Business Podcast Women Who Lead

Kayla Grey on Saying Yes to Yourself and Changing the World of Sports

Kayla Grey

The world of sports has never been just about sports. Sure, there are some that would argue that sports are the great equalizer where athletes and teams have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field, but that simply isn’t true. A brief look at history provides all the receipts necessary to prove that sports sit at the intersection of politics, business, and culture. It is a vessel for dialogue where we can talk about what’s happening in the world around us and what matters. Just ask Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, or Megan Rapinoe. Alternatively, even look to the past for examples in Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. Simply put: sports is culture, and culture is complicated.

Kayla Grey understands this very well. She is an award-winning journalist who, in 2018, became the first Black woman to host a flagship sports highlight program in Canada when she made her SportsCentre debut. She’s since done everything from covering the Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade in 2019 to making history (again) in early 2021 when she joined an all-female broadcasting team for the first time in the NBA when the Toronto Raptors faced off against the Denver Nuggets. 

It’s clear that Grey is a force to be reckoned with and has a vision for the future of sports media—and the part that she wants to play in it. She is making a statement simply by taking up space as a Black woman in sports media and making room for others to join her at the table. Through the lens of sports, she’s telling a bigger story about who we are as a people, what we value, and how we’re connected to each other.

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What initially got you interested in sports?

Kayla Grey: I think sports was the thing that I always wanted to do, I just didn’t know what to do with it. I [spent] a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandfather would have the game on the radio and my grandmother would watch the Blue Jays game on the television on mute. That’s really old school for you, but the fusion, to me, was super interesting. I’m not really a huge baseball person but I think what spoke to me the most at a young age was the feeling that sport gives you. I just knew that sports were something that made my heart beat really fast. 

You have previously talked about how important it was for you to say “yes” to yourself as you navigated your early career. What does it mean to give yourself permission like that?

Kayla Grey: I realized there were a lot of barriers that I put up for myself in terms of lowering my ceiling at a very young age, and that came through insecurity or not feeling like I fit in with many people, which showed up a lot when I started my career. 

There were a lot of times where I had to be like, “You’re here, just go for it. If you don’t see yourself in this position, be that person in this position.” That took a lot of saying “yes” to myself and “just go for it, bet on yourself.” You have to ask yourself, “Why not you? Why can’t this be you? Why shouldn’t it be you?” I am very transparent about my thinking process because it is important and so many people go through it.

Building on that, is it scary to say “yes” to yourself?

Kayla Grey: It’s a very scary thing because it’s all on you. You’re going to decide how far you go. You’re going to decide if what you do is good enough. You’re going to decide if the work is good enough. So, it is a bit of a challenge for yourself to be brave and courageous to come up with your own opinions of yourself. To stand in that and not fold either way, you lose that co-dependency of other people’s opinions and that’s terrifying.

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You became the first Black woman to host a flagship sports highlight program when you made your debut on SportsCentre in 2018. What did that moment mean for you? And do you think it was a turning point in the media landscape to have these larger discussions around representation—and the lack of representation?

Kayla Grey: No [laughs]. And that’s one of the regrets that I think about a lot. I didn’t say anything when I made my debut because I was terrified. I was scared that that would bring too much attention to me and bring on this amount of pressure. I was already feeling pressure for being the first Black woman to do that and knowing what that action meant for visibility and representation. I wasn’t yet ready to rely or lean on the fact that I put in the work to get here.

I wasn’t ready to celebrate myself yet and that’s why I didn’t say anything. I wish that I did because these conversations could have started a little earlier. I feel like sometimes as people of colour, when we do big things, we hide them. I downplayed it when, really, I should have celebrated it. Not only is it a message of breaking barriers but the celebration in itself can also be very important for a young person of colour to see.

You work in a very male-dominated industry, and a community with very strong male opinions as well. What advice would you have for other women who are entering or navigating similar industries or communities and looking to make an impact?

Kayla Grey: Just succeed on your merits and your talents. Truly. It’s [about] owning who you are and your voice. Understand that you are in the room for a reason. Expand and take up space. [Sports journalism] is a predominantly male—white-male—run industry in Canada. There are a lot of people that like things a certain way and want news to be delivered a certain way but that is so small-minded. Look at Canada, it is a massive space where people like different things, have different interests in sports, want to dissect and discuss sports topics in a completely different way, like myself.

There is an audience that is craving to be in that space and there are people that need [us] to be in that space. 

As someone in a decision-making role, especially as an executive producer and host of your show, The Shift, have you ever had to navigate a situation where being confident and intentional in a role was perceived as “bossy” or any other gender or prescriptive biases that exist in the workplace?

Kayla Grey: I think when I stepped into being a co-executive on The Shift, one of the biggest fears for me was that I didn’t come off as mean. I want to treat people with respect but when you really think about it, what is respect? It’s honesty. You have to be firm in what you’re asking for and see your visions through. It’s not to say that you don’t care about how other people feel. If you say something, there’s a way of approach and respect.

For me, what was very important was culture because I’ve been in certain spaces where the workplace culture was simply toxic and had lasting trauma impacts on my professional growth. That is something I go back to in a decision-making role. How are my decisions—and the ways in which I communicate—making the people I work with feel? When I lead with honesty, that is where I think the best stuff comes from. 

Going back to a previous point that you mentioned, do you think that women and people of colour have a harder time celebrating their accomplishments? What are some ways that people can be encouraged to do so?

Kayla Grey: I think it’s about being very present in everything that you do. When you’re not present, it’s hard for you to truly take in everything that’s going on. With women, we wear so many hats. I’m a mother to a three-year-old, I have social circles—there are so many things. So I think the key is to simply be present and celebrate the small wins. It’s easy for us to keep moving forward because the goal line is always moving. The beauty is the journey and not the destination. 

What can be done from your perspective to bring more diverse voices and talent to the world of sports and the decision-making table?

Kayla Grey: Bring more to the decision-making table. What we’ve seen over the last little while with the conversations that have been sparked is we’re hiring more, but only at the entry level, which is great because this is how we build a pipeline. But I’m also not subscribing to the fact that the pipeline should be the only focus.

If we’re only getting people of colour in at the entry level, there’s still a long way for everyone to go to get to the higher positions. That means that we’re losing years and decades at some points of progress because, truly, if we want to make a change and we know decision-making is a big part of changing culture, we need to start hiring at a much higher stage and there’s fear there. Bosses don’t want to hear that because sometimes they’re like, “What does this mean for me and my role?” When really, I think what’s so beautiful about this realization, is that there’s actually room for us all. 

Do you think that sports should be political? There are some camps that see sports as a great equalizer while others would agree that it’s very much political. 

Kayla Grey: Sports is politics. Ownership, capital, how revenue is shared between owners and players—there are so many facets in how sports are run on a day-to-day basis or even as a business that involves politics. I think it’s important for fans and audiences to view where leagues stand because they spend. When you think about the WNBA or the NBA, or what Colin Kaepernick has done, people are still rocking with them, and even more so because they’re aligning with their values. I would also argue that sometimes what players are asking for has nothing to do with politics. Sure, it leads to politics but the basis is human decency—it’s human rights. And so people who say that they can’t get aligned with athletes talking about human rights and human decency, it’s a little interesting to me that that’s where they land.

There have been a lot of moments of trauma that have been covered in the media, especially in the last two years. How important do you think it is to also showcase moments of joy in our efforts to support underrepresented communities?

Kayla Grey: That is what The Shift is. We are not going to shy away from tough conversations, because they’re incredibly important. The Black voice is not a monolith. It’s also not a space of trauma. It’s a space of contribution. It’s a space of culture. People of colour have been contributing to culture for so long and have not been given the credit or space to deservedly celebrate the wins of what we have created. And that is what The Shift is about. Of course, we will hold space for the hard conversations, but I think more importantly, what we want to do is showcase the joy that lives within us.

What is the lesson that has taken you the longest to learn?

Kayla Grey: That I have all the tools that I need. Sometimes I worry myself sick thinking that I’m not good enough. But then I tell myself that everything that I’m looking for in outside validation, I’ve got it because look at what I’ve done.

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