The Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship (IDJC) has been awarded a $250,000 research grant from Neo4j and use of the company’s graph database technology as part of an initiative to identify misinformation trends in the U.S. presidential election and…
Curiosity Helps Ryan Smith ’92 Transition From Lawyer to ESPN Anchor and Television Reporter
Life is not a straight line but a long, meandering path with many different stops along the way.
Take the case of Ryan Smith ’92. As a child, Smith had his life mapped out. His hometown Philadelphia Phillies were his favorite baseball team, and Smith envisioned becoming a famous sportscaster like one of his idols, Harry Kalas, the Phillies’ longtime radio play-by-play voice. While at an art show, Smith’s mother met Kalas, and when Kalas found out Smith was interested in a career in sports broadcasting, he recommended Smith study at Syracuse University.
Today, Smith is living out his childhood dreams. He anchors ESPN’s flagship show, “SportsCenter,” and is a Sports Emmy-winning host of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and “E:60” programs. Smith also reports on feature stories and investigative pieces while providing legal analysis across multiple ESPN platforms and ABC News, including serving as a regular contributor on “20/20.”
But his path to journalism was unorthodox. Smith followed Kalas’ advice and enrolled at Syracuse University, but he was more interested in studying political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
After earning a political science degree, Smith obtained a law degree from Columbia Law School. A successful lawyer who previously worked for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and as a sports and entertainment lawyer in New York City, Smith didn’t feel satisfied, so he pivoted to pursue a career in television.
Today, Smith combines his love of the law and sports with his passion for journalism.
“There are so many times when I walk onto ‘SportsCenter’ and am in awe of my career. Even though it wasn’t a straight-line path, I got to the point I always dreamt about. I always tell people, just because it might not be what you’re doing right now, doesn’t mean you should let go of that dream,” Smith says.
On this “’Cuse Conversation,” Smith discusses his unusual career path and the skillsets from being a lawyer that carry over to journalism.
01You were a successful lawyer who was up for partner at an entertainment firm in New York City when you decided to leave the law profession and teach yourself journalism. What led to that moment?
I was up for partner with a colleague of mine, and I walked into her office, and I said, “I just feel like I’m not feeling it. I don’t know if I want to be a partner.” She started talking me through it, asking me what I would like to do. All I know is being a lawyer. I enjoy it. I just don’t know where I want to take my career. And out of the blue, she said, “Why don’t you do something on television?” I’d never done anything on television before. How would I know how to do that? She said, “How hard could it be?”
I called up a television producer that I was representing, and I told him I was thinking about crossing over into television, what would I need to do? This producer said we needed to do a highlight reel.
One day on my lunch break while I was up for partner, I jump in a van with this producer, a camera guy and a sound guy and we ran all over New York City. In about an hour and a half I shot a seven-minute reel that she then cut together. From there, she put it out to a few of her friends and it ended up on the desk of somebody at Black Entertainment Television (BET). BET asked me to be a guest on this show, “My Two Cents,” and then they asked me to host it. Then someone else saw me on TV One and asked me to join a talk show they were doing. Then somebody on CNN saw that and asked me to come on and talk about the Iraq War. One thing led to another, and I eventually ended up landing a job at Court TV. For a while I was practicing law and working on air. But eventually I transitioned full-time to Court TV, then moved on to CNN, Headline News, ABC and ESPN.
For me, even though I really loved practicing law, I felt there was something more for me. And I made this pivot because a friend of mine happened to say by chance, “Why not television?”
02What skills from being a lawyer have served you well as a journalist?
There are two big ones. First, to anybody who’s interested in getting into journalism, curiosity is your most important tool. Channeling that curiosity is the most important tool I have had, and that’s what I had to do as a lawyer. When somebody walks in my office with a problem, I want to know everything about it and everything about them. I want to know everything about the other side, and then I want to figure out a way to solve the problem. Journalism in many ways is like that. You’re asking deep questions and you’re trying to find out everything you can about an issue.
The second is taking something complicated and explain it in a way that is simple. When I went to law school, it didn’t come naturally. There were no lawyers in my family, so when these people are talking about all these high-minded concepts in law, I had no idea what they were talking about. From that point on, whenever I met with clients, my job was to make it easy for them to understand these complicated issues. Once I started doing television, especially legal analysis, I realized that’s the same approach you need to have with the viewers.
03What experiences stand out from your time at Syracuse University?
I had a political science professor, Alfredo Robles Jr., who I’ve never forgotten how he set me up for life in terms of how I look at education. I took his class and originally, I was messing up and not really doing all that well. But he had faith in me, and after a couple of conversations he told me, “You have a great mind for political science.” Back then, I didn’t really think much of myself in terms of intelligence or education, but he changed my perspective. I ended up getting an A in his class, and his believing in me spurred me on to continue doing well at Syracuse.
I know it might seem like a tale of a professor having faith in me, but it was more than that. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be around people who are positive about me, not negative. They give me fuel. What I always liked about Syracuse was how there were a lot of professors I met where, if you took an interest in them and what they were teaching, they took an interest in you, and that motivated me to be successful.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.