“I cover college, and the white male who is our main audience member is not going to want to hear me talking about Black Lives Matter,” Taylor said. “And I understood that about who I am and what I represent for the network.”
As she weighed whether to go on the show, Taylor thought about her own life, including the examples of her grandmother and her mother. But there was another woman, a friend, who weighed heavily on her mind: Gracyn Doctor.
Doctor’s mother, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was one of nine people murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, five years ago Wednesday. Since the day Doctor met Taylor, on the afternoon her mother was buried, the two have forged a friendship that has helped both women make sense of the world and their places in it. It is a bond that has ultimately helped one woman begin to heal, and the other find her voice.
“I thought about Gracyn, and if I don’t stand up for her now, then who will later?” Taylor said. “Her voice is not going to be heard later because we’re all just going to be, like, muted."
Taylor agreed to appear on a segment to discuss New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’s comments that he would not support players who protested during the national anthem because he viewed it as disrespectful to the flag.
“I’m exhausted and I’m tired of having to listen to someone say something like that and then have to sit back and be like, ‘Well, maybe it’s not his heart, it’s this and that,’ ” she said, adding, “If [Floyd’s killing] didn’t affect you and make you want to reassess how you think about racial injustice in our country — after watching that man die in the middle of the street — something’s off.”
The monologue went viral almost instantly and was shared widely on social media, including by NBA superstar LeBron James.
“It made me so proud of her,” Doctor said. “I watched the video, and I could hear all of the conversations we’ve had over the years.”
‘She didn’t have to be there’
The first time Taylor heard directly from Doctor was right after her mother was killed. Doctor texted to say she couldn’t attend a planned interview to join a mentorship program sponsored by Winning Edge Leadership Academy, a nonprofit Taylor had co-founded.
“She said her mom died, and your initial reaction is not that her mom was one of the Charleston nine,” Taylor said. “It took three more messages to realize that and then it was like: ‘Oh, my God. How do you talk to her?’ ”
Taylor traveled to Charleston for the funeral, met Doctor outside her family’s house and visited her mother’s gravesite. Surrounded by grieving friends and loved ones, they did not talk about Doctor’s mother, who had been a minister at the church, but Taylor’s presence then was enough to plant the seeds of a bond.
“I had never met her before, and she didn’t have to be there,” Doctor said. “But she was.”
Taylor, then 28, started her nonprofit with Corinne Milien, a former colleague at ESPN, to help black college athletes navigate life after graduation. A former volleyball and basketball player at the University of Georgia, Taylor had been traveling on TV assignments to campuses, where black athletes routinely sought her counsel about racial injustice and job opportunities after college. Some didn’t know what to do after being called the n-word on campus; others asked why there weren’t more black head coaches in college football.
“They were coming to me as a sister, an aunt, as one of the few black people they saw,” Taylor said.
Doctor was a rising senior that summer at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black school in Charlotte. Like Taylor, she played volleyball.
In the beginning, they started with small talk over lunch. Doctor had trouble talking with anyone as she tried to process her grief, but Taylor became a calming influence. Doctor interned at ESPN’s SEC Network campus in Charlotte her senior year, mostly shadowing Taylor.
Doctor suffered through depression and anxiety in the months after she graduated, she said, and it wasn’t until early 2017 that she first broached the pain of her mother’s murder to Taylor. They were in the car at a fast food drive-through when Doctor turned to Taylor suddenly and told her that the next day was going to be difficult, because Dylann Roof, the man who killed her mother, would be sentenced.
It was a conversation that led to an outpouring of the anger and sadness she had been carrying. Doctor wears a pin with her mother’s picture on it, "but it was the first time she opened up and said to me, ‘I think about my mom all the time, every single day,’ ” Taylor recalled.
Doctor and Taylor talked more about race, and how as black women they were so rarely in rooms with people who look like them, including Taylor’s experiences at ESPN. Doctor entered therapy after encouragement from Taylor, which helped her think about the rest of her life. She decided to pursue a master’s degree from Syracuse University in arts journalism.
Taylor invited her to join her on Syracuse’s campus for a Duke basketball game she was working, and while they were there, the two met with admissions officers and professors. After Doctor was accepted, Taylor paid a portion of her tuition and helped her move into her apartment last summer.
“I was in tears because I had never met her mom, but that was something she would be doing,” Taylor said. “She would have been going to the furniture store, picking out blankets. We accept that sometimes her mom isn’t here and, for a brief second, I’m a very weak placeholder."
‘This is what it took’
During a video interview last week from her apartment in Syracuse, Doctor wore a long-sleeve shirt with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned across the chest. She graduated this spring and is now job-hunting after interning at the local public radio station, where she covered stories such as how police are trained to deal with the mentally ill. Her dream job is to host a show or a podcast for NPR.
With the five-year anniversary of her mother’s murder this week, it was the first time she has been able to talk publicly about her mom’s death and what her life has been like since that day.
DePayne Middleton-Doctor, she said, was a strict mom. Doctor wasn’t allowed to go to parties in high school. In fact, she was barely allowed to go to the movies. But even though her mother emphasized discipline, she and Doctor laughed together often, remaining inseparable during the teenage years when children often hit rough patches with their parents. Middleton-Doctor was intimately involved in her daughter’s life and knew her friends and teammates well, even after Doctor went away to college.
As she recalled her mother, a bright smile flashed on Doctor’s face.
“She instilled some really great values,” Doctor said. “Just how to be a human and treat other people like people.”
A few days after the shooting, a number of the victims’ family members addressed Roof at a hearing, with several of them publicly telling him that they forgave him for what he had done. While some saw the gesture as a powerful symbol of love triumphing over hate, it never sat well with Doctor.
“There was a narrative [back in 2015] that all the families had just forgiven [Roof], but that wasn’t really the case,” Doctor said. “I feel like black people are always expected to forgive so easily. We’re always expected to excuse bad behavior, even though we might not feel like it.”
During the recent protests and growing conversation about race in America, Doctor said she has seen a welcome shift in how the country is reckoning with the killing of Floyd and larger issues of racial injustice.
“No one is asking black people to forgive in this moment,” she said. “It feels like people — white people — are actually listening, hearing us and trying to understand. I’m not so sure what was so hard to understand before, but they are trying now.”
Milien, the Winning Edge co-founder, said she has seen Taylor and Doctor influence each other. “Gracyn didn’t want to forgive, and she learned that was okay,” she said. “She’s living her truth, and I think that’s helped Maria do that right now, too.”
Of Taylor, Milien added: “When the Drew Brees thing happened, I was beyond shocked. That is never anything [Taylor] would do, ever. She’s always been the safe black girl. But she flipped the switch.”
As ESPN has leaned into coverage of the protests surrounding Floyd’s death, Taylor has become one of the network’s leading voices. Next week, she is scheduled to co-host a prime-time special examining black athletes’ experiences with injustice, and she has recently felt empowered by talks with ESPN executives about how the company can be better at hiring and developing diverse employees. One recent night she was up past midnight making a list of candidates for ESPN to consider.
“Before I could send in a recommendation. Now I can demand things,” she said. “It’s bittersweet in a way, though. A girl I love lost her mom, and no grand gestures came of it. This is what it took.”