“What do you think,” Bomani Jones was asking, “is the biggest impediment to race relations in America?”

It was a heavy question for a caller to pose on afternoon sports talk radio. But this was last summer, amid the tension of a national reckoning around racism, and a noose had been found in the stall of Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. Originally called a hate crime by NASCAR, the FBI had determined the rope was not malicious.

The show’s host, Will Cain, who has since left for Fox News, had declared the episode a setback to race relations in the United States. That got the attention of Jones, who called into his colleague’s show and asked his question.

Cain answered: tribalism. Jones pressed on.

“If I were to ask you [the same question] in 1865 ... would you have said the whole thing about tribalism?” he asked.

“Yes, at a deeper philosophical level,” Cain replied. “But the more immediate biggest impediment at that point would have been the institution of slavery.”

But this, Jones explained, was a fundamental misunderstanding of racism.

“The issue is ... White people not treating Black people as being of equal levels of humanity,” Jones said. “The problem I have is when you say that what happened with Bubba Wallace is going to be an impediment to race relations — nah, man. Those people rolling on Speedway Boulevard before that race with those [Confederate] flags flying, those are an impediment to race relations.”

As protests gripped the country, commentators across the media were trying to explain them in the context of American history. Few did that more ably, in this moment and others, than Jones, across ESPN, on CNN and in a story about amateurism for Vanity Fair edited by author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It didn’t go unnoticed. He received calls from ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro and other executives thanking him for his work — a stark departure from earlier in 2020, when his future at ESPN appeared in question. His afternoon TV show was canceled. Two friends and fellow prominent Black voices, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, had left ESPN after becoming targets of its conservative critics, including President Donald Trump, and as the network rededicated itself to being apolitical.

But now protests were forcing the network to confront racism. And the conversation with Cain, Jones thought, proved both his value to the network and its value to him. “That got around, and it was on a topic that I think had some importance,” he said. “And me having that exchange with him on ESPN gave it a visibility. That probably doesn’t happen if it’s on a different platform, on a different network.”

Seven months later, though, Jones finds himself wondering again about his place in a company undergoing seismic changes to its business model. ESPN has staked its future on live sports, and its programming decisions reflect that. After years of the proliferation of debate shows, there is more “SportsCenter” on ESPN these days; gambling content is ascendant; former athletes are in more demand on TV than journalists.

There have been more high-profile exits, too, including another outspoken friend of Jones’s, radio and TV host Dan Le Batard. ESPN announced 300 layoffs in November, the largest round in the company’s history, amid shrinking cable fees and a pandemic. And in a post-Trump world, it’s easy to envision the entire sports industry preaching the bridge-building, kumbaya potential of sports.

Today, Jones appears on a handful of ESPN shows, but all he’s anchored to, for now, is a podcast.

“I don’t know — for this entire industry, not just ESPN,” Jones said in an interview. “I don’t know what the paradigm is going to be for guys on television talking about sports if you’re not Stephen A. Smith.”

A fresh voice

Dressed in a gray T-shirt and black track pants, Jones was strolling through Harlem, where he lives, past closed restaurants and people shedding layers on an unseasonably warm afternoon. He hasn’t left his house much since the coronavirus arrived. “I’ve been diligent on this covid s---,” he said.

Jones was born in Atlanta and grew up in Houston, where his parents were professors at Prairie View A&M. Both were active in the civil rights movement. Jones learned his love of sports from his father, mostly watching Braves games, though his fandom lapsed after an iteration of the team preached the sanctity of playing the game “the right way” — often code for the “White way.” “It was everything I don’t stand for,” he said.

Jones earned a master’s degree in politics, economics and business from Claremont but flunked out of a doctoral program and pivoted to writing. One of his first pieces was for ESPN’s Page 2 in 2004, about the racist undertones of a saga involving a top high school football recruit accused of statutory rape. He hosted a local radio show in North Carolina and then one for Sirius before earning a regular gig on ESPN’s debate show “Around the Horn.”

In 2013, he was hired full-time at ESPN as a co-host of “Highly Questionable,” alongside Le Batard, and he later hosted a national radio show for ESPN. He earned a reputation for his commentary on how race intersects with sports.

Coates recalled watching Jones on ESPN and marveling at how fast he spoke. “My prejudice is to overlook people who talk fast, but you listen to him and there’s actually brilliance behind it,” Coates said. “The world is waiting for you to catch up to Bomani.”

His commentary about Colin Kaepernick was particularly valuable, Coates said, after the quarterback was criticized for settling his collusion case with the NFL. “Bomani was sympathetic not just to Kaepernick’s protest but to why he might not be acting like y’all think he should,” Coates said.

Jones’s biggest break was supposed to be “High Noon,” a talk show he co-hosted with his friend Pablo Torre, which debuted in 2018. The two were paid more than $3 million combined per year for the show, according to a person familiar with their salaries, and Jones moved from Miami to New York. In addition to sports news of the day, “High Noon” tackled issues of race and politics, including whether top Black athletes should exclusively attend historically Black colleges.

Over the life of the show, though, two things changed at ESPN. President John Skipper was replaced by Pitaro, who declared ESPN would extricate itself from the Trump-fueled culture wars and prioritize relationships with leagues such as the NFL. And cable subscribers continued to dwindle while the cost of sports rights continued to grow, increasing economic pressure on the network. “High Noon” became a luxury the network didn’t want to pay for.

After two years, ESPN canceled the show, publicly blaming its ratings, which were not great but also not disastrous. It was “a smart and nuanced show,” the company said at the time. “Unfortunately, not enough people agreed with us.”

The cancellation was difficult for Jones. He had viewed the show as a natural progression of his career — writer, radio host, TV star. But he believes he and Torre never exuded the same camaraderie of the hosts of the long-running “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. “The show wasn’t canceled because of what we talked about,” Jones said. “I don’t think our friendship carried over to the screen.”

After the cancellation, Jones re-signed with ESPN. No longer the host of a show, he took a pay cut.

Shifting winds

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, as athletes, teams and leagues joined a national reckoning over racism, ESPN rushed to cover the protests. It showcased the work of the Undefeated, a vertical that covers race, and aired multiple specials dedicated to the topic. Inside the network, some employees felt a sense of whiplash. When Disney, ESPN’s parent company, announced it would partner with Kaepernick (and Hill) to create a series of shows, one ESPN staffer said, “It was like Voldemort and we could say his name again.”

Jones was suddenly in demand, too, getting more calls for TV appearances, and his impromptu debate with Cain won headlines around the Internet. On his podcast, which gained listeners over the summer, he led vital conversations about race. After NBA players engaged in a political strike over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, Jones wondered aloud whether LeBron James, an older player with lucrative ties to corporate America, was the right person to lead the protest movement.

He also led perhaps less vital but equally illustrative conversations, such as when he discussed the time years ago that Mike Tirico, a prominent sportscaster for NBC, said he wasn’t Black. (Tirico has since said he is mixed race.) Asked why the segment was important, Jones laughed.

“Because it’s hilarious!” he said. “For White people in America, race only comes up to them when you’re talking about something bad about somebody else. People get in conversation, they whisper, ‘He was Black.’ They lower their voice because they feel like they’re saying a bad word. Well, this ain’t a bad word to me.”

There were some at ESPN who felt stifled by Pitaro’s directive to keep political discussions off the network. Le Batard once questioned on the air why it was okay to talk about Trump and racism only if someone such as James talked about it first, which earned him a face-to-face meeting with Pitaro in New York.

Jones said he hasn’t felt restricted by ESPN’s guardrails. “Dan is a hell raiser, right?” he explained. “That’s not the role I think I play in the ecosystem.”

Still, by the fall, with sports back in full swing, Jones said the appreciation calls had dried up. “I don’t think that that moment ushered in some new revolution of what ESPN was doing as much as it’s going to prove to be a moment in time,” he said.

No place like ESPN

Walking toward Central Park, Jones looked around and said, “They ain’t gentrified Harlem just yet.” In the park, he settled on a rock formation, where he sat for an hour, talking about how ESPN’s future intersects with his own. “I used to host a TV show. Now I don’t host a TV show,” he said. “I ain’t the first person to be here. Stephen A. Smith has been in this position, before his return to the top.”

Smith signed a contract last year that pays him around $8 million per year, according to the New York Post. He’s the undisputed face of ESPN, his bombastic punditry ubiquitous across every ESPN platform.

Jones is confronting his future at a moment when making that leap to network tentpole is more important than ever. The biggest stars in sports media can command bigger and bigger salaries, like Smith or Skip Bayless of Fox Sports, or they can strike out on their own like Le Batard, who is launching his own media company, Meadowlark, with Skipper. Jones’s path is less clear. He has expressed interest in replacing Le Batard as full-time host of “Highly Questionable,” but ESPN opted to maintain a rotating cast of hosts, including Torre, for now. (Some inside ESPN wonder whether that time block is destined to eventually become another “SportsCenter,” anyway.)

What else there is, Jones isn’t sure. There could be a show on streaming service ESPN Plus — maybe something like Bill Maher does on HBO, with a monologue and a panel — but the content vision for the platform is unclear beyond live sports. He could also try to strike out on his own, possibly with Le Batard. Jones, who is under contract with ESPN until 2022, has been approached by Meadowlark, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but it’s too early to know what he might do or make with the venture.

Michael Smith, who now co-hosts a show on NBC’s streaming service, said: “I’m not sure ESPN expressed the proper and deserved amount of value to him. He’s singular. There’s no one better at sports commentary on that network or anywhere else.”

ESPN has its own calculations to make about the purpose of its daytime lineup. Is the goal to drive ad revenue or to funnel viewers to the live sports that air most nights? Or is the goal to make league partners happy in service of current and future rights deals? ESPN airs a daily afternoon NBA show that often doesn’t rate as well as “SportsCenter.” But regardless of how many people watch it, it buys goodwill with the NBA, which ESPN pays billions to broadcast its games.

All of these questions are more acute with cable revenue still shrinking. As one former ESPN executive put it: “If you’re not on ‘SportsCenter,’ [morning show] ‘First Take’ or ‘PTI,’ you don’t have any job security at ESPN.”

Pitaro, in an interview, said he valued Jones. He recalled attending a Super Bowl with some friends a few years ago, when he was a Disney executive. At a pregame party, Pitaro’s friends only wanted to talk to Jones. “I remember thinking then there was more we could do with Bomani,” he said. “ ’High Noon’ didn’t work, and I’m sad about that. With his versatility, I think his future is bright here.”

Jones hopes that’s true. ESPN is still the number one place in the game to be if what you want to do is talk about sports,” he said. But he also knows the industry is changing, even faster than he thought it would. A few years ago, he had dinner with Torre and told him there were only one or two contracts left for them at the money they were making, doing the jobs they were doing.

“No matter what happens, there’s always going to be somebody like ‘The Wire’ was for HBO,” he said. “ ‘The Wire’ didn’t get great ratings, but they wanted to say they had ‘The Wire.’ It looked good on the masthead. ESPN’s going to have people like that. I just don’t know who they are.”