Student-athletes at Howard University picked up tips for success at an ESPN forum that featured prominent female alumni who went from sports to successful careers. Photo by Hamil R. Harris
Student-athletes at Howard University picked up tips for success at an ESPN forum that featured prominent female alumni who went from sports to successful careers. Photo by Hamil R. Harris

Just about every female athlete at Howard University was seated in the campus’s Blackburn Center during homecoming weekend as ESPN anchor and columnist Jemele Hill moderated a panel discussion with a half-dozen HU alumni who have moved onto successful careers in broadcasting, law and corporate finance.

Khalilah Birdsong, former Howard volleyball captain who now is executive director of Tyler Perry Studios, and Kara Smith, a basketball legend who went from being Howard’s 2012 Female Athlete of the Year to a senior financial analyst at Deloitte Consulting, all took part in the event, which was part of espnW’s “Campus Conversations” series.

“It is really about knowing that they already have the keys to succeed in the workplace,” Birdsong said of the student-athletes in attendance. “It’s teamwork, competitiveness, discipline. They may not know it because they have been doing it. You are already at the top, going into that work experience with that confidence and they will succeed.”

While most of the audience questions were about internships, jobs and careers, Hill emphasized the importance of women of color being role models to younger women today, not just career-wise but in speaking out amid a rash of abusive incidents perpetrated against women in amateur and professional sports.

“It is important that we be at the forefront of leading the conversation in terms of women of color providing opportunities,” said Hill, a former columnist at the Orlando Sentinel who now hosts ESPN’s “His and Hers” with Michael Smith. “With domestic violence in the NFL, there needs to be serious criticism and scrutiny as to whether the league —despite all of the lip service after Ray Rice —is taking this issue seriously. It looks like they don’t.”

Hill said issues such as domestic violence must be addressed by the NFL at a time when 46 percent of the fan base are women. “To tell them with the Josh Brown case that you don’t care about an issue that deeply impacts women more than men is a deeply eye-opening thing,” Hill said, referring to the former New York Giants kicker recently in the news for admittedly beating his wife. “In terms of the conversation, there is a specific conversation for women of color.”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns about police shootings, Hill said many women of color are reluctant and more unlikely to call the police, but women have to speak out.

Other forum panelists included Kerry D. Chandler, chief human resources officer for Under Armor, CNN correspondent and Howard alum Stephanie Elam and Cecelia Townes, a former tennis star at Howard who who went on to become a lawyer.

Smith, who graduated magna cum laude, called the experience of returning to speak at her alma mater “extremely powerful.” She is now planning to move from finance to brand management because “I love the way brands communicate with the community.”

The forum touched on diversity within the industry, with Serita Cobb, director of digital production for espnW, adding that she pushed for the company to find more diversity and they literally Googled “black female columnist” to find and hire Hill.

During the forum, Carol Stiff, ESPN’s vice president of women’s sports programming, pointed out that 94 percent of the business executives in the country played sports coming up and 52 percent played sports in college.

“Your resume will show [that] you do have the tools, you are special,” she said.

Asia McCants of Northern Virginia, a Howard freshman and member of the Lady Bison basketball team, said the forum was good for her even though she isn’t planning to go into journalism.

“Even though they are communications major and I am a sports medicine major, I learned so much,” she said. “I am into many things. I am into politics, I am into sports. It’s all about the people who you are talking to.

“They talked about teamwork and just because I play a sport, I am already getting ahead, I already have a good resume,” McCants said.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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