After a decade at ESPN, J.A. Adande has found his next act

J.A. Adande returned to the Super Bowl last weekend for the first time since 2007. But unlike like his days as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, he wasn’t there to cover the game.

Adande was in Houston to help oversee a traveling group of aspiring sports journalists from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. He was working with them to report stories surrounding the big game for Northwestern’s Medill Reports.

“We’re trying to give them the experience and exposure to cover (events like the Super Bowl),” Adande said.

It is all part of Adande’s new role as the director of Northwestern’s sports journalism program. A Medill graduate in 1992, he accepted the offer from Bradley Hamm, the dean of the school, in August, and began work on campus in September.

(Full disclosure: I am working with those Northwestern sports journalism students as an adjunct professor during the winter quarter.)

Adande, 46, isn’t completely giving up his duties at ESPN, where he has been since 2007. He will continue to work as a sideline reporter for ESPN’s coverage of the NBA; write columns for The Undefeated; and appear on "Around The Horn."

However, his primary focus now will be grooming future sports journalists to follow in his footsteps at Northwestern. Adande says those close to him aren’t surprised that he decided to take the position, which also requires him to move from the relative warmth of Los Angeles to the winter bleakness of Chicago.

“People who know me know this is in my heart,” Adande said.

Indeed, Adande’s late mother, Elizabeth Oberstein, had a PhD in education and was a dance professor at El Camino College. Adande then got his taste for academics teaching sports journalism classes at the University of Southern California from 2004-15.

“It was the favorite thing I did,” Adande said. “I loved working with students. The greatest satisfaction came from seeing their progress, when they got employed and started to live out their dreams.”

Hamm first approached Adande about the job in 2013, but the timing wasn’t right, he said. Adande was ready when Hamm came calling again last year. Part of the deal called for him to remain active at ESPN. He thinks it will help him in working with Northwestern students.

“I like teaching from the experience of doing it,” Adande said. “It helps with my relevance. I will be able to teach the principles while practicing those principles…Seeing their hunger and desire to do those things makes me more appreciative for what I’m doing.”

Adande believes the sports media specialization makes sense for Northwestern on several levels. It is a one-year graduate school program with 25-30 students.

Medill has developed many prominent sports journalists, including ESPN’s Michael Wilbon and USA Today columnist Christine Brennan; both are actively involved in the program and the university. However, neither of them, not to mention Adande and others, had the benefit of taking an extended sports journalism curriculum at Medill.

“Now we can identify those who want to go (the sports) route and give them specific training,” Adande said.

Adande, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, also is struck by the diversity of students in Northwestern’s program.

“I think we’re pulling in people who might not otherwise consider a journalism degree,” Adande said.

The media landscape has changed considerably since Adande graduated in the early ‘90s. Like many of his fellow students, he geared up for a job in newspapers, eventually landing at the Chicago Sun-Times. Now newspapers are contracting, and the job market is extremely challenging.

Adande, though, believes opportunities are there for his students, the next generation of journalists. He contends it is comes down to pushing the right buttons to get noticed in the multimedia age.

“Kevin Merida (the editor of The Undefeated) says there has never been a better time to be a journalist,” Adande said. “I’m not sure I completely share that optimistic view, but now anyone with an iPhone can publish or broadcast a story. New paths have been created. There is nothing to keep you from taking advantage of the opportunities out there now. In this era, you can resonate just as much (with a story that goes viral) as something published on ESPN.com or the Chicago Tribune. Good content always will rise and be discovered.”

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