John Saunders’ sudden death produced massive waves of grief in the world of sports journalism on Wednesday. That sort of thing tends to happen for people who have been on such major TV platforms for decades, but it’s clear that Saunders wasn’t just a familiar face on TV or a respected peer. As His & Hers co-hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith explained, Saunders took an active role in the advancement of young journalists, particularly those of color.
Here’s part of what Hill said about Saunders, as she fought back tears that ultimately rolled down her cheeks anyway:
I can’t even relay to people the kind of champion that John Saunders was for people like us. He shared with me some of the things that he told our president, John Skipper, about the kind of potential that he thought we had. And for him to be so invested in who we were, it just … Man, I’m devastated.
When Hill said, “People like us,” it’s unclear what exactly she meant — either she was referring to black sports journalists (Saunders’ last public appearance, by all accounts, was on a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists the previous Friday) or simply to herself and her co-host Smith. Either way, the fact that Saunders took an active role not just in mentoring them, but in advocating for their advancement, shows what kind of import he had on the community he helped build.
The mere existence of His & Hers is a testament to how far the industry has come — with two black hosts, one of them a woman, the show stands in stark contrast to the rest of the sports media landscape, even in 2016. Even in 2016, it’s more difficult for people of color to make it up the ladder, not just in sports media, but all over the United States. As unfair as it is, they often need people like Saunders, who have been in their position long enough for their words to carry weight, to vouch for them and to champion their causes. With John’s death, one of those champions is no longer with us, and his responsibilities fall on whoever remains.