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Unguarded with Rachel Nichols

Aired October 25, 2013 - 22:30   ET


RACHEL NICHOLS, HOST: Hi, I'm Rachel Nichols, and this is the premiere episode of UNGUARDED, a sports show that brings you the candid, human side of some of the world's most talented human beings and explores the issues that extend off the field to touch us all. Welcome.

Thank you for joining us. Whether you're hard core fan or just like hearing interesting things about interesting people, this is your show for compelling and unguarded interviews with some of the biggest names in sports. We'll also be talking about some of the biggest issues in sports, from a wide range of perspectives, chatting with those who are both inside and outside the game in an unconventional round table.

But first things first. The NBA season starts in just a few days. And LeBron James is going to be gunning for his third straight title. Nearly every move James makes is scrutinized. There was even an uproar when the save-the-date cards for his wedding leaked online.

Yet there is a trip that James takes every year halfway around the globe that many of his fans aren't even aware of. And this year he invited CNN along, to China.



NICHOLS (voice-over): For one week a year, every year for nearly a decade, this is LeBron James' life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the fans over here!

LEBRON JAMES, NBA PLAYER: When I first came here nine years ago, I was like, wow!

NICHOLS (on camera): If I told a 10-year-old LeBron James that you'd end up going to China more often than a place closer to Ohio like Nebraska or Kansas, what would you have thought?

JAMES: He'd have probably told you, "I'm not leaving Akron, Ohio." I remember the first time I was known outside my hometown when I was 14. I was a freshman. We went to Columbus for the state tournament. They were like there's LeBron, the freshman, everybody was talk about. A hundred and twenty miles away from home. I was like, "Wow, this is pretty cool."

Eight thousand miles away from home, you know, for people to love me and passionate about seeing me is very surreal.

NICHOLS (voice-over): James is one of the richest and most famous athletes on the planet. But being a global phenomenon doesn't just happen by itself.

JAMES: When I became a professional athlete I became a business, as well. You know, so I can't just worry about the game of basketball 24/7 without understanding the business side of things.

NICHOLS: This is all part of the job for the modern superstar athlete. James has made this trip nine years in a row, to promote Nike and his other sponsors and to generally boost his popularity. Our television cameras are the first he's ever invited to come along.

NICHOLS (on camera): There's people crying when they see you here.

JAMES: Yes. A little Michael Jackson effect. I've seen that a few times.

NICHOLS (voice-over): Today James is in the city of Wuhan in central China, home to more than 10 million people, 2 million more than New York City.

(on camera): You spend most of your life in the NBA on buses. But what's different about the buses here?

JAMES: Well, I'll tell you, like you absolutely think you're going to get into an accident. And the people here are going to be just driving regular. Like our bus driver would never blink.

NICHOLS: We passed some people earlier, senior citizens doing tai chi.

JAMES: Right. I was thinking about going out there. They'd probably would have looked at me crazy. That looked pretty good; that looked pretty relaxing.

NICHOLS (voice-over): James is on his way to surprise kids at an outdoor basketball court.

JAMES: Thanks for allowing me to be here. This is a surprise. I hope you guys are excited about it.

P.J. (ph) in the house.

NICHOLS: What's it like the look on those kids' faces when you're moving around on the basketball court?

JAMES: One of the kids said it was his dream to be able to meet me and be on the basketball court with me.

NICHOLS (voice-over): Several of James' childhood friends are now his business partners.

JAMES: ... nobody. Look, I took a day off. NICHOLS: They, too, make this trip with him every year.

JAMES: It's awesome. You go through all the struggles with your friends. To reap some of the benefits makes it that much sweeter.

NICHOLS: Next stop, Beijing. Yet like any other weary traveler, James is now missing the familiar sights and tastes of home.

(on camera): How adventurous are you when you travel? I mean, in terms of trying weird food or anything like that?

JAMES: I'm not adventurous as all. I'm not. I'm not. I've never been. But I do use chop sticks, though.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want some fried rice over there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is something you could tell us that we don't know?

JAMES: I eat rice with chopsticks. I use chopsticks.

Thank you.

NICHOLS: When James is feeling the most homesick, he goes to the one place that feels familiar. He took CNN along for a rare inside look at his workout.

(on camera): We're literally halfway around the world, and yet here's a basketball court.

JAMES: It is my sanctuary. Once I get into a place that has a basket and I got a ball, then I'm back at home. I'm back at peace.

NICHOLS: The dragons are new. We don't do this at home so much.

JAMES: No, we don't. We don't. The year of the dragon. So that's what this is about.

NICHOLS: See? There's your new friend. Do you think if you took that out in Miami, how do you think that would go?

JAMES: I don't know. First of all, it all depends what part of the day I go out with this thing when it's extremely hot. But it will be all right here. You see me? I'm out here getting my year of the dragon on.


NICHOLS: You're still a dad over here on a business trip. Very far from home.


NICHOLS: I mean, as your kids get older, how much does that play into things of just sorting missing them and being a regular dad.

JAMES: I miss them every day.

Like I said the business, being able to juggle the business side with the personal life and also work. You know, so it's tough.

NICHOLS: I'm sure they ask you, "What's it like, daddy? What's it like?" What do you tell them?

JAMES: You know what? They absolutely do not ask. They absolutely -- when I run through the door they'll be like, "Oh, daddy's back. Oh! Can we go to Toys 'R' Us?"

I do show them clips on my phone and stuff. And I show them how passionate they are about their father over here. And they're like, "Oh, wow!"


NICHOLS: A crazy ride and a successful one for LeBron. Not long after he returned to the U.S., the NBA announced that for the first time, James has reached the top spot in global jersey sales.

Stay with us. We'll tell you about new developments in the Redskins controversy.


NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols. Welcome back to UNGUARDED.

The debate over whether the Washington Redskins should change their name has heated up once again. Now two D.C. radio stations are refusing to run ads from the Oneida Nation that make the case the NFL's team nickname is offensive. We've asked a wide range of voices to give us their perspectives.

Tonight I'm joined by former Major League pitcher and World Series champion Ron Darling; financial guru Pete Najarian, co-founder of tradeMONSTER and a former NFL linebacker; and Kevin Gover, a director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Native American Indians and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation.

Now Kevin, you're joining us from Washington, and we will start with you. Do you think people even understand what the Redskins' name means?

KEVIN GOVER, DIRECTOR, SMITHSONIAN'S MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN INDIANS: I think more and more people are beginning to understand. You know, it's always been a frustration of mine that we couldn't seem to be a part of the public discourse and get people to listen and focus. Because I think once you do listen and focus, the answers become very clear that this is not a word that should be used

NICHOLS: Yes. You talked a little bit, Ron, about your own family history and how that plays into the way you see this issue.

RON DARLING, FORMER MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER: Well, you think about it. My mom's Hawaiian Chinese. If there was the San Francisco Yellow Skins, we wouldn't allow it. It just wouldn't be something that we should do.

And I think that as far as when people talk about the branding of the Washington football team and certain things that would be difficult to do, well, change is difficult sometimes. And that's -- that's all right.

And I think it's an opportunity for the Washington team, an opportunity to be on the righteous side and do something. I think it would be better for their brand in the long run.

NICHOLS: Well, certainly we don't do things now the way we have always done them. So there is maybe an opportunity for change.

But Redskins owner Daniel Snyder certainly does not think so. I want to read you something that he said: quote, "We will never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER, you can use caps."

And Pete, I want to get your take as both a form player from the NFL side and with your financial background. Do you think Snyder's refusals here are about history and tradition -- and you've played in the NFL -- and what it means, or do you think there's a financial aspect to this, too? And maybe, hey, it costs a lot of money to change all this thing. It could affect your merchandising sales.

PETE NAJARIAN, CO-FOUNDER, TRADEMONSTER: Right. But it actually could affect them in a positive way, quite honestly. Because the fact that it's going to be all new. And everybody's going to want to have the new product out there.

But I think he's wanting to hold onto this tradition. I think change does have to happen at times, and this is one of those times. Because this is derogatory. There's no other way to look at the situation. And as you mentioned, if it were any other type of color related to the skin, I'm sure it would not exist today.

NICHOLS: Is that what you're feeling, Kevin, is that this native group has sort of been ignored in the way that we wouldn't look at this if it was African-American or if it was, as Ron says, his group?

GOVER: Absolutely. You know, the society has really changed a lot in some very positive ways. And so you see the response to certain things, for example, the player from the Philadelphia Eagles who used the "N" word. We saw last year on ESPN, they used casually what I thought of as a derogatory reference to Chinese people. And in both cases, the response was immediate and appropriate; and those people were chastised, and their careers were affected.

So as a Native American person, we watch all of this happen and say, "Well, what is it that makes it OK to use that word that is a reference to us?"

NICHOLS: And some teams do fall back on that, "Hey, this is our tradition." And you have an interesting situation in baseball. You have teams like the Braves and the Indians. And where is the line? Is it OK to say "Braves"? Is it not OK to do the tomahawk chop? DARLING: Well, I never liked the tomahawk chop anyway. But I think that Braves and Indians are different than the Washington football team's name. It's just -- it's so derogatory. There's a lot of things that we said in the '60s and '70s that we would never say today. And people talk about tradition? It's a bad tradition so let's change it.

And I know that -- I can understand folks that have been fans of the football team forever want it to remain the same. But things change. And it's time to change. And I think what you said is so apropos. It's going to be different. The people who still want to wear that name on their -- on their chest will do it. But then others will wear the new name.

NICHOLS: Yes, and I have to say, I grew up in Washington, D.C. I was one of those kids that Dan Snyder talks about. Six years old, little Washington Redskins jersey. We still have the pictures somewhere. We will not be showing them on the air, I should point out.

But as someone who grew up in that community -- and Kevin, I want you to weigh in on this. You live in Washington. Do you feel like the city of Washington, the people who live there are ready for this change or that there's opposition?

GOVER: You know, I do. The Oneida Nation recently did some polling through Survey USA in the Washington region. And the results were pretty surprising. A majority understood why it is that Native Americans might find this name offensive. A strong majority said, "Even if the name changed, we will support the football team."

And, you know, I would like to say that, as a Native American person who lives in Washington, I would like to support the football team. I would like to be part of that, because it's fun. But I can't be as long as that word is -- is everywhere.

And it really is kind of an oppressive environment, especially if -- if a Native American person has children or grandchildren who live in this region and is trying to explain to them how to honor our traditions and be respectful, and then they hear that word and see the kind of conduct you see at the stadium.

NICHOLS: That's a great point, Kevin. Thank you. And thank you so much for joining us.

Ron, Pete, you guys are going to be sticking with me for a while. And we are going to be talking a little World Series. So I hope that you stick with us, too.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED.

It's been an exciting few nights in Boston as the World Series is tied up at one game apiece. But just as notable as the baseball has been seeing "Boston Strong" etched into the centerfield at Fenway and all the tributes to all of those affected by the marathon bombings.

I'm here with Pete Najarian and Ron Darling. And Ron, as a former ball player and someone from Massachusetts, can you tell us what kind of burden that puts on the athletes on the field, where the whole community is saying, "You, heal us from this tragic event"?

DARLING: You know, I'm thinking about 9/11 and 2001, when the Yankees used to play the Diamondbacks, and it was that kind of pressure. But I don't think, as a ball player, you feel that. I don't think it's a burden. In fact it can lift you up. It's like a tenth man for a baseball team.

And I think that just seeing the people on the field last night, you couldn't help but, like, kind of shed a tear. So I think the thing is, as a ballplayer, you try not to get caught up in that emotion.

NICHOLS: Yes, and that's a good point. I mean, I was at Yankee stadium in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. And people in New York needed a reason to yell. I mean, everyone was so emotional, so quiet around the city. To get out there and scream, there's no question it meant something to the city.

But what about the ballplayers? You're saying, hey ,it can help you emotionally and lift you up. But do you think, when you played in the NFL, once that whistle went, were outside forces coming into play?

NAJARIAN: I think that the adrenaline certainly is running. And you feel a little bit of pressure from the city itself. But when the game starts, it becomes the game once again. And it's all about the preparation. It's about the players. It's about the coaches. Obviously, you feel the fans, and you understand what the city feels about this whole situation.

But now it becomes a playing: you're playing the game, and everybody has to participate. You lose some of that adrenaline. Now you're just focused on playing, executing and doing all the right things.

NICHOLS: All right. So on the one hand we have this inspiring story, especially in Boston. But on the other hand, the biggest story in baseball this year, largest drug suspension in U.S. history. Can the good play on the field affect the MLB and sort of rise them up, especially financially and just sort of the way people feel about the game? Or no matter how good these World Series games are, people are going to be thinking about that and having their kids shy away from the game?

NAJARIAN: Well, I don't know necessarily that people are shying away because of the whole drugs, the PEDs, the steroids and everything else. From my perspective, it's technology. I look at it from the financial end of things.

And folks right now, they want the immediate. They want their iPhone. They want their iPads. They want all of that, and they want immediacy. And Ron, it's a little bit of a slower game. I think the NFL, it's fast-paced. And I think that's one of the reasons college and NFL football has such great ratings right now. And maybe in baseball, because it's a little bit slower moving, it's not getting the same kind of reaction from the modern fan.

DARLING: I will tell you, though, I think for most fans, they don't care about it. They're sick of hearing about it. I think there's a vitriol for Alex Rodriguez and they want that to happen as soon as possible.

But as far as the fan, I think they're just so sick of hearing about it. Is it going to be away? No, it's always going to be a part of the game. Because it's -- you know, if you have a chance to make $8 million a year or play AAA baseball, what are you going to do? There's always that decision.

NICHOLS: Well, steroids obviously going to be an issue in both baseball and the NFL for a long time to come. But that will have to be our last word for now.

Thank you, guys, both so much for joining me.

And thank you. After the break you better stay put, because we will be joined by Bleacher Report's Reese Waters for a look at what's got everyone talking in the world of sports this week.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED and welcome to "Bleacher Report's" Reese Waters, who will be in our studio many times in the coming months.

It's great to have you.

REESE WATERS, "BLEACHER REPORT": Just when I thought I was going to go dateless on Friday night, I get a call from Rachel Nichols.

NICHOLS: Here I am. What do you got for me?

WATERS: I need to have a word with NBA great Tracy McGrady, who after seeing a Lakers preseason game, tweeted that he feels sorry for Kobe Bryant.

NICHOLS: Pity for Kobe Bryant.

WATERS: How dare you, T-Mac? Take a run at the purple and gold when your current uniform is jean shorts and rec (ph) sweats.

Now to be fair, his tweet was retweeted almost 1,000 times, most of which was from Kobe's family. And I guess I see where he's coming from. Not everybody's built for the bright lights. I personally feel sorry for Jay-Z having to walk around with Beyonce who everybody's taking a run at. So I prefer to date ladies who nobody wants.

NICHOLS: Hmm, nice. Good strategy. WATERS: Now another guy who's going to have that problem, Ohio wide receiver Darnell Tate, who makes this unbelievable catch on the sidelines for Hubbard.


WATERS: There it is, in between his legs. He's able to hold it.


WATERS: The ball doesn't hit the ground. Unbelievable catch.

Now, my favorite thing about this video, it reminds me of me. If you look in the corner that water boy right there, that's a young Reese Waters.

NICHOLS: Oh, come on.

WATERS: Very excited, you know, very into the action. And just -- I'm touched. Personally I'm touched.

Now another thing that touched me, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love won the NBA GM's Award for doing the most with the least athletic ability. When he won he called it "the white guy award," which I took offense to personally. He hasn't seen any video of me, because I have a 40 (ph) time to make any white supremacist proud.

NICHOLS: Limited natural ability.

WATERS: Exactly.

Now let's take a look at some of the guys that have won the award to see why he might have thought that. Let's see: Brian Cardinal, Love, Nash, Brad Miller, Luis Scola...

NICHOLS: He might have a point here.

WATERS: ... Mehmet Okur. And Bruce Bowen! Bruce Bowen! I have never been so proud so see Bruce Bowen and so ashamed at the same time.

NICHOLS: Yes. That is limited natural athletic ability right there if I have ever seen it.

WATERS: Shot down by a pretty lady.

NICHOLS: Thank you.

WATERS: Must be Friday night.

NICHOLS: Well, thank you. Thank you for coming. Thank you for getting all of that out of one tweet.

And I do want to see all of you guys on Twitter as well. So give us a follow on Twitter. You can like us on Facebook, visit us on the web at and come be a part of our conversation. That is going to do it for us tonight. But you can join us again next week on UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is just the start of the story. Good night.