Robin Rene Roberts has been the co-anchor of Good Morning America since 2005. She previously worked at sister-network ESPN from 1990-2005 where her duties included serving as an anchor on SportsCenter, thestudio host for the NCAA Women’s Final Four and a contributor to NFL PrimeTime. Robin attended Southeastern Louisiana University where she was a standout player on the Lady Lions women’s basketball team. She became one of the program’s all-time leading scorers and rebounder, and her #21 jersey was retired in 2011. Robin graduated cum laude from the school in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities degree in 2014. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012 for her contributions to, and impact on, the game of women’s basketball through both her play and broadcasting work.
Robin and I became better acquainted when working together on a Good Morning America “Town Hall Meeting” on March 26, 2007. It was over dinner the night before where I learned her father, Lawrence Roberts, was a pilot with the infamous Tuskegee Airmen who was stationed for a time – well before Robin was born – at the Sioux City (IA) Army Air Base. It’s worth noting that the assignment was long enough for Lawrence to earn a bachelor’s degree from Morningside College. The broadcast featured then presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton, and was produced live from the Science Center of Iowa as a special edition of GMA. While still making the transition from sports to hard news, Robin handled the assignment with ease as Senator Clinton fielded questions from Iowans and viewers across the country on issues including health care and the Iraq war. Some news was even made during the broadcast when Senator Clinton told Robin that she was accepting the support and endorsement of Iowa’s former governor, Tom Vilsack, who up until recently had been running for president himself. (Vilsack would later serve as the Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 to 2017 in the Obama administration – Ed.) At the time, Senator Clinton enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls that would be squandered on her way to placing third (29.4%) in the January 2008 Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus. Senator Barack Obama finished in first place (37.6%), while Senator John Edwards was the runner-up (29.7%). Obama’s strong showing in Iowa gave him the momentum needed to eventually claim his party’s nomination, and to later win the general election as well in November 2008. Coincidentally, Robin was the first journalist to interview President Barack Obama after he was sworn in as President.
In June 2007, only a few months after the special broadcast in Iowa, Robin learned she had breast cancer. She made the diagnosis public on July 31, 2007 with an on-air announcement, and underwent a successful surgery just days later on August 3, 2007. Robin and I got together for lunch a short time later at a favorite gathering place, Nick & Toni’s, prior to her first chemotherapy treatment. We would meet up yet again at Nick & Toni’s for lunch in February 2008 prior to her first radiation treatment, this time with her co-anchor Diane Sawyer and my wife joining us. Robin never retreated from the public eye, and it was soon after this second luncheon that she decided to stop wearing a wig. In doing so, she invoked the powerful lyrics of her friend and Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter India Arie: “I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am not your expectations…I am the soul that lives within.” Robin’s colleagues were supportive of her decision, and the reaction by viewers was overwhelmingly positive.
With the benefit of a heads-up from Diane Sawyer, I was able to surprise Robin with a celebratory bottle of champagne on the GMA set on the day of her final radiation treatment. It was awe-inspiring to personally witness the public, positive and graceful manner with which she handled her breast cancer ordeal. For example, Robin was still receiving chemo treatments at the time she accepted an invitation from First Lady Laura Bush to participate in an international breast cancer mission. They met with women in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Robin’s selfless willingness to raise awareness and talk about the importance of early detection rightfully earned her much praise and many accolades, including awards from The Susan G. Komen Foundation and The Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.
Robin graciously accepted my invitation to make a return trip to Des Moines in October 2008 to be the special guest of honor at the annual “Bras for the Cause” gala dinner. This event raises funds for the screening, detection and treatment of breast and cervical cancers among low income, underinsured, and uninsured women all across Iowa. Robin rocked the room that night, and talked about her recent experience in a way that served as a great inspiration to those in attendance. On Good Morning America the following Monday, she had fun showing co-anchor Diane Sawyer and her television audience several pictures of the bra-themed artwork that “Bras for the Cause” is famous for.
Robin and I have crossed paths at the ESPYs on countless occasions. (Note: see the “ESPYs” WINNER’s profile) In July 2008 she joined Stuart Scott, her old friend and former ESPN colleague, to present the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance to Kevin Everett. While playing in a game for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Everett sustained a life-threatening fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine. At first, it was thought this injury would leave him with a permanent neurological impairment. Fortunately, he later showed significant movement in his arms and legs, and he once again walked in public at the Bills home finale against the New York Giants on December 23, 2007. Everett demonstrated great perseverance in finding a way to walk again and was a most-deserving honoree. But the presentation was made all the more poignant by the fact that the co-presenters had recently shown remarkable perseverance of their own: Robin while beating back breast cancer, and Stuart during a fight involving a cancerous appendix that was discovered during a routine appendectomy. As life would have it, perseverance was a virtue that both Robin and Stuart would need in spades as new health crises later emerged for both of them.
In 2012, Robin was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) that she likely contracted as a complication of her cancer treatments years earlier. She took an extended leave of absence to receive a needed bone marrow transplant from her sister, then returned to GMA on February 20, 2013. “I have been waiting 174 days to say this: Good Morning America!” she said to open that day’s show. Robin received a George Foster Peabody Award for “allowing her network to document and build a public service campaign around her battle with a rare disease” and for “inspiring hundreds of potential bone marrow donors to register, and heightening awareness of the need for more donors.” Robin was also recognized with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2013 ESPYs where basketball star LeBron James was the presenter. In her moving acceptance speech, she reminisced about being backstage in 1993 when Jim Valvano gave his infamous speech immediately after being presented the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Robin said, “I never imagined that I’d be able to be standing here 20 years after Jimmy V’s speech and say that because of everyone who has responded to his challenge, because of all the donations, research and support, mine is one of the lives that’s been saved.” She modestly omitted the fact that she has been a longtime friend and supporter of The V Foundation, and was named to its board of directors in May 2012. Robin concluded her acceptance remarks with a heartfelt message for the audience in the theater and the viewers watching at home, “I draw strength from you. You give me the courage to face down any challenge, to know when fear knocks, to let faith open the door.”
As for Stuart Scott, his cancer returned in 2011 and then again in 2013. After joining Robin as a co-presenter of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2008 ESPYs, it was sadly ironic that Stuart himself was bestowed that very same honor at the 2014 ESPYs. I spoke with Stuart outside the JW Marriott at L.A. Live on the morning of the awards show, and he clearly understood that he was a man facing his own mortality. Robin later told me that ESPN had put her on “stand-by” to accept the award on Stuart’s behalf in the event his lack of strength prevented him from doing so himself. But step on stage he did, and with a message every bit as inspiring as Robin’s was the year before: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” Following a brave fight involving more than 50 infusions of chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries related to his cancer treatments, Stuart passed away on January 4, 2015.
Robin has traveled the country covering breaking news events. One of her most challenging assignments occurred in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit both Mississippi, where she grew up, and Louisiana, where she went to college. Robin’s hometown of Pass Christian, MS was hit especially hard. She later reflected on the experience in an interview with People magazine: “The morning after (Hurricane Katrina hit), I was there on the Gulf Coast reporting and I broke down. It was the first time I had ever done that. I had been driving all night long and lost contact with my family…I didn’t know when I was driving what I would find.” But while she may have “cried like a baby” when GMA co-anchor Charlie Gibson asked during a live shot about finding her family safe and sound, Robin’s reporting conveyed a deep personal connection to the area and its people. She has also done extensive reporting from around the globe, from the Middle East (with former First Lady Laura Bush to raise awareness about breast cancer) to Africa (with former President Bill Clinton for a first-hand look at the AIDS crisis) to Mexico (where she scaled the Mayan Pyramids for GMA’s “The New 7 Wonders of the World” series).
When not traveling across the country or the world, Robin has conducted many high-profile interviews. Perhaps what to date has been her most important one took place in May 2012 – just six months before Election Day – when she sat down in the Cabinet Room at the White House with then President Barack Obama. It resulted in an historic revelation wherein he told the country that his views on same-sex marriage had changed saying, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue…I’ve just concluded that – for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that – I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Whether it’s for Good Morning America or an occasional primetime special, Robin has interviewed a diverse group of newsmakers. Is there a reason that people making headlines are comfortable sitting down with her? “People want to tell her the truth because she invites you to be yourself, to be truly yourself,” said her longtime colleague and friend, Diane Sawyer. “It’s there in the questions and it’s there in the way she reports, but it’s in the room and how she looks at you. She’s doing what her heart impels her to do, and what’s in her heart is always kind.”
Some fellow journalists raised their eyebrows, and in some cases uncomfortable questions, about why Robin was picked to conduct the aforementioned interview with President Obama. Was it because she was a “friendly” face? Or because she was African-American and deeply religious, two constituencies who were notably opposed to same-sex marriage? Or was it because she herself was rumored to be gay? Most objective journalists disregarded such questions as being irrelevant and unfair, pointing to the interview itself which was universally lauded. But the question of her sexuality was laid to rest when Robin came out in December 2013 via a Facebook post in which she thanked her longtime partner, Amber Laign, for all the support and love shown during her health challenges. I sent Robin an email on December 30, 2013 which read in part, “Well now, that little old year-end Facebook post of yours has caused a bit of a stir. I look forward to the day when such an item won’t be considered ‘news’ by the mainstream media or otherwise.” Robin promptly replied, “It certainly was not my intention to cause such a stir. Just grateful for my life and all it richly entails.” When asked about the “coming out” decision by Sharon Cotliar for an article in Glamour magazine sometime later, Diane Sawyer once again provided wonderful insight into Robin’s quintessential honesty: “I suppose some people operate in denial. She doesn’t. She looks straight at the truth. The saying that courage is fear that has said its prayers: That to me is where she lives.”
Robin was honored by ESPN Hall of Fame Sportscaster Dick Vitale at his annual fundraising gala in May 2016, the net proceeds of which support pediatric cancer research. (Note: see “The V Foundation” and “Dick Vitale” WINNER’s profiles) It was my privilege to turn the tables on Robin in March 2016 when I sat down with her on the set of Good Morning America to interview her for a series of vignettes that were produced to promote the gala. Here are the titles of the vignettes and just a few takeaways from each of them:
Diagnosis – “You just put on your armor, and you think of all the many people who have walked that path before you…I have to say I did think of Jimmy V…I thought about ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up’…that was his battle cry…perseverance is the word, be patient and persistent…as the great Pat Summitt told me, ‘left foot, right foot, breathe’…you just keep moving forward.” (Pat Summitt was the legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee; she received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2012 ESPYs just one year before Robin was similarly honored in 2013 – Ed.)
Make Your Mess Your Message – “I didn’t want to be so public, and it was my dear Mom first of all when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I didn’t want to say anything (who) said ‘Make your mess your message’…OK, the message is early detection…when I was diagnosed with MDS – which I had never heard of before I was diagnosed! – I said what’s the message here? Oh, people don’t realize that you can donate your stem cells…it could potentially save people…70 diseases can be treated through a bone marrow transplant…it’s been wonderful that we’ve been able to increase the (donor) registries.”
When Fear Knocks, Faith Opens the Door – “Just to be able to look out into the crowd and just say ‘I am a symbol of this too shall pass’…I am a symbol of whatever it is you’re going through, just keep moving…Arthur Ashe was a very dear friend…and to be seen as worthy of having an award with his name on it and with the connection to Jim (Valvano)…it was a moment that still touches me.”
Inspiration – “Your dreams may not quite look like what you think they are…I wanted originally to be a tennis player…that was my love…I would dream about being there at Wimbledon…and I did make it to Wimbledon but not with a racket in my hand but a microphone in my hand.”
Don’t Give up, Don’t Ever Give Up – “(Jimmy V’s) legacy is the passion with which he lived…the passion which we all now have with this foundation…and just like him we’re not going to give up, we’re not ever going to give up.”
Robin Roberts is among the most talented, courageous, and resilient WINNERs that have enriched my life. Her WINNING qualities have contributed to Good Morning America receiving four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Morning Program and the 2017 People’s Choice Award for Favorite Daytime Hosting Team. Robin herself has been honored with the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence, and she has been inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. She received the 2008 WNBA Inspiration Award and was voted the “Most Trusted Person on Television” in aReader’s Digest poll in 2013. It was especially enjoyable to be backstage with Robin in April 2018 at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas where she was presented their Distinguished Service Award. Her name is now included among those on the impressive list of recipients to be honored with the NAB’s highest honor, including: Edward R. Murrow, Bob Hope, Lowell Thomas, Walter Cronkite, President Ronald Reagan, Dick Clark, Barbara Walters, Bob Schieffer, Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah Winfrey and Michael J. Fox.
With an identity all her own and an unbreakable spirit, Robin is a WINNER in every sense of the word.
Everybody’s Got Something by Robin Roberts & Veronica Chambers (Grand Central Publishing, 2014)
Press Release –
NAB Show (October 23, 2017). “Robin Roberts To Receive Distinguished Service Award At 2018 NAB Show” [Press Release] Retrieved from www.nabshow.com