Kate Fagan

...in her own words
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My dad played professional basketball overseas, so we lived overseas when he was on various teams in France. So, sports were basically part of our childhood and part of what our family did. I played basketball because my dad had played, and he would play [pick-up] two-to-three times a week, probably more, and I would go with him. And when I got old enough, and it wouldn’t piss off all the other guys playing pick-up, they would occasionally let me play if they had odd numbers. That’s how sports became introduced to me; it was just something that we always did.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Adam Zielonka.

About Kate Fagan
BORN: Nov. 15, 1981
HOMETOWN: Schenectady, N.Y.
EDUCATION: University of Colorado
OCCUPATION: Journalist, Television Personality, Podcaster

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Works by Kate Fagan

“Split/Image,” ESPN the Magazine, 2015

“Unhealthy Climate,” ESPN the Magazine, 2011

“Lost and Found in Russia”, ESPN the Magazine, 2016

I certainly liked writing when I was in high school, and I remember reading the Sports Illustrated when the UConn women’s basketball team went undefeated when they had Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti. They were on the cover of that issue and it was groundbreaking. I remember thinking, “Oh, I want to do what these writers have done and write stories like this that are meaningful to younger people, who are absorbing what’s happening in the culture” -- but obviously, I didn’t think of it like that at that time, I just thought “OK, I’ll put this idea on the backburner that I would like to be a writer someday.” But on the frontburner always, until I was 23 or 24, was basketball. I played at [University of] Colorado, I played overseas, I came back and I played a little bit in the States. I really was not focused on being a writer or a journalist or any occupation until I finally decided to stop playing basketball.

(On her start in journalism)

[My degree] was in communication, and the lack of an ‘s’ is important because “communications” was like mass communications and journalism, whereas “communication” was more like interpersonal, organizational. It wasn’t a journalism degree.

Writing was never my focus. In fact, nothing academically was really my focus. In college and leading up, I did dabble at various points in writing, because I had this vision that when I was done playing it would be what I did. I wrote this blog for cubuffs.com when I was playing called “The Fagan Files,” which chronicled the behind-the-scenes of our team. I wrote a couple pieces for our high school journalism paper. But it wasn’t until I stopped playing basketball that I really assessed what I wanted to get into. I really wanted to write books, but I knew that I needed to pay rent, and I just didn’t have the capital to get into book-writing right out of college. So, I thought, “OK, what are some things that would allow me to get better at writing and still be able to pay rent? Maybe I should try sports journalism, because I have some connections at the Boulder [Colo.] Daily Camera.” Very prestigious little paper. The home of Rick Reilly, who also wrote for Sports Illustrated. I knew those guys because at various points our basketball team was really good, and they would send a columnist or they would have a beat writer. I approached those guys and [asked], “Would you have a spot for a stringer just to cover local high school games on Fridays?” They were always looking for kids to do those types of gamers. That’s how I first got started with the Boulder Daily Camera.

After doing that really just for a few months, I was done with basketball, and I really wanted to stay in Colorado and work for the Boulder Daily Camera, but the columnist there gave me some good advice. It was during the time where like, whenever positions would come open they would freeze. He was like, “If you really want to get a full-time job, you need to be willing to move anywhere.” I sent out 100 resumes to any varying level of media outlet. I know I sent my resume to ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated even though I had no authority to be doing such a thing, and then also small-circulation papers. And I ended up getting a job within a month or so at a really tiny paper in eastern Washington state [the Ellensburg Daily Record]. So that’s kind of how I got into writing, and it took me a very long time to understand writing. I didn’t see it as a craft for a while. I was kind of teaching myself. Later on in my career, a few years later, I was around people with Columbia journalism degrees, and I started to try to put together how to actually improve my writing rather than just completing the writing.

(On moving to papers in Glens Falls, near her hometown, then to Philadelphia)

Ellensburg’s was a 10,000-circulation paper and Glens Falls [Post-Star] was actually like 35,000 at the time. At the Ellensburg paper, on my free time I could go cover the Mariners or the Seahawks, and that was really cool, but there was almost no opportunity to do a lot of long-form storytelling because there was no one there to really guide me. Whereas at the Glens Falls Post-Star, they had won a ton of APSE awards for feature writing and almost all of their young writers would always go on to bigger papers, and they had a lot of prestige. It just so happened that it was also close to my parents.

After being in Glens Falls for a year and a half, the [Philadelphia] Inquirer was looking for a young writer because they had an opening. One of my colleagues at the Post-Star, he had gone to Columbia J-school, and his professor at Columbia was really good friends with the Inquirer sports editor at the time, also an ESPN alum, named Jim Cohen. I kind of rode the coattails of my colleague getting an interview, because they were basically interviewing any decent, young writers. So I got an interview for that job and I think what appealed was my basketball background because I played at such a high level, and I think the editor knew that the Sixers beat was coming open too. So I think he kind of thought, “I’m taking a risk here,” because I’d never covered anything at that kind of level, but I also had the background that I understood basketball. Even if I was going to be a little naive on the business side and the agents and on how to report stuff out, I definitely would know the basketball. That’s how I got to the Philadelphia Inquirer. I spent three seasons on the Inquirer’s Sixers beat. I knew that beat writing wasn’t for me after the middle of the second year because I know my skill set. I’m not a hard news person. I much more lean on observation and the separate thinking that I will do after whatever kind of reporting I need to do on a piece. Being on a beat is not conducive to my skill set, as well as the repetitive nature of it--you can only land in Milwaukee in January so many times before you feel like you’re in Groundhog Day.

(On first getting on ESPN’s radar)

I had connected with the people who run the MIT Sports Analytics Conference and I moderated a panel when that conference was in its infancy, before it was what it is today. The ESPN the Mag editor-in-chief was on a panel there, and we were playing a pick-up [basketball] game at the end of the day with like Mark Cuban and a bunch of other people. We played well together, Mark Cuban and I. Brent Barry was there. It was a really good game, it was fun. You’re playing hoops, so everybody’s guard’s down, so it doesn’t feel like I’m pitching anything. [The ESPN editor] would just ask questions, like “You’re at the Inquirer?” He gave me an open-door invitation, like “If you have any stories, pitch them to me.” So I did. And I started working on a long-form story for the magazine about the recruiting climate in women’s basketball, actually. We ended up doing the piece and I got to know a lot of the editors there and a couple other writers. We worked on another piece together called “The Glass Wall” about the decreasing number of female coaches in women’s sports and why that is.

So when ESPN decided to invest a lot of money in their Title IX 40th anniversary project -- that’s the project that launched the “Nine for IX” films, which were nine female-directed, female-protagonist films -- they brought me in to help on that project, to do some of the more in-depth reporting pieces. Like “The Glass Wall” came out of it, which was a piece for our old longform site. And I wrote a lot of the profiles of the athletes that we chose for [espnW's list of the 40 greatest female athletes of the past 40 years]. So that’s how I got into ESPN, and from there it’s just a matter of trying to pitch other entities different stories you can do and being a little entrepreneur when you get into ESPN.

(On starting to write books)

I guess I would say that being at ESPN, it was more of a number of variables that came into play at one time. I had a story to tell about my years playing college basketball and what had happened when I came out to my team. Dovetailing with that was that it was right around the Michael Sam time, and Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were speaking out about LGBT rights. It was clearly a conversation that the sports world wanted to have. Part of it was me being at ESPN and editors there asking me to write pieces and become more of a voice on those topics, and me thinking, “Oh, maybe I have something to say on this instead of running away from it.” So part of that was being at ESPN but it wasn’t, “Oh, I have a platform at ESPN and now I can write books.”

(On the new book, “What Made Maddy Run,” and the possibility of future projects)

There’s nothing more really to add. ... It feels like people kind of understand what the book is, and it’s for some people but not for others, because of the subject matter and how difficult it can be.

I had always wanted to write novels, so maybe someday, in the next few years, I will attempt that project. I’m actually kind of at a point now where I’m trying to be less -- the equation in my mind being less “Achievement and success equals happiness.” I’m trying to not ascribe to that formula as much anymore and really pinpoint why I’m doing things and what I love to do, as opposed to saying yes to everything because of how it looks and what it might do for me in the long run. Really assessing what parts of my job I enjoy doing and doing those things more.

(On the language of speaking and writing about suicide)

When people ask me what part of the book hasn’t been talked about the most, I usually say I thought people would want to either criticize me more because I didn’t follow the rules of how to talk about suicide to the letter, or want to have more of a conversation about how tricky writing about suicide is and how most of the time people will just avoid it because it seems too tricky. Those are all things I thought people would want to talk about, although I guess I’m answering my own question right now in that, I think people are scared to talk about it. They do worry they’re going to break some rules that they don’t know. They’re going to secretly use the wrong language. With this book, I try, when I talk about it, when I interact with people about it, I try to make it as acceptable to people as possible. I’m not trying to be funny with the book, but I try to bring humor to it because I think the more we talk about suicide in the same ways we talk about other things, where you can, when a joke presents itself about -- and I want to make sure this comes across right. It’s not like I make jokes about Madison. But I think when people think about reading this book or think about talking about this book, they think it’s going to be just clinical and a downer, like they have to take their medicine. When I talk about the book, I try to make sure I make it entertaining and interesting and make it clear that we shouldn’t talk about mental health like a clinical, “You go stand over there in a corner,” and let people feel free to explore what it means to them.

(On people who’ve helped her career along the way)

Neill Woelk was the columnist at the Boulder Daily Camera. He now works for cubuffs.com. He has always been in my corner and he’s the one who gave me great advice when I was deciding what to do right after I stopped playing basketball. I remember when the Philadelphia Inquirer editor was calling my references, he called Neill, and one of the questions was, “Hypothetically, what if I threw Kate into a pro beat right away? Do you think she could handle it?” And Neill didn’t miss a beat. He was like, “There’s nothing you can throw her into that she wouldn’t handle and figure out.” And I remember the editor later on, when we became friends, telling me that was a deciding factor for him taking a chance on someone who didn’t have that kind of experience.

And then I had a great editor at the Daily Record, his name was Jeff Robinson, and he just let me explore all different parts of the job. He could’ve been like, “No, you’re not covering the Mariners, you need to just cover high school here.” He was one of those editors who was like, “I’ll back you up all the time, I’ll let you learn whatever you want.” And even when I decided to apply for the Glens Falls job, which was a little early -- I’d been there 10 months and I was applying to new jobs -- he gave me the best recommendation. There were a bunch of people along the way who really helped shape [my career]. And those are just more like logistical help, and there’s tons of actual in-the-words editors who were invaluable.

(On challenges of being a woman in sports media)

I grew up playing pick-up basketball [with men] and so it’s not unusual to me to be the only woman in a room. I never grew up thinking about that. I grew up in a time where even during my college basketball career, there was no social media or blog so I had no concept that people thought women’s basketball was awful and stupid and boring and all the things you see on social now. I mean, I thought we were as important as the guys’ team. I don’t know how I got away with this! It’s going to be really hard for anyone to reprogram that mindset in my head. That’s just how I grew up. I don’t come from a place of I’ve had to fight and scrap for everything. I had to fight and scrap in a different way, but it hasn’t been a lack of opportunities because of my gender. I do see how it impacts how I interact now, and how I respond to stories, and the challenges I face in terms of how I’m going to present myself on TV that my male colleagues don’t face. But it doesn’t come from a place of, “Will I get the chances I think that I should?” I think I’m lucky in that regard, simply because of circumstances when I was growing up and the mindset that I developed.

(On challenges for the future of sports media)

Do I think that our current generation who’s quote-unquote “in charge” of sports media is going to figure out how to evolve? I don’t know. Do I have any doubt that how sports media evolves by the next generation coming up and what they’re going to create for people their age – that it will exist and they will care about storytelling? I have no doubt of that. There’s no part of a human being that doesn’t, one, love reading a really in-depth, good story, and two, doesn’t like creating it, which I think is really important. I think there’s a satisfaction that comes with telling an amazing story, and that’s never going to go away. I’m not confident necessarily that the current iteration of sports media who’s in charge will figure it out, but it will be figured out and we will be asking that question once that [next] generation comes of age.

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