The larger-than-life appearance that TV personas have on screen doesn’t always translate when you see them in person. But, at 5‘10, wearing shiny gold shoes and a bright smile, morning show royalty Robin Roberts lived up to the expectation this month on the Hilltop as part of the Silk Speaker Series.
The Good Morning America (GMA) anchor of over 20 years sat down with former USF women’s basketball coach Jennifer Azzi at the War Memorial Gym to talk family, sports, journalism, health scares, and the faith that carries her through it all. Roberts and Azzi are both honored in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame — Roberts played for Southeastern Louisiana University before entering the broadcasting world, and Azzi, among other accolades, won gold for the U.S. Olympic team.
Azzi asked Roberts about the skill sets and traits that have carried her through her career. “I love scaling mountains,” Roberts said. “You have to realize that the peak of the mountain you just climbed is the bottom of the next one you’re going to climb.”
Roberts worked on local TV stations as a sports broadcaster in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi before she became a household name at ESPN and GMA. During the talk, she said that she had to fulfill an unspoken pre-requisite of having played the sports she was talking about early in her career — something she said her male colleagues were not expected to have done. “I knew that as a woman in sports, my margin of error was less than my male counterparts,” she said. “I was working with guys who hadn’t played since they got cut from little league.”
Roberts took that as an invitation to “be the best [she] could be.”
Persistence runs in the Roberts family. Her father was a Howard graduate and Tuskegee Airman — one of the first Black men to serve as a military pilot in the U.S. during the Second World War. Her mother also graduated from Howard and was the first Black woman to be on the state board of education in Mississippi.
“My parents didn’t preach about the three R’s, reading, writing, arithmetic,” she said. “It was the three D’s in the Roberts household; discipline, determination, and da Lord.”
Roberts said that her faith is the throughline in her career and her personal life. In 2012 — the same day that GMA became the number one morning show on TV beating out the Today Show which Roberts said had “kicked our butt for decades” — Roberts got news from her doctor that she had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare bone marrow disorder. She went to the doctor in the morning and went to the GMA party in the evening to celebrate her team’s accomplishment.
“I remember standing back and watching everyone having a great time, and I was like, ‘wow, this is why we’re supposed to enjoy the journey and not the destination,’” Roberts said. “I did the limbo with Sam Champion.”
Over the following few months, Roberts approached her health like an athlete. “I’m going to look at my doctors, they’re my coaches. My chemotherapy and the radiation, that’s the game plan,” she said of her mindset at the time. As a breast cancer survivor, Roberts said that she was already pretty good at remaining optimistic. “Optimism is a muscle that gets stronger with use,” she said.
Jameson Ward, team captain for USF women’s soccer, told the Foghorn that she’s taking that message home with her. “I plan to use this motivation in stressful situations both on the field and in the classroom,” she said.
Roberts has since recovered from MDS thanks to a successful bone marrow transplant from her sister, and has advocated to increase match potential for people in need of bone marrow transplants through the nonprofit “Be the Match.”
Azzi and Roberts also spoke about the role that sexuality plays in their lives — both are openly gay women. Roberts subtly came out publicly in 2013, listing her “long-time girlfriend, Amber,” as someone she was grateful for in an end-of-the-year Facebook post. She had been dating her partner, Amber Laign, for eight years at that time. “I think it’s important for young people who are struggling with their sexuality to know that you do it [come out] on your own time,” she said. Laign, to whom Roberts announced her engagement in January, was sitting in the front row.
To close out the event, four pre-recorded student questions were played on monitors. After first-year chemistry major Isaiah Ranglin’s video played, someone in the audience shouted his name in support.
“Someone knows Isaiah — is he here?” Roberts said. “Stand up, Isaiah!”
Ranglin stood up, about five rows back from the stage, and was met with applause from the audience and Roberts, who looked back and forth at Ranglin and the monitor before jokingly asking, “Do you have on the same sweater?”
After answering his pre-recorded question, Roberts asked Ranglin, “What do you want to do Isaiah? What are your dreams?” She leaned forward and listened with a smile while he said he wanted to go into surgery. “Go on with your bad self,” she said.
Ranglin later told the Foghorn that he had watched Roberts on TV for as long as he could remember. “Her putting me on the spot was so unexpected, and I appreciate her empowering me like that,” he said. “The whole conversation was really uplifting and then that was extra confirmation which was really nice.”