Today, on August 17, Chiney Joy Ogwumike made history, becoming the first Black woman to co-host her own daily, national radio show on ESPN. Every afternoon, Ogwumike will comment on sports and culture alongside former football player Mike Golic Jr. for their show Chiney and Golic Jr. “First but not the last,” she tells Refinery29.
The former power forward for the Los Angeles Sparks is almost unfailingly upbeat. “Boisterous,” is the word her mother, Ify, uses. The 28-year-old is also an exceedingly driven straight-shooter, someone who’s managed to overcome many challenges, and someone who’s willing to speak up in the hopes that the people who are following in her footsteps won’t have to face the same hurdles she has.
“I've been through a lot of adversity, whether it's my existence as a Black woman, playing in the WNBA where they want to compare us to the NBA — and now as a female broadcaster,” Ogwumike says. “There were a lot of obstacles to overcome for me to get a seat at the table.” And now that she has that seat, she’s not going to waste it.
“My representation matters.”
As far back as elementary school, Ogwumike, the second of four daughters, loved to be “a part of any process that was making changes,” her mom, a special education teacher-turned-principal, who earned her PhD last December, remembers. “Most kids want to watch Barney, but Chiney was very much at peace with the news,” her dad, Peter Ogwumike Jr., a tech company CEO and a chief in the Nigerian village Ubomiri, adds. “CNN was her channel.”
In 2010, Ogwumike was recruited to Stanford University, where she played basketball alongside her sister Nneka, who is two years her senior. She also met former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who worked at the school as a professor after leaving the Bush Administration. Rice took the young player under her wing, pulling strings to help Ogwumike study abroad in Abuja, Nigeria for eight weeks after her junior year.
On that trip, Ogwumike worked with the charity Access2Success to start a basketball camp. She was popular among the kids, many of whom looked up to her. “I realized, I have a country, a continent of people, that are rooting for me by nature of having a shared heritage,” she says. She looks back to the time as a moment when she felt, deeply, a call to lead by example. “I go back to the States and I sort of have this new purpose,” she tells Refinery29. “I know that my representation matters.”
“The pain informed me.”
After graduating from Stanford in 2014, Ogwumike was drafted as a number one pick to the Connecticut Sun. Months later, she was named Rookie of the Year and was selected as an WNBA All-Star alongside Nneka; the first time sisters had been chosen to participate in the same All-Star game. (In 2019, the two began playing together again when Ogwumike requested to be traded to Nneka’s team, the Sparks.) In the off-season, Ogwumike played overseas, in Italy and China.
In 2015, Ogwumike experienced a painful microfracture in her right knee, which required surgery. After taking the opioids she’d been prescribed for a day or two, she began refusing the meds. “This is the part that might sound crazy, but you have to feel the pain to understand it,” she says.
“Having to deal with the pain informed me,“ she tells Refinery29. When someone calls her a name on the street, or she’s booed on court, or she’s overlooked because of the color of her skin or because she’s a woman, “ I don't just ignore it. I don't just push it down,” Ogwumike says. “I have to acknowledge it so I can deal with it, and then find a system that will help me. Whether I build that system myself or I've got people to help me.”
It was while she was recovering from that injury that Ogwumike began filling in on His & Hers and First Take, two ESPN programs. A year later, while recovering from a tear in her Achilles tendon, she worked as an analyst for the network and a host for SportsCenter Africa.
That led to a three-year period during which Ogwumike was averaging just three or four hours of sleep a night. She would wake up most mornings at 4 a.m. and head to the ESPN offices, where she’d go on the air for SportsCenter at 7 a.m. After filming all morning, she’d work out with her team, then play a game at night or study for the next morning’s segment, finally falling into bed at around 1 a.m.
“I have the urgency to amplify voices like mine.”
Some of the drive Ogwumike felt to push herself that hard may have been internal. She calls the pressure she puts on herself “the worst.” But, she says, “I've been having to deal with pressure every day of my life, just by nature of being a young Black woman, growing up in Cypress, Texas, and then pressure of performing.”
Even when she appeared on ESPN alongside NBA legends such as Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce, viewers would ask, “Who is she?” “They can't even pronounce my name, not knowing that my credentials are just as good as anyones,” she says.
Ogwumike’s experience being overlooked speaks directly to two of the issues she hopes to see change in her lifetime: sexism in professional sports, where women receive just 4% of sports media coverage despite making up 40% of all players, and racism against Black women. And she wants to be a part of that shift, particularly now that she has a larger platform.
“I know there have been women that have created that opportunity for me, but now it's now on me to create the opportunity for other people,” Ogwumike tells Refinery29. “I have the platform and also have the urgency to amplify voices like mine.”
In June, Ogwumike went on MSNBC and other networks to speak out about the death of Breonna Taylor. George Floyd was at the center of the news, and while she was glad to see the issue of racial justice and police reform getting attention, she didn’t want Taylor to be forgotten. “We live in a society where women are overlooked. Especially Black women,” she said at the time. She donated money to Taylor’s family’s GoFundMe, and plans to continue supporting the family and the cause with other projects, and by speaking up.
“My mom always says, ‘Small drops of water make a mighty ocean,” Ogwumike says. “There are a lot of small things happening right now, and hopefully that mighty ocean will cleanse our world.”
"You have to go through it to get to it."
In addition to the radio show, last week Ogwumike was named executive producer on "Life in the Bubble." The ESPN documentary will tell the story of what it’s like to compete in the Olympic village-style campus that was set up in Florida to allow athletes to isolate together in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That means while Ogwumike’s old teammates and sister are playing in “the bubble” this season, she’ll be interviewing them, and trying to shake things up at a time when the world desperately needs a shift.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ’You have to go through it to get to it,’” she says. “And I think right now in the world, we’re going through a lot… We’re in the middle of multiple pandemics, right?” she asks, referring to both coronavirus and the nation’s racial justice reckoning.
“There’re so many issues that are being unearthed, and even having an uncomfortable conversation with your friends or giving money to a movement that you believe in is progress,” she says. “Those are small wins that we would never have if we weren’t in the moment we’re in right now.
"There might be times I’m awkward about explaining what Black Lives Matter means to someone. And maybe I didn’t say it to the best of my ability. But they opened their heart to hearing something they never would have heard before," Ogwumike says, reminding us that she knows better than most how to find purpose in pain. “That’s what brings me joy right now."