As reputations go in journalism, it doesn’t get much better than being known as a reporter who asks tough questions.
That’s the common narrative in stories about Rachel Nichols. Sports Illustrated once called her “the country’s most impactful and prominent female sports journalist” because of her ability to ask tough-but-fairs.
A recent GQ profile featured the headline: “Rachel Nichols doesn’t think asking tough questions is scary at all.”
Nichols tried to be modest when asked about this reputation. “There are so many people who ask tough questions. You know that,” she said.
When pressed a bit more, Nichols conceded, “I’m just glad people think it’s a good thing.”
ESPN thinks it is a very good thing. Last week, Nichols made her debut as host of “The Jump,” a new NBA studio show airing weekdays on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET. She says the show, which features former All-Star Tracy McGrady as a regular panelist, will take a broad view of the league, going beyond the previous day’s games. She intends to take some “deep dives” into cultural issues and the lives of the players.
This marks Nichols’ return to ESPN. The network lured her back from CNN and Turner Sports with the offer of the new show, plus opportunities to appear on “SportsCenter,” “Outside The Lines” and “E:60.”
“I was very happy where I was,” Nichols said. “But this is the complete job. It’s a win, win, win, win.”
Nichols, 42, put herself in this position thanks in part to her reputation as an interviewer. Two watershed-type moments stand out for her.
On her CNN show, “Unguarded with Rachel Nichols,” she confronted Floyd Mayweather in 2014 about issues with domestic abuse. Nichols made the boxer squirm, more so than most of his opponents in the ring.
Shortly thereafter at a press conference, she put Roger Goodell on the spot with probing questions about the NFL commissioner’s handling of the Ray Rice case. There was such an outpouring of praise for Nichols that she was actually trending on Twitter.
“People wanted to hear some accountability from Goodell,” Nichols said.
When it comes to interviewing, Nichols said she applies the lessons from her days as a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. However, it isn’t that easy. Clearly, there is an art to asking the tough question.
Nichols says it starts with being prepared.
“You have to do your homework. You have to know your facts. You have to know the situation,” Nichols said. “…I do a large amount of research. It gives me comfort [going into an interview]. You’re asking the person to complete the picture.”
It’s also about being fair, Nichols said.
“I truly believe if you are asking a fair question, it shouldn’t be scary to ask, and it shouldn’t be scary to answer,” Nichols said. “If you are asking a ‘gotcha’ question, that’s when the problem comes in…If the question is the quest for information, then you ask the question that gets you that information. It feels like what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Nichols faced allegations from Mayweather’s fans that she blindsided the boxer. She says her questions were important “given the climate of the time” with the Rice controversy in full boil.
Ultimately, she said, it comes down to a quest for information.
“My job wasn’t to tell people they should or shouldn’t like Floyd Mayweather,” Nichols said. “My job is to give people all the information. One of the things I learned was that a lot of people didn’t have all the information about Mayweather.”
Nichols pointed to another interview where the process worked. She did an interview with LeBron James in 2011 after his first season in Miami. He talked about being portrayed as a villain for the manner in which he left Cleveland.
“There were challenging questions, but it was a far-reaching interview,” Nichols said. “The feedback was, ‘Hey, I understand him a lot better now.’”
Nichols, who has interviewed James many times since then, finds him to be “introspective and smart.” She also said Kobe Bryant is “a fantastic subject.”
The superstars, along with other NBA players, will be featured in interviews on Nichols’ new show. Nichols’ reputation is well-known, and the players won’t be getting cupcake questions from her.
For all the talk about her no-nonsense reputation, Nichols insists players — at least the savvy players — prefer it that way.
“The athletes I’ve interviewed know they are going to get a fair interview,” Nichols said. “I have found players are more comfortable than you think talking about difficult subjects. If they know you are legitimately interested in them, as opposed to coming in with an agenda, that’s when you get the best interviews.”