The world of sports broadcasting is no longer the totally white male enclave that it was throughout much of the 20th century. People of color and women, as well as members of the LGBTQ community are now standard fixtures on many telecasts on pretty much all team and individual sports.
But while seeing a Black, Latino or Asian face on the sidelines, in the booth or even anchoring a newscast is nothing novel these days, the story of the late John Saunders rise to fame at ESPN still is far from the standard tale.
For one thing, Saunders wasn’t born in America, but Canada. Secondly, unlike many former Black athletes, his sport was hockey, not football, basketball or baseball. Third, he got into sports broadcasting by accident, actually beginning his career as a country music jock, then shifting to news, before finally moving into sports.
Still, once he arrived at ESPN in the mid-80s, Saunders quickly emerged as a versatile and gifted broadcaster equally at home in the studio or on site. At various times Saunders was a Sportscenter anchor, studio host for college football, basketball, hockey and Major League Baseball, and a play-by-play man for college basketball.
Ultimately he became first a panelist, then later host of the show “The Sports Reporters,” replacing the legendary Dick Schaap, yet finding a way to make an impact despite displaying a totally different personality.
But throughout his climb up the sports ladder, the affable, articulate Saunders was hiding a shocking past, one that included multiple incidents of abuse and addiction, infidelity, self-mutilation and recurring battles with depression. All this is relayed in his amazing autobiography “Playing Hurt – My Journey From Despair to Hope” (Da Capo), which took four years to write.
There are searing, sobering accounts of an abusive and frequently shiftless father, an equally erratic mother, Saunders’ inability for much of his life to find any sense of happiness in a relationship, and yet despite all that becoming so successful in his work. It is alternately inspiring and despairing, optimistic and pessimistic, as he also recounts the problems of adjusting to racist realities in America, and being treated as an outsider by African-Americans distrustful of a Black man playing a white sport and living with white players.
Sadly, John Saunders died before “Playing Hurt” was published. Author John V. Bacon, his co-writer, adds a final chapter while sounding a note that he hopes those who read this book will take comfort in the fact Saunders did eventually find as much success in his personal life as his professional one. “Playing Hurt” is often tough to read, but proves extremely informative and rewarding.