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The Undefeated

A letter from our Editor-in-Chief

Not conventional. Never boring.

I recently discovered an old photo of my dad as a teenager, clad in his high school basketball uniform, his face intent as he prepared to put up a jumper. Marveling at the discovery, I smiled. It made me reflect on what it means to be “Undefeated.”

Jesse Merida loved rocks and minerals. He dared to major in geology when there were few known black geologists and no role models in sight. Family and friends urged him to pursue teaching, to find a career that racism and segregation wouldn’t crush. But after graduating from Wichita State University in 1959, he pushed forward, sending out dozens of applications without any luck, taking odd jobs, earning his living as a janitor at one point while waiting for his opportunity.

Today, we have our opportunity. We launch The Undefeated, a new ESPN digital platform that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture. We too will be brave, adventurous and independent, refusing to be crushed by the setbacks that inevitably will happen along the way.

We are buoyed by spirit and ancestry and indefatigable resolve. Our name comes from a quotation from poet Maya Angelou:

You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away — I rose right where I’d been knocked down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are. (Psychology Today, Feb. 17, 2009 )

We’ll make sure you get to know who we are. We’ll produce a rich mix of original reporting, innovative storytelling, provocative commentary, must-see video, narratives and investigations. We aim to be vibrant, soulful, smart, dope. Unapologetic and unpredictable. We will work hard to live up to our motto: Not conventional. Never boring. Make sure you read senior writer Lonnae O’Neal’s engaging profile of Marshawn Lynch, one of the most mysterious and misunderstood athletes of our time. And you won’t want to miss senior writer Jesse Washington’s powerful reported essay on one of the most infamous and brutal lynchings in American history — of a young man also named Jesse Washington.

At The Undefeated, every day will feature a surprise. Every day, some joy. And no day without swagger. We want The Undefeated to feel urgent, necessary, not dutiful. Ours won’t be a site of sermons and scoldings (unless, of course, they’re earned).

We’ll work hard to win your loyalty, and listen to your feedback. One feature we’re particularly excited about, “You Got 99 words,” will allow you to post your own thoughts on our site. We’ll tee up questions each day to provoke your mind and encourage debate.

Expect us to experiment aggressively with form — music, comedy, poetry, animation, gaming, film. We’re proud to present The Undefeated’s first music video and anthem, featuring New Orleans rapper Dee-1. And here’s award-winning poet Terrance Hayes on Maya Angelou.

We won’t shrink from challenging subjects: the image and depiction of black athletes, black ownership in professional sports, the evaluation of black coaches. But we also need more on how black athletes think and dream, their views about love and leadership. Speaking of leadership, senior writer Michael Fletcher is authoring a series of essays on the first African-American president that will be unlike any others you’ll read.

Take us seriously, but we’ll also make you laugh. We’ll have some fun, go a little crazy from time to time. You know about Trap Karaoke? We’ve got something for you. Senior writer Clinton Yates is writing our lead blog, “All Day,” which features news you can’t live without and interesting stuff you’ll want to share. General editor Kelley Evans is anchoring “The Uplift,” a daily stream of inspiration guaranteed to make you smile. Our culture team is so insightful, our production team extraordinary, our sports group hungry.

We’re dedicating a hub to the coverage of historically black colleges and universities and have big plans for it. Draymond Green has agreed to provide senior NBA writer Marc Spears with his ruminations for the rest of the playoffs. Call it The Dray Diary.

Back to my dad’s photo: After countless setbacks, Jesse Merida finally got his opportunity two years after graduating from college — an entry-level lab technician’s job with the U.S. Geological Survey. He left Wichita and headed to Washington, D.C., where he went on to carve out a career with the Smithsonian Institution. Straddling the fields of geology and paleontology, he collected fossils, assisted senior scientists, went on fact-finding voyages to Antarctica, Chile and other destinations whose exotic names awed and inspired his son. Always, he’d return with photos in which his was the only black face amid a group of white researchers.

My dad never got to see me become a journalist. He died of a heart attack before my high school graduation. Like most black men of his era, he had more than his share of disappointments. Yet his joy was infectious. He whistled every day. He chased his dreams and caught many of them. He was Undefeated.

Today, we at The Undefeated begin chasing our dream. I am honored to lead, along with managing editor Raina Kelley, an amazing collection of talent:

Jerry Bembry, Karin Berry, Daniel Bohm, Danielle Cadet, Kelley L. Carter, Sabrina Clarke, Ryan Cortes, Cherisse Datu, Aaron Dodson, Kate Elazegui, Kelley Evans, Michael Fletcher, Domonique Foxworth, Kelsie Hartpence, Jill Hudson, Martenzie Johnson, Breana Jones, Maya Jones, Monis Khan, Brent Lewis, Marcus Matthews, Soraya McDonald, Ashley Melfi, John X. Miller, Morgan Moody, Lois Nam, Osman Noor, Lonnae O’Neal, Latoya Peterson, Jason Reid, Steve Reiss, Danyel Smith, Marc Spears, Brando Simeo Starkey, Vincent Thomas, Justin Tinsley, Rhiannon Walker, Jesse Washington, Caleb Wilkerson, Mike Wise, Mark Wright, and Clinton Yates.

We will never forget this day.

We are The Undefeated.

Kevin Merida is Editor-in-Chief of The Undefeated and a fan of great writing, great shooting, great beaches, great jazz clubs, underdogs and comebacks.