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The More Things Change, the More Bomani Jones Remains

After a distinguished run on ESPN, Jones has moved into the anchor’s chair for his own HBO show. But it isn’t so much about the vessel as it is the man steering it.

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Ahead of Game Theory With Bomani Jones’s premiere on Selection Sunday, the HBO show’s Twitter account began posting brief videos featuring college athletes whom Jones paid through the NCAA’s name, image, and likeness policy to promote the show and share a simple message: that the NCAA rakes in billions of dollars through the exploitation of its student athletes. It was a shrewd engagement strategy echoing Jones’s position on the NCAA’s business model. And on top of that, it put some money in the pockets of the people at the bottom of the pyramid who have long supported it through their free labor. Three birds, one stone. “It is literally the least I could do,” Jones says with a smile at the end of each video. “Watch Game Theory, Sunday nights on HBO.” Jones’s new show is airing on a huge platform in a coveted time slot—and it’s all him.

HBO has had success with the late-night television show. But whether it’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, Real Time With Bill Maher, On the Record With Bob Costas, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the draw has always been the host. With Game Theory, HBO is investing in one of the sharpest minds in sports. By now, the hot-take economy is well established and oversaturated, but where some of Jones’s peers have built platforms by rattling off contrarian opinions, he’s stood out by offering insight. “He’s a lucid thinker,” says Bob Costas, who tapped Jones to contribute to HBO’s Back on the Record With Bob Costas last year. “His points have a beginning, middle, and end.”

Jones, who was born in Atlanta and raised in Houston, is now 41 years old, but his maturity is paired with a sense of humor and a breadth of expertise. He can talk about Prince in great detail. He can put Alex Trebek’s legacy in the context of what he meant to smart kids nationwide. And he has no problem explaining why he believes only cowards play zone defense. That all shines through on Game Theory, which takes the essence of what he’s been doing for over a decade and adapts it to a new format on a network with an appetite for provocation. “If you go back to the Sirius radio show I had 11 or 12 years ago called The Morning Jones, this is going to be a more three-dimensional version of the kinds of things I was doing back then,” Jones says. “If you know me from the podcast I do now, The Right Time With Bomani Jones, then what you’ll see is that now I can build up the ideas I present there with a whole team of people.”

So far, Game Theory has done precisely that. Producer Just Blaze, best known for his work with Roc-A-Fella Records during the early aughts, crafted the show’s theme music. The first two episodes featured quick-hitting analysis of major sports stories, like how the trade market for new Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson heated up as soon as he was cleared of criminal charges after 22 women filed lawsuits against him that detailed accounts of sexual misconduct and coercion. There have been candid interviews with Jones’s ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith and hilariously outspoken rapper Vince Staples. And there was an in-depth look into what retiring Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has meant to white and Black people during his 42 seasons at the school. Jones made a name for himself with his intangibles and made an impact without stepping outside the boundaries of the Worldwide Leader’s red tape. Now he’s bringing everyone into his world.

A lot of what makes Jones exceptional was instilled in him as a child. He’s the son of college professors (his mother is an economist; his father a political scientist), but he was also raised with the spirit of dissent. His mother helped organize lunch counter sit-ins in Oklahoma City as a teenager. His father was one of the “Southern University 16” who were arrested, expelled, and banned from all public colleges and universities in Louisiana for organizing anti-segregation sit-ins. After graduating from high school at 16, Jones enrolled in Clark Atlanta University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. Next came his first master’s degree, in politics, economics, and business, from Claremont Graduate University, and then another in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Equipped with three degrees, Jones began to look beyond the academia pipeline following his exit from yet another post-grad program.

“When I left graduate school because I didn’t pass my qualifying exam, none of the people around me looked at me any different,” Jones says. “My parents didn’t look at me any different. It wasn’t as though they were like: ‘Damn, you couldn’t get a PhD in economics and now all that stuff we thought about you wasn’t true.’ And I admit that at 24 years old, I was afraid that would happen—that somehow I had been exposed.”

Cultural criticism, which Jones first explored as an undergrad, helped him pivot. After early placements at AOL Black Voices and Salon, he got his first big break writing for ESPN’s famed Page 2 blog in 2004. The strength of his arguments—for example, that the NBA’s mid-2000s dress code sent a dangerous message about which fans the league valued—led ESPN to offer him a contract in 2006. But when the one-year agreement wasn’t renewed, he bounced between mediums, picking up skills and strengthening them everywhere he went. A series of radio shows on 620 The Bull and 850 The Buzz, then The Morning Jones in Durham, North Carolina. Appearances in the HBO Sports documentaries The Battle for Tobacco Road: Duke vs. Carolina and Runnin’ Rebels. On-camera work for SB Nation. It all led him back to ESPN in 2013, when he moved to Miami to cohost Highly Questionable, adding a new dimension to a show built around the dynamic between veteran journalist Dan Le Batard and his elderly father, Gonzalo “Papi” Le Batard. It was a perfect fit: Not only was Jones able to display his own candor and penchant for compelling analysis, but he also found an endearing niche as the guy who could barely keep a straight face amid Papi’s antics. “Papi was the inverse of Bomani in so many ways—often flying off with completely unresearched, half-baked hot takes,” Erik Rydholm, the producer responsible for Highly Questionable, Pardon the Interruption, and Around the Horn, writes in an email. “Bomani leaned in, not only selling these takes, but often spotlighting needles of truth in Papi’s haystacks of absurdity.”

Jones’s rise at ESPN coincided with a moment when the world of sports was forced to recognize its intersection with race, even though the overlap was nothing new. In fact, Jones’s assessment of certain high-profile incidents highlighted his ability to cut through the bullshit and deliver trenchant, clear-headed perspectives. When former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s history of racism resurfaced in 2014, Jones called into Le Batard’s radio show and delivered an 11-minute excoriation of everyone who offered self-satisfyingly virtuous responses to Sterling’s comments when his track record of housing discrimination—which had been out in the open for years, as Jones pointed out in a Page 2 column nearly a decade prior—left marginalized people’s lives hanging in the balance. “When we start looking at all these people in these lists who are dying as an economic byproduct of the people like Donald Sterling and you now have a problem because, oh my God, he said something that intimated that he doesn’t respect his players? I’m calling you out as a fraud,” Jones said. In 2016, he became one of the leading voices on Colin Kaepernick’s protest of systemic racism, noting early on that many people were willfully overlooking Kaepernick’s actual statement. “I’ve heard a lot more about the anthem from people than I’ve heard about the words that he had to say, because I think that people actually want to avoid those,” Jones said during a 2016 appearance on Mike & Mike. Elevating someone with his range just made sense.

“I think the timing was right for Bomani, a talented human being who emerges at a moment when the players are more aggressive about empowerment, where there is a serious discussion in this country about racial injustice, mass incarceration, and stop-and-frisk,” says former ESPN president and current DAZN executive chairman John Skipper, who also launched Meadowlark Media with Le Batard. “And to be the network ESPN is and not have talent that reflects those changes would just mean you were trying to suppress or ignore something.”

Jones left Highly Questionable in 2017 and relocated to New York to start work on another Rydholm creation: High Noon, alongside friend Pablo Torre. High Noon, which premiered in 2018, was envisioned as the perfect vehicle for two of ESPN’s ascendant talents who excelled by bringing different slants to sports. They were the younger, “smart” guys—and, elephant in the room, neither one of them were white. Even though there are surely people who had no interest in hearing a Black man with three degrees and an Asian man who graduated from Harvard talk about sports from their respective vantage points, something about High Noon didn’t click. The show didn’t have an identity and Jones and Torre’s friendship didn’t translate successfully on-screen. “That’s the thing about High Noon, this show, and everything else: It’s gonna be smart because I’m smart,” Jones says, “but it’s gotta be compelling.” High Noon never found a rhythm and ESPN canceled it in 2020, citing ratings. Ahead of its premiere, Jones told The Ringer: “If the first thing they say about our TV show is how smart it is, we’re all going to get fired.” (In a statement to Sports Business Journal announcing High Noon’s cancellation, ESPN referred to the show as “smart and nuanced.”) Four years later, he maintains that the people who complained about High Noon always began their grievances by mentioning how “smart” it was. “Smart is only something people dig if it provides them some sort of value,” Jones says. “So me being smart for its own sake, that don’t really go anywhere.”

ESPN is a tremendous platform, but it’s also a corporate atmosphere. And like all corporate atmospheres, it creates difficult situations for the Black people forced to navigate them. Compromises and concessions are made. Microaggressions are inevitable. In certain instances, you become a target. You tolerate it because everyone needs to eat, but at some point you simply can’t anymore. There are detailed accounts of the discrimination Black employees have experienced at ESPN. Some of the network’s most high-profile Black talent—Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, Cari Champion, Maria Taylor—has left in recent years. Because even though the network presents great opportunities (i.e., you can get paid), it can be restrictive to the point of exhaustion. “They sign my check, so I can’t just go open fire on ESPN when they do something I don’t like,” Jones told The New York Times Magazine in 2015. “And occasionally they do.” Jones became one of ESPN’s greatest assets without crossing the line, but it’s always been clear that he’d be better served by more freedom. “Some people are harder to suppress or ignore than others, and Mr. Jones is not a person who intends to be constrained,” Skipper says. “He sees himself as somebody who speaks truth to power—and that’s a good thing.” There’s been speculation about Jones’s future at ESPN since High Noon’s cancellation, but he’s continued to appear across the network’s programming while The Right Time has thrived, expanding from two weekly episodes to three. Regardless of what the future holds on that end, Game Theory is part of the natural progression of his career.

Save for High Noon, none of the ESPN TV shows Jones has appeared on were built specifically for him. Although he acknowledges that High Noon didn’t work, he doesn’t dwell on it. “I’ve watched all kinds of people who I admire and respect that got knocked down before who have done things that were worse than what High Noon was,” Jones says. Ratings don’t paint a complete picture of anyone’s ability or value. And even though ESPN clearly values Jones’s contributions, it’s unlikely that the network could be his be-all and end-all because of the parameters of its offerings. Where The Right Time leans into Jones, neither Highly Questionable, High Noon, Around the Horn, nor Outside the Lines were designed to show the full scope of his personality. Game Theory, however, is an exhibition for Jones in his element. You hear plenty about how bright he is, but he’s had specific experiences (like his undergrad days at a historically Black college in Atlanta during the late 1990s and early 2000s, i.e., the last gasp of Freaknik) that allow him to discuss things the way he does. That range resonates with his audience.

“The people who like what I do can come back around sometimes and be like, ‘Man, that was a really smart thing he said.’ But the reason they’re there is because it makes them feel something,” Jones says. “Making people think can get you somewhere, but making them feel it is what really goes. Highly Questionable made people feel something. High Noon did not make people feel anything. This show, at its best, is gonna make people feel something.”

Funnily enough, the show that became Game Theory wasn’t originally conceived with Jones in mind. Last March, he got an email about a pilot deal that had been placed with a different host who’d since left the project. After jumping on a Zoom call and reviewing the deck, Jones determined that the show was intended for a comedian. However, he believed he had the right qualities to make it work. “My rationale was that people take sports really seriously. Whether you think this is a big deal or not, the core audience for sports really thinks this stuff is a big deal,” he says. “So you can’t just have any ol’ body out here cuttin’ jokes about it. That’s not gonna work. The people who are going to be the core audience of a show like this are going to demand a lot more of a host. You’re going to need someone whose opinions they respect and someone they’re going to feel is laughing with them rather than at them.”

Despite bearing a name rooted in economics, Game Theory isn’t coming at viewers from an unapproachable place. Jones believes everyone applies game theory, even if they’re unaware of it: It’s the study of human behavior through the lens of the incentives and potential payoffs from certain interactions. For example, Jones says, the concept of political economy: “Because politicians, on one hand, are there to serve the greater good, but they’re still individuals who do things for their own reasons. That sounds real jargony, but if I say: ‘Hey man, yeah that dude’s the mayor. Yeah, he’s doing it for the city—but he’s still always doing it for himself.’ I’m saying the exact same thing.” This is a quintessential example of what Jones excels at: taking a complex idea and distilling it into something digestible. The goal for Game Theory is to apply that approach to whatever Jones wants to discuss, all while making it entertaining. “It’s just going to be taking my thoughts and figuring out the richest and most enjoyable ways that we can illustrate them on-screen,” Jones says.

Game Theory has the budget and staff to bring Jones’s vision to life, but the key to making sure that it captures his character is having people on staff who know him well. Comedian James Davis, an executive producer for Game Theory, has known Jones for over 20 years. He’s up-front about how outside influences diluted what he tried to accomplish with his Comedy Central series, Hood Adjacent With James Davis, and has used the lessons learned from that experience to act as a buffer for Jones, whom he views as an older brother. “You’re not gonna treat Bomani as any less than you would treat a John Oliver, Jon Stewart, or anybody else,” Davis explains. Davis also helps translate Jones’s ideas, extract them from his brain, get everyone on board, and then execute them on-screen. He says the only note they’ve received from HBO so far is to use the available resources to magnify Jones’s voice. That’s why the Krzyzewski segment worked so well.

Jones could have simply clowned Duke after Krzyzewski lost his final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium a week prior, but instead he explained the disdain many Black people have felt for Duke during Krzyzewski’s historically successful tenure. Yes, Duke beat the teams many Black college basketball fans of a certain age adored—the Georgetown Hoyas in 1989, the Arkansas Razorbacks in 1990, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in 1991, and, most devastatingly, the Fab Five–era Michigan Wolverines in 1992—but Duke came to represent an insufferable type of whiteness that’s all too prevalent in society. Worse, the media amplified the notion of Duke’s (white) supremacy through coded language. As Jones points out: This reflects society’s racism, not Krzyzewski’s. Even though he adjusted the way he ran his program over time, a lasting, objectionable impression had been made. But after Jones spelled this out, Game Theory took the 14-minute segment to another level by displaying the trauma Krzyzewski’s reign has caused Black people as a museum exhibit at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, complete with an appearance from one-fifth of the Fab Five, Jalen Rose.

Davis, who plays the tour guide, says he had the idea before Game Theory even hired writers. They moved forward with it because it was a visual expansion of Jones’s angle. “We always want to land on something at the end that kind of explains or showcases his take in another way besides just him speaking to the world,” he says. That segment, more than Jones running through headlines, the one-on-one interviews, or the street interviews presented as black and white vignettes, is the perfect encapsulation of Game Theory’s ambition. “The deep dive is entertaining, educational, and interesting,” says Davis. “It’s almost like the fieldpiece at the end is the icing on the cake. But you need that cake for the icing.”

There are times when Jones gets tired of being the go-to “informed” voice on the intersection of race and sports. In some instances, it can minimize the value of his perspective and scope of his expertise, which speaks volumes about the folks on the other side of the coin. In a 2019 interview with The New Yorker, Jones admitted to being “a bit offended” that he was invited to speak on a panel about activism at the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference despite his background in economics. Jones returned to the conference earlier this month to take part in a one-on-one conversation with Hall of Fame wide receiver turned entrepreneur Calvin Johnson. “Three years after I called them out for having me, with this quantitative social science background, on to talk about race, they finally did call me back to talk about weed,” he says dryly. “Don’t think for a second that I didn’t peep that.”

Jones recalls a story he often tells about the time former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was filmed saying he would “jump that fence and fight every nigger here” at a Kenny Chesney concert back in 2013. The news broke around the same time as the annual National Association of Black Journalists convention, where many of the reputable voices were present and therefore unavailable to discuss the incident on SportsCenter. Jones, who was driving from Miami to Orlando for the event, was. And he found the humor in it. “I’m coming off the top with it, pretty much,” Jones says with a smile. “‘He said he’s gonna fight all of them—he gonna fight all three of them?’” Jones didn’t think the moment had to be heavy because that’s not how he processes situations like that. “So sometimes, when it comes down to it: Hey, I didn’t call you—you called me,” he says. “And I may think this is funny.”

That’s the energy Jones brings to Game Theory. He admits that it’s a lot of work now that he’s leading a staff, but he’s having fun doing it (even though he’s weary from all the photo shoots), and that comes through in the show. “I don’t have to do anything else after this,” he says. “There’s nothing that I feel like I’ve got to do.” Jones isn’t seeking validation—not from the people who run media companies and not necessarily in the quality of his work, either. Creating something that speaks to his audience because they feel it is what matters most to him. If you check the Game Theory Twitter account’s timeline, you’ll see retweets of viewers who tune in for Jones. It’s people who loathe Duke, people who are cynical about cryptocurrency’s popularity in sports, and people willing to hear Jones out even if they disagree with him because his point is so well-considered. Success isn’t always quantifiable; sometimes it’s in the utility something provides and its consistency with the creator’s goal. Sometimes, success is just doing what you set out to do—your way. “I ain’t thinking about success necessarily in the context of what my bosses say,” Jones says. “I’m thinking about the quality of the work and the connections that it made with the people, and how much the people remembered.”

Certain Game Theory segments—like the Coach K one or the one exploring the crypto trend—have been well-received, but there have also been bad-faith critiques citing Game Theory’s ratings. Ratings never tell the full story, but they could still play a factor in Game Theory’s long-term viability. Jones is well aware of this, yet unbothered by it. “If we get our six episodes and they don’t call us back for a seventh, I’m the same person I was walking in,” he says. Because even when Jones’s vessels have changed, his presence has never faded. There will be a place for Bomani Jones in the fickle media landscape as long as he wants it. There’s a good chance it might even be bigger and better than whatever he was doing before. Now he can say he did things completely on his terms at HBO. But the beauty of Game Theory is that he doesn’t have to: It’s unmistakably clear.

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