ESPN’s SportsCenter Host Elle Duncan Talks Motherhood, Mental Health and Representation
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Atlanta native and television sports veteran Elle Duncan has never been one to keep quiet when it comes to the advancement of women and Black people within the sports community. Recently, Duncan was announced as the official host of the 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter but this wasn’t her only new title being added to her resume – mother of two. Following her maternity leave and giving birth to her second child, the world had the pleasure of meeting baby Xander.

ESSENCE caught up with Duncan to discuss balancing life as a career woman, mother and wife, maintaining her mental health and why representation in sports means the world to her.

How did your pregnancy treat you this time around?

ELLE DUNCAN: The pregnancy was great. It’s funny because the first time you have a kid, you don’t fully appreciate the fact that when you have a second one, you can nap and stuff when you’re pregnant with your first kid. There is none of that with the second, because you have another kid running around. But I’m not going to lie to you, I haven’t really shared this publicly, but it’s been sort of a journey because my son was born with a somewhat rare genetic birth defect and of the skull. Before he was even 24 years old, we were facing down having to have surgery on his skull at some point. It was different. I felt a lot less anxiety being pregnant, which was sort of a kick in the ass because then when he came out, it was like anxiety on peak level again.I’m sort of an anxious person by nature. We had the surgery and he’s doing fantastic and doing great, and we’re really, really lucky.

How do you balance motherhood and your career in sports?

Some days I nail that and some days I’m not great at it. Like yesterday in particular, I had a really bad day. I think in general, women tend to be overachievers and they want to be superheroes, and then you couple that with the fact that I do work in a male dominated industry. When male counterparts have babies, they come back to work after a couple of weeks in most cases. You’re taking all this time off and you want to be present with your family when it’s time to be with your family, but, I don’t have one of those jobs that you just turn off and on. Sometimes I beat myself up and I have bad days like yesterday where I feel like I failed my family, I failed my work family and I just failed in general. Then I have days where I feel like I’m crushing it.

What I’ve learned the second time around is you have to give yourself grace. As Black women, our shoulders are very sore from carrying others. We put more into other people’s self care and we burden ourselves. I’m really trying to be intentional about making sure that my sacrifices are squared. When I feel like I’m sort of to the detriment of myself, putting others before me, I have to say to myself, “Take some self care, say no to something, it’s okay to have a bad day and it’s okay to say no.” That’s something that I’m working on and I don’t always nail, but it’s definitely a work in progress for me right now.

How has COVID changed what self-care looks like for you?

I’m a bit of a rolling stone. Me and my husband are both free spirits and we love traveling. I’m one of those people where I’m a “light at the end of the tunnel” person. So I can grind, grind, grind, grind because I give myself things to look forward to. I exercise self care by surrounding myself with people that I love, hosting, dinner with friends, traveling. Those were all things that were completely forbidden for the last year. It really just became about things like meditating, reading whenever I could, but it honestly just became more about practicing forgiveness.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was pregnant. I had this one and a half year old. I was adamant that we were not going to just do an iPad to survive. This is when I was going to step in and also be a teacher. On top of all my other responsibilities, I was going to be a teacher too. I I felt like a failure when three weeks in and I was like, “Take this damn iPad please and shut up”. It’s taught me to slow down a little bit. I tend to push things down and brush things off because I plan for these certain releases, vacations, or like I said, hanging out with friends, and because I didn’t do that this year, it really forced me to sit in those feelings that are inevitable in any life.

What are some key lessons that motherhood has taught you?

Oh my God, patience. I am the most impatient person in the world. I know that my parents wanted to believe that I would be a great mother, but I know low key, there was a part of them that was like, “Do you have the patience for this child?” because it’s a lot. I never was one of those women that dreamed about being a mother. I didn’t envision myself as a mom. I didn’t necessarily see myself as maternalistic. I did have concerns of like, “Will I be good at this?” Taking deep breaths, being intentional about your time, recognizing perspective.

I have friends that all they ever wanted from the time they were grownups was to just be moms. That just never was anything that was remotely on the vision board for me ever. I’ve been able to rely on my instincts, which has been really cool because I didn’t think I knew anything about how to be a mother and I probably still don’t, but I’m doing okay. In the grand scheme of things, none of this matters and having my son and having the challenge with him at the beginning was also a lesson in that.

I was already planning our one month and three month pictures. I was already thinking about before he was even born when he’s going to start sleeping through the night. Then all of a sudden he’s born and there’s this huge speed bump that’s like, “Wait a minute.” You’re planning what’s happening in three months from now, but your son has something that needs to be dealt with right now. Perspective and learning to take things in stride and to rely on your gut and your instincts will guide you.

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How do you manage your mental health as a Black woman working in sports?

DUNCAN: I’ve always tried to live by the adage that it’s better to be a cool person than to just have a cool job. The weight and the gravity of what I do at times can give me anxiety. I’ve always dreamt of working at ESPN and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Robin Roberts. I find myself at times saying, “Oh my God, I’m sitting at these same desks that these pioneers did,” and there’s this inclination to want more. That ambition means that you have to strive for more, and complacency is the worst possible thing that can happen to you.

It’s really enough to make someone that’s an anxious person anyway, like me, go mad. The best way that I know how to deal with a place that is filled with so much talent, that is filled with so much expectation, and where the expectations are super heavy, is to focus on one thing. That is being first and foremost, a really good colleague, and secondly, making sure that I’m someone that my friends and family still recognize when I come home. That’s all I’ve ever cared about.I go home, I leave all of these things behind, and I really try to focus on what’s important, which is my family and the continued pursuit of my dreams, because I’ve got so many.

Where do you turn to when you need a place of grounding?

Honestly, it depends. We need to listen to ourselves based on what we need. I think the interesting part of life is figuring out when you need what you need and turning to those people in times of need. I’m a huge proponent of therapy but I have not gone consistently for years. I think of therapy sometimes as some of the exercise routines that I do. I’ll be really into barre for three months and then I won’t. I’ll move on to something like high intensity training and then I’ll move on to the Peloton. It’s important that you utilize different ways to stretch your muscles.

There are times when I feel myself slipping and some of these practices that I’ve used throughout my years of taking therapy are just not resonating in the same way, so it’s time to go back to therapy. That’s what it’s about. Knowing when you need real help, when you need a laugh, when you need a moment, when you need a couple of days. Trying to recognize and listen to what your body needs and then finding the support that way.

How do you feel knowing that young Black girls are looking at you as a role model in this career, and world, that can be very misogynistic, sexist, racist?

It means the world to me. I took a job in Boston because it was a great opportunity for me, but also because I was going to be one of the first Black women to host her own sports show in Boston ever. In a city that is predominantly white, a huge sports town that they could have a Black girl sitting on their desk talking about hockey – I just thought was a big deal. I wanted to do that in the same way that seeing Robin Roberts and seeing Oprah, that they were the representation that I had growing up. I knew I could achieve it and be it because I could see it right in front of me. I don’t take it lightly.

I want to be very intentional about this. Colorism exists as well. I know that there is someone that looks like me, who is racially ambiguous, who can sort of fill a few roles. There are people who currently watch my show every day and think I’m Hispanic. I am not. I am Black. I’m not only trying to make sure that I am creating a space for other Black women, but making sure that I’m helping to create more spaces for dark-skinned women. For women who wear their hair natural. For women who are beautifully melanated.

I want to make sure all women have representation at the table and not just ones that look like me that can check a few boxes for a network. Making sure that all Black women are perceived in the same way and given the same ability and opportunities that I’ve been given is important to me.

Why is it so important for there to be more Black women in all areas of sports from analytics to bottom line editors?

Because black women are dope. We’re dope at everything that we do. Everything is made better by having a black woman involved. It’s just the long and short of it. Every league is made better. We need to permeate every space. I love working at a place that recognizes there is still much work to be done behind the scenes. The truth of the matter is the people that are on camera have a certain amount of cachet, but it’s the offices that have the cachet, they’re the real decision makers.

That is where we need to see more black women because black women will hire other black women. It’s why right now this patriarchal society has set it up to where white men promote other white men because that’s who they relate to. That’s why we need to make sure that we have a seat at the table. Hell, that we own the damn table. That we own the wood that the table is made of. That is how we start to expand and how we start to see progress. We’ve got to be decision makers.