Stuart Scott was the voice of my generation, and now he’s been silenced. His death was sad, because by all accounts he had led an exemplary life, but it was also anticlimactic: Because of a long battle with cancer, he hadn’t seemed like himself for years. When somebody goes out like he did—seemingly at random, without any time for the bloggerati to prepare a detailed assessment of his career—you’re never quite sure he’s gone. I’m reasonably confident that one night in the far future, in the throes of insomnia or mania or some combination thereof, I’ll turn on SportsCenter expecting to see him and Rich Eisen trading half-funny wisecracks, and he won’t be there.
Scott’s absence, which will always come as a surprise, underscores how inexplicably present he was in my life. He was never exactly a hero of mine, although I suppose that I inadvertently followed in his footsteps. We were both University of North Carolina alums, veterans of the school’s journalism and mass communications program. He worked for the student radio station; I worked for the student newspaper. He lived in Raleigh and was employed by the city’s CBS affiliate until 1993; my family, fractured by divorce, moved to Raleigh in 1996 after my father decided to stop being employed altogether. This continued until 2001, when I graduated from UNC-CH and Scott gave the commencement address.
Stuart Scott had something to say to us, and it wasn’t just “boo-yah, dog.”
In so many ways, though, Stuart Scott was always in the background, because SportsCenter was always on: my cousins and I watched it religiously, and the smooth, self-aware delivery of anchors such as Eisen and Scott shaped our generation’s approach to journalism generally. Back then, I wasn’t tired of how slick and clever everything was becoming, and affixing nicknames to obscure NFL players and spouting catchphrases to punctuate slam dunks and home runs still struck me as a vibrant way forward for media.
And really, there’s no comparing the SportsCenter of 1990-1999 (or so) with the overstuffed, endlessly repeating highlight-cum-gag reel of today. The latter is a copy of a copy of a copy; the former was part of a world of promise never quite realized, because how could it be? Scott and Eisen, like sports blogger nonpareil Bill Simmons, didn’t matter because they were good, although they certainly were good enough—they mattered because they were first.
Stuart Scott was 35 when he gave his commencement address, which is three years older than I am now. UNC-CH, which can’t even spell my name correctly on donation solicitations, is unlikely ever to ask me back, so our conjoint narrative ends there. For the anchor, the speech offered an early opportunity to assess his outsized yet arguably insubstantial legacy: “Here we go again—I gotta prove something, prove that I’m a journalist and not an entertainer.”
“Somewhere down the line, I realized I never have to prove anything to anyone but myself,” Scott said. “And I’m secure in the knowledge that I do that every day.”
I wrote “arguably” in reference to the arguments of others, not me. I didn’t begrudge Stuart Scott his success, much as I can’t begrudge Bill Simmons his, since they were part of a youth movement that changed the way the journalism game was played. Can they, or anyone else in that movement, be blamed for growing old?
Scott, alas, won’t even get to do that. Other, less innovative people are now filling his shoes, borrowing his catchphrases, mimicking his deadpan delivery. There he sat athwart the anchor table; he could do no other: “Somewhere down the line, I realized I never have to prove anything to anyone but myself,” Scott explained to the assembled UNC grads. “And I’m secure in the knowledge that I do that every day.”
History is neutral, and it refrains from selecting winners or losers; only our thinking makes it so. But for a little while, Stuart Scott—who once took a football to the eye for his art—bestrode his field like a colossus. Some might say that that field, sports journalism, was insignificant, and that sports were essentially vacuous pursuits, enjoying exaggerated and unwarranted attention from the millions of young men and women who blithely watch SportsCenter on repeat (certainly those UNC professors who had objected to Scott’s selection as commencement speaker would have said so).
To the stuffed shirts who would advance such claims, I can say only: I’m sorry. And here I’m apologizing as a historian who specializes in such matters, not as a preteen who came of age with Stuart Scott’s dulcet tones serving as so much white noise. At a certain point, those people who narrate our lives, whose presences are ubiquitous even if unnoticed, have to matter. They have to say something about the world in which we lived, about how who we were led us to become who we are.
Stuart Scott had something to say to us, and it wasn’t just “boo-yah, dog.” It was something more, something that’s easily overlooked: He was the harbinger of a profound shift in the way we communicate with one another, in the privileging of personal style over content. “Understand the power in your words,” Scott exhorted the class of 2001, my class. From my vantage point in 2014, the results are mixed: we have and we haven’t. “You won’t get it perfect, but you will get it,” he added.
You’ll be missed, Stuart, especially when I reach for the remote, channel-surfing to ESPN and thinking you’re still there. Ave atque vale and all that.