Robin Roberts Biography
Inspired by Talented Family Members, Pursued Sports Broadcasting as a Career, Joined ESPN
One of the most successful female news personalities on television, Robin Roberts hosts Good Morning America for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The poised and well-spoken Roberts made a name for herself as a commentator for ESPN's SportsCenter and ABC's long-running Wide World of Sports. She was ESPN's first on-air black anchorwoman, the first black female host of Wide World of Sports, and the first woman ever to host a network televised National Football League pre-game show. New York Times correspondent Richard Sandomir cited Roberts for her "skill and intelligence," and he added, "That she is a black woman should not be a factor in assessing her work. She's flat-out talented."
Inspired by Talented Family Members
Roberts's string of broadcasting "firsts" are only the latest phase in her family's history as modern pioneers. Her father, Lawrence Roberts, was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II, and her mother, Lucimarian, served for years on the Mississippi State Board of Education. "I had a father and a mother who were the first to do this and the first to do that and always getting this award or that award, so I figured, well, shoot, I guess I should be a physicist on the weekend," Roberts joked in Sports Illustrated.
From her father—who pursued his childhood dream of flying planes even though he'd always been told his race would deny him the chance—Roberts learned tenacity. From her mother, who taught English, she learned the importance of correct grammar and impeccable speech. Throughout her childhood, both of her parents held her to high standards, but they were also her biggest fans.
Born in Mississippi in 1960, Roberts grew up in a relatively affluent household. Her father stayed in the Air Force after the war and was promoted to the rank of colonel, and the family resided in the small town of Pass Christian. Robin took to sports at an early age, becoming a Mississippi state bowling champion at age ten and a champion high school basketball player. She had not yet begun to dream about being on television, though. "I used to watch Wide World of Sports when I was a pig-tailed little girl in Mississippi, and I wish I could say I thought one day that would be me hosting the show," she commented in the Atlanta Constitution. "But I didn't, because that seemed so out of reach," she continued.
What did seem in reach, interestingly enough, was the opportunity to fly jet aircraft. When Roberts was a sophomore at Southeastern Louisiana University, she decided to take the entrance examination for a naval aviation training program. Her father helped her to study, even though he seemed less than enthusiastic about the decision. "I failed miserably," Roberts recalled in USA Today. "I still think it was rigged. My father may have pulled some strings. He still gets a twinkle in his eye about it," she quipped.
Pursued Sports Broadcasting
as a Career
Roberts was drawn to broadcast journalism by watching her older sister Sally-Ann, who was a television anchorwoman. Robin majored in communications at Southeastern Louisiana University. In addition to the support from her family, Roberts drew inspiration from sports as well. To this end, she played on the university's women's basketball team. She could have been speaking about her own life when she told the Chicago Tribune, "I really believe you can learn so many things from athletics other than how to become a professional athlete." Speaking to the benefits reaped by children who participate in sports, she also added, "The intangibles they learn in athletics can help them be successful in any line of work." Indeed, Roberts applied her enthusiasm for competition to both the athletic court and her school work. She became her university's third highest scorer/rebounder in women's basketball and graduated cum laude in 1983. By that time she had formulated a dream that she would have thought impossible as a little girl. Encouraged by her college coaches to write down a "Mission Statement," she took a piece of paper and wrote on it: "ESPN by 1990." Roberts said in Black Enterprise, "My coaches taught me that talk is for dreams, but when you write it down, it becomes a goal."
Turning down offers for news reporting, Roberts took a part-time job as weekend sports anchor at a television station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her starting salary was $5.50 an hour. From Hattiesburg she moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, spending two years as a sportscaster there before moving on again to Nashville. Speaking candidly in Sports Illustrated, Roberts recalled, "It was harder getting work in those places than it was at ESPN. I would be very stupid and naive if I said there weren't assignments I should have gotten and didn't. It's difficult for me to sit here…and say, boy, have I been held back. But by my own standards, I was late getting here."
Roberts earned notice from ESPN as early as 1987, when a recruiter named Al Jaffe described her as "a tremendous presence" on-camera. Rather than signing on with ESPN at that time, however, she decided to get more experience in a large market. That decision sent her to WAGA-TV in Atlanta, Georgia, where she served as a sports anchor and reporter covering the city's major league teams. The citizens of Atlanta found Roberts to their liking, and she became a local celebrity, working local radio talk shows and attending charity functions.
All the time Roberts was cultivating her on-air presence, sometimes with the help of elocution advice from her mother. In 1990, ESPN called again—this time with an offer to host the station's overnight SportsCenter broadcasts. Roberts accepted, and within a month of arriving at the cable network's Connecticut studios, was promoted to anchor of Sunday SportsDay and NFL Prime Time.
Roberts was the first black anchorwoman hired by ESPN. She proved popular with viewers as well as ambitious for as many important assignments as the station would give her. Before the year was out, she was performing play-by-play for women's basketball games, reporting from the SportsCenter anchor desk, serving as a commentator at NCAA tournament events, and hosting specials. Her own series, In the SportsLight, began in 1994 and has specifically addressed the role athletics played in the lives of successful people of all walks of life. Interview subjects on the show have ranged from entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Hammer to politicians such as former U.S. senator Bill Bradley.
Proving herself to be adept at covering all sorts of sporting events, Roberts soon found herself working at the Winter and Summer Olympics, the Ladies Pro Golfing championships, and the world tennis tour. She was also one of the first female reporters to contribute significantly to draft day coverage for football and basketball, and she was the first regular female play-by-play announcer for men's college basketball games. Reflecting on her appeal in USA Today, Roberts commented that perhaps viewers feel that "even if you weren't on TV, they'd still want you in their home." She also noted that, being an ex-athlete, "I understand the athlete's mind-set, which isn't something all the guys at ESPN can."
Added Wide World of Sports to Repertoire
In 1996, ABC tapped Roberts to host that network's venerable sports program ABC's Wide World of Sports. Roberts, who continued her association with ESPN, also agreed to host an ABC series called A Passion to Play, about women's sports issues, as well as serving in play-by-play situations for sports as diverse as tennis and short track speed skating. Soon after signing with ABC, Roberts anchored the coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. And, in another ground-breaking moment, she stepped in and hosted an important National Football League pre-game show during the playoffs, as a substitute for John Saunders.
Thus, in one dizzying six-year span, Roberts racked up a significant roll-call of firsts: first black anchorwoman on ESPN; first black female host of Wide World of Sports; first female host of an NFL pre-game show, among others. "I'm very proud to be the first African-American woman, and I'm not going to make any excuses for that," Roberts declared in the Atlanta Constitution. "But it's a ticklish position because you want to be known for who you are and not just gender or race. I say with all the humbleness I can, I'm qualified and I'm prepared for this assignment," she added.
Roberts described her sports reporting as "the jewel assignment." She concluded in the New York Times: "I look at 'SportsCenter' and 'Wide World' as the premier sports programs ever. I like to be able to do both. How many people can say they hosted 'Wide World' and 'SportsCenter?'" Only one person: Robin Roberts. Roberts's salary for her dual contracts with ABC and ESPN was estimated at nearly four million dollars over six years. But just before her ESPN contract expired in 2001, Robert admitted to being "at a crossroads" in USA Today. "I'm getting more into issues than games. Games are fun, and doing play-by-play (announcing) is a no-brainer. I know I could be the first woman, on, say, Monday Night Football. But now I'm not so sure. I may try to make a transition (out of sports) like Bryant Gumbel," she added.
Broadened Reporting to Include News
When Roberts decided to move away from sports reporting, she had come to be "widely regarded as one of sports' best and most versatile commentators, period," as noted in Black Enterprise. Roberts began reading the news headlines on the ABC program, Good Morning America, in 2002. Asked how working on morning news was different than reporting on sports, Robert replied to the Vancouver, Washington, Columbian that the biggest difference was "tone." "You can't scream at people in the morning. You have to really ease them into the day." Her adjustment was successful, and a network attempt to break the Today show's decade of besting Good Morning America with higher ratings bought Roberts a promotion by 2005, when she joined Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer as anchor. As Good Morning America closed in on Today in ratings, Roberts seemed poised to climb to the pinnacle of news broadcasting.
Atlanta Constitution, April 21, 1991, p. E2; January 13, 1996, p. F2.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 22, 2004, p. D2.
Black Enterprise, April 30, 1997, p. 56; April 2001, p. 127.
Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1994, p. N3; January 19, 1996, p. N5.
Columbian (Vancouver, WA), May 11, 2005, p. D7.
New York Times, January 19, 1996, p. B12; May 30, 2005, p. C1.
Sports Illustrated, June 17, 1991, p. 78.
USA Today, March 12, 1997, p. C1.
"Robin Roberts," ABC, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/story?id=128237 (October 12, 2005).
—Anne Janette Johnson and
- Michèle (Brigitte) Roberts Biography
- Katherine Roberts (1962-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
- Other Free Encyclopedias