CU Buffs

Kate Fagan on giving commencement in the age of Trump, coming back to Boulder, and still waiting for “the one”

[get_snippet] [theme-my-login show_title=0]


“Hi, I’m Kate.”

The first thing that struck me when I met Kate Fagan was how she introduced herself. After spending my childhood watching her on the basketball court and more recent years watching her on Around the Horn, I knew exactly who she was, and so did the several dozen other people who gathered to hear her give a talk on social media and the student-athlete. Yet every time someone would introduce themselves to her, she would return the favor.

It’s the last day of February. A pleasant pre-spring day in Boulder has turned into a windy, frigid reminder that it’s still winter. Kate is running behind (something about her best friend’s baby). She has to speak in half an hour and still has to rearrange her slides, but she agrees to sit down for the interview that was scheduled just 24 hours earlier with the nobody writer from a website she’s never heard of. What’s more, she repeatedly apologizes for being late to a building that didn’t exist the last time she was in Boulder.

The other thing that struck me about Fagan was her authenticity and lack of ego. My attempt to ingratiate myself to her by mentioning my past fandom was met with a response that could best be described as polite, but my offhand comment that I would be graduating in May was met with genuine congratulations. Every answer to every question was carefully considered. Nothing seemed like a stock response. I opened up by asking her what I thought was a softball question about what it was like to be back in Boulder but, for Kate, coming back to the place where she spent her college years is a lot more complicated than that.

KF: I don’t come back to Boulder very frequently. I don’t know…I’m really glad to come back and do commencement and I’m happy to be here tonight, but it’s always like a weird…when you’re coming of age at a certain time in a certain place…Sometimes when I come back to Boulder I feel like I’m 19 again, and that’s good, but it also makes me feel…angsty. There are times when my best friend will be like “Let’s go down to Boulder” and I’ll be like…hmm…but now that I’ve come back a couple more times it feels better. 

At 35, Fagan seems to be in a far better place than she was at 18 or 22. So what does she miss about Boulder after more than a decade away?

KF: I think a sense of teamwork that I think is difficult to find anywhere but actual sports. That’s not Boulder-specific, but that’s tied to my experience at Boulder. The connection to people and pulling toward a similar goal. That’s not something I’ve been able to find in any capacity since. I’ll have flashes of it, like the Women’s March, felt a little bit like “Hey, we’re all doing something together.” That felt like a team. And there are moments of it at ESPN, but it’s never been the same since, so I miss that. 

But…Boulder? Anything?

KF: If you want something more Boulder-specific, really it’s just flashes of like…I love seeing the Flatirons. Most of those are just, sort of superficial though.

TC: Speaking of superficial, do you have a favorite in-game memory or a favorite on-court moment?

KF: We were playing in the (NCAA) Tournament. We beat Stanford in 2002. We got to the Elite 8. It was the biggest win of my CU career. And I remember we ran back to the locker room and we all stood up on these folding chairs. I don’t know why I remember that. I don’t know why we jumped on chairs because we always sang the CU fight song after a win, but for some reason, we felt like that win was so important that we had to be on like, a higher plateau. So we all got on chairs. That was the one moment where I was like “Oh…this is what it’s all about.” 

At this point in the interview, I feel like a jerk for implying basketball was superficial compared to the other things in life. Of course, sports can be tremendously important and meaningful. Those early 2000s CU teams Kate played on were a tremendous source of pride for the school and city, and as a young sports fan, those players were really my first athletic heroes.

I can still remember the 2003 NCAA tournament game at Coors Events Center against North Carolina like it was yesterday. Fagan shot an impressive 5-11 from three-point range that night, just a shade over her career average of 40.6% from behind the arc, and lower than her astounding 2001-02 average of 47.6%. She also missed a free throw, which was one of just three such misses in the entire 2002-03 season, where she set a Big XII record with 44 consecutive makes from the line.

On-court performance aside, Fagan’s time in Boulder was not all sunshine and rainbows, as she detailed in her 2014 book The Reappearing Act. She went through an identity crisis about her sexuality, which has informed some of her best-known writing. While her sexual identity undoubtedly continues to inform her worldview, she says it’s not something that she’s currently spending a lot of time thinking about or something that she plans to mention in her commencement address.

KF: I think my mom asked me last week whether my sexuality or even pieces of the book I wrote or a lot of the writing I’ve done at ESPN is gonna make an appearance in the speech…My response to my mom was “I’m not gonna talk about that at all because that’s not what right now I feel like I have to say.” That’s not what interests me and makes my heart beat right now. It’s a part of who I am.

Despite the intersection of sports and sexuality having nothing to do with her talk that night, or with her impending commencement address, I had to get her take on a few issues that are near and dear to me and other LGBT sports fans.

TC: You wrote an article in 2012 about waiting for “The One” in men’s sports. Jason Collins did come out, and then Michael Sam announced…and then it seems to have hit kind of a wall. What do you think is the main obstacle preventing men’s sports from getting over that stumbling block in a meaningful way? 

KF: I think Michael Sam was a roadblock. I don’t mean Michael Sam himself. I just think that there was a lot of people who were watching that. And an athlete coming out at the beginning of their career. I mean Jason Collins was never going to be “the one” because he was on his way out. I think that there’s been…just from like friends I have and people I know who work in this area. I think there’s a lot that’s moved forward internally within sports. I think that big moment where the rest of us and the whole sports consumer world gets to be in on someone’s life in the way we were with Michael Sam still hasn’t happened. I don’t know that I can pinpoint why other than the reaction to Michael Sam. And I think it’s pretty clear that we need someone like that superstar athlete who comes out right at the beginning, and is so good that the scale of distraction to talent is so lopsided on talent that no one really cares. Nobody can predict when that’s gonna happen. 

TC: Do you think it would have the same impact if an existing star came out?

KF: I think it would, but I think that existing star would be subject to an inquisition into everything they’ve said and done over the years. I think that some of the existing athletes who are open to their teammates, some of whom approach star category, have already interacted so often in the media and in public that it would almost be like you would excavate all of their interviews and decisions and then they would be called to question on some of it. And then you’re asking the question “Why now?”.  I think it’s distinctly possible, but probably in someone’s mind they’re thinking “people are gonna have a lot of questions for me about what I’ve said and done over the past.” 

Fagan has an amazing talent for looking at all sides of an issue. Her personal politics are no secret, but she seems to give everything and everyone a fair evaluation. I asked her about Candace Wiggins, the former WNBA star who made headlines with her remarks about facing bullying for being heterosexual while she was in the league. Wiggins’s comments inspired knee-jerk reactions from many, including myself, but Fagan had a far more measured response.

TC: Candace Wiggins…could that possibly be true? Could she have a legitimate complaint there?

KF: It has to be possible right? I mean, I think with Candace’s statements, she just exists in such like a nebulous grey area that it’s really hard to forcefully question what she’s saying her experience is. It’s like questioning somebody’s feelings. I can’t tell you how to feel. I can’t tell you what your experience was. So it’s impossible to say “no, that’s not true” because, even if 99% of the experiences in the WNBA are counter to Candace’s that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have her experience. The only other bullying story I can remember of this nature was in the NFL with Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito and the NFL and the Miami Dolphins investigated it. I would like to see that happen with Candace Wiggins. Because if this is true then the WNBA needs to take action and take steps to make sure that nobody else has that experience. And I also think that if it ends up that Candace is not telling the truth that we need to get to the bottom of that.

The topic then turned to commencement, which Fagan says she’s “trying not to be too terrified about.” I asked her what she plans to talk about in the speech, and how she plans to get that across to an audience that will not be unanimously in agreement with her politics. Fagan stops several times to contemplate how she wants to frame certain statements; treating the word choice in her response with the same level of care she’s putting into her commencement address.

KF: I think I have a couple ideas, observations that I want to share that I think cut across political divide, and I think are contributing to the political divide but don’t specifically apply to anyone who is a Republican or is a Democrat or is a fan of President Trump or not a fan. I think that there are observations that maybe, for a graduating class that I think is really important about where we go, perhaps helps us get away from this chasm that we’ve created between people. So I’m really aware that the speech isn’t gonna be…I’m talking it through in my head right now…the speech isn’t gonna be like any sort of rallying cry anyway. It’s really gonna try to be like…here are my observations about how I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten if you think I’ve gotten somewhere good, and also here are my concerns about the current world and how you guys can help. That’s really what I’m trying to pin down in a really tangible way. 

TC: It seems like this year everyone is more on edge than usual. It’s not an easy environment in which to be delivering a commencement speech. 

KF: I don’t want to make the assumption that everyone who’s listening has the same worldview or political beliefs that I do. What I’ve learned on ESPN pretty quickly is that people don’t often hear what you’re saying. They see you and they think they already know what your beliefs are on something. And I’m conscious of that happening on any ESPN program. If there’s a topic, people already think they know my opinion. And I have to be very careful about how I articulate it because I’m not always a believer that everyone is listening carefully. So I’m gonna take that piece of knowledge that I learned on ESPN into the speech because I can’t be careless in any regard with any of my language. I can’t imagine that everyone is gonna be mesmerized the whole time and listening attentively as I attempt to speak. 

If the talk she gave that night was any indication, Fagan may be underestimating her skill as a public speaker. She spoke for 45 minutes without notes. The slides she needed to rearrange? They were just stock photos designed to remind her of the next thing she was supposed to talk about. Speaking on the third floor of CU’s new Champions Center, in a room normally used for football team meetings, Fagan held court in a pair of Nike basketball shoes; pacing the front room as she spoke and looking like she could still be playing if she wanted to.

The topic for the night, “Social Media and the Student Athlete” is very close to Fagan’s heart. A confessed phone addict, who was taking a self-imposed hiatus from Twitter at the time of the interview, she is concerned about technology’s impact on herself and the rest of humanity. Then there’s the fact that social media, particularly its ability to present an ideal version of someone’s life while having a negative impact on their self-esteem, is the topic of her latest book, entitled What Made Maddy Run, which is due in August. The book is an in-depth look into the life (both real and virtual) of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania runner who committed suicide in January of 2014, and it’s also a follow-up to the article and accompanying short film “Split Image” that Fagan released on espnW in 2015. She’s uncomfortable with the title because she feels that it indicates that the book contains answers to the mystery of Holleran’s depression that she doesn’t think are there. Fagan has written openly about her own mental health, including her anxiety, and it’s clear that she doesn’t think there are always easy answers when it comes to why people are depressed or suicidal. It isn’t enough, in Holleran’s case, to just blame social media or the illusions and expectations it creates, but it seems to have been at least part of the problem.

Fagan had a difficult enough time in college without the added stresses of social media and its impact on self-esteem, and she seems to have a real interest in trying to help those who are going through similar experiences now. A large portion of the audience are student athletes; most of them female, but the crowd isn’t entirely made up of young people. Legendary CU basketball coach Ceal Barry walks in sheepishly a few minutes into the talk, and Fagan takes glee in chastising her former taskmaster for being late. It’s a light moment in an evening that’s surprisingly not short on levity. In our interview, Fagan was serious and contemplative. In front of an audience, she’s engaging and charismatic (and still thoughtful). For such a difficult subject, the talk only gets truly heavy at the beginning, when the film version of “Split Image” is shown. Fagan is honest and sometimes blunt, but not fatalistic, preachy or judgmental in her treatment of the subject matter. Afterward, she takes time to meet and shake hands with many of those in attendance, introducing herself to each of them.

CU’s commencement web page always features a short bio of the commencement speaker. Kate Fagan’s says absolutely nothing about her basketball career at CU, or her book about her time there. For those of us who weren’t there in the early 2000s, or who haven’t followed her career since, Fagan is speaking at graduation not as a former basketball star, nor as an out lesbian athlete, but as an accomplished sportswriter who happens to be a CU alum. At this stage in her career, that’s probably be just fine with her.

There’s a knock at the door. Kate has to speak in ten minutes. I need to wrap it up. So I decide to lob her one softball. As an Around the Horn fan, I had to know her dream panel. Her answer perfectly illustrated the tact, thoughtfulness, and practicality that characterized our brief but memorable (at least for me) conversation.

TC: What’s your Around the Horn Mt. Rushmore? You can put yourself on it or not.

KF: I’m gonna put myself on it just because. 

TC: So who are the other three? 

KF: J.A. Adande, Jackie MacMullan and Bill Plaschke. 

TC: Oh you’re a Plaschke fan? 

KF: Well I had to go like left to right. I need a West Coast person, JA’s now in Chicago, and then you’ve got New York and then Boston. I felt like I had to fill each geographical district. I think that’s an important thing to note if my colleagues are going to read this. 

Not subscribed yet? Click below to for full access: