s Humber College. Her athletic director Doug Fox nudged her in that direction, good-naturedly pointing out she never stopped talking. As a former point guard, doing play-by-play fits, as she likes to control the direction of the broadcast.
McPeak played point guard for Humber’s women’s team, and after games would take a quick shower before sliding into the broadcast seat to call the men’s games.
She became the only female play-by-play announcer in the G League when she was hired by Raptors 905 in 2015. She was hired by Washington in 2018 and that same year became the first woman in more than 30 years to call an NBA game when the Wizards played Detroit in the preseason.
Female Black role models in broadcasting were virtually non-existent when McPeak started out. She knew of veteran female broadcasters Hannah Storm and Doris Burke, who are white.
“They didn’t look like me,” McPeak said. “I knew Robin Roberts [who’s Black] existed, but didn’t see her a lot; we never really … got SportsCenter in Canada on ESPN. But I knew she existed.
“For me, I only partially had someone to look up to, and funny enough that was Paul Jones because he was the only Black voice of the Raptors after the late great John Saunders left. ... And I say ‘partially’ because Jonesy is a man. But I can look at him and see the resemblance because of the complexion. So that at least resonates.”
Jones’s early days in the business ran parallel to his education career. The three-time Ontario university basketball champion with the York Lions became a teacher and then school principal before leaving in 2004 to focus on his broadcast career.
He credits his Jamaican dad Hugh (Vern) Jones – who died last June at 94, days after the Raptors captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy – for his persistence.
“They always say that the pioneers get the hardships, the settlers get the land,” Jones said. “I went through all of school and never even had a Black teacher. Our dad, though, he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a Jackie Robinson fan, and his thing was: Don’t look at the obstacles, just be better.
“No matter how much we did that, we always found there were things that made it tough. And he would say ‘No, I don’t want to hear about it. Don’t tell me how rough the water is, just bring the ship in.’ So, that’s kind of the environment that we grew up in.”
The NBA and WNBA are considered the most progressive leagues in North American pro sports. The league commissioners have encouraged their players to use their platform for social and racial justice. Players such as LeBron James are among the world’s most vocal on such issues. And when both leagues tip off later this month after the lengthy delay caused by COVID-19, racial justice will be a major theme.
Still, considering the diversity among pro basketball players, Jones says the NBA has plenty of work left to do.
“If the whole thing is a marathon, and a marathon [is] 26 miles 385 yards, the NBA has run about 10 miles,” Jones said. “They still have a long way to go.
“But they’re further ahead than hockey, who’s run around the block, and Major League Baseball and NFL football, who have run a mile-and-a-half. As much as they’re in front, there’s still a really, really long way to go.”
The past few weeks have seen daily protests across the United States, erupting after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, just one of the latest in an agonizingly long list of Black people killed by police.
The Black Lives Matter movement has since shone a spotlight on the lack of diversity across businesses, including the media.
It’s made McPeak better grasp her role as a trailblazer.
“I’m kind of realizing that I am becoming someone’s Doris, someone’s Hannah, someone’s Robin Roberts [former ESPN sportscaster who’s now an anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America]. And hopefully one day I get to meet that little Black girl who might look like me and sees me on TV and says to her parents ‘I want to do what she does,‘” McPeak said.
“Hopefully I have a chance to meet that little girl one day. But with what’s going on in the country right now, it’s starting to hit me that I’m a castaway on an island by myself right now as a woman.”
According to a recent report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, just 18 per cent of NBA players and 17 per cent of WNBA players are white, while 85 per cent of sports editors, 82 per cent of sports reporters and 80 per cent of sports columnists are white.