Small Package, Big Boss
‘Sup, Pepper?” WNBA superstar Sue Bird asked the only 10-year-old on the press call.
That 10-year old was reporter Pepper Persley, who has quickly made a name for herself as a fixture in the women’s basketball press corps. Bird and Diana Taurasi have been some of the biggest stars in the WNBA since before Persley was born, but any time they talk it’s like they go way back.
The day after UConn clinched another visit to the Final Four after a controversial no-call on Baylor star DiJonai Carrington’s final shot, Persley asked the duo the burning question on a media call for USA Basketball training camp: Was Carrington fouled?
“Oh, here we go,” Bird exclaimed. “Pepper coming in hot.”
The duo is a bit biased – having won multiple National Championships with the Huskies during the early 2000s. Bird took the political approach, saying some people will say there was no foul, and others will say there was definitely a foul.
“My take on it? Everybody's talking about it, and that's what matters,” Bird said.
Taurasi, who’s known for playful and honest demeanor, flipped the question back on her.
“That third quarter going into the fourth quarter was pretty amazing, but was it a foul?” Taurasi pondered. “Pepper, what do you think?”
“I thought it was two fouls actually” Persley said, as Taurasi nodded and appeared to silently mouth, “I thought it was a foul, too.”
“I mean, if I was the one shooting, I’d be pretty mad right now,” Taurasi concluded.
That kind of playful, insightful and entertaining exchange is what has quickly made Persley a rising star in women’s basketball media – a quick wit and comfortable rapport with players who are not only decades older than her, but are also her role models as an aspiring point guard.
About a year ago, during quarantine, Persley created her Instagram Live talk show and podcast Dish with Pepper, looking to “to bring a smile to people’s faces.”
She interviewed WNBA stars like Taurasi and Natasha Cloud, and her coverage continued through the 2020 WNBA season. Persley was just getting started. Her tireless work ethic has led to more opportunities.
She covered the NCAA women’s college basketball season for the first time in November. Now, heading into the WNBA’s 25th season, Persley is a well-known reporter in women’s basketball circles.
Even when she isn’t reporting, Persley has a packed schedule: Writer’s lab on Mondays, violin on Tuesdays, chess on Wednesdays, Taekwondo on Thursdays. On Fridays she gets a well-deserved day off. She finds time to play basketball — which she’s been playing since she was four years old — and she started playing softball for the very first time this spring.
Her interviews are fun, while still taking a thoughtful and sincere approach that leads to deep conversations. She’s built up a reputation, not only in basketball, but in other women’s sports, which has led to opportunities that include co-hosting the 2021 Girls Fest for the Women’s Sports Foundation alongside ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson and WSF President Phaidra Knight, and hosting a National Girls & Women in Sports webinar for the Columbia University athletic department.
She’s even ventured outside of basketball reporting, interviewing stars in the NWHL, NWSL, and softball. She hosted her own panel about Black Women in Sports Media in February.
“My main goals (are) the same,” Persley said when reflecting on her last year. “To highlight the voices of these women, whatever their field is, and people of color ... that has really been important to me. And then, of course, addressing social justice, and issues of racism, and police brutality in our country.”
Persley is often the only person her age among groups of seasoned journalists. She knows people might instinctively consider her a novelty, but when it’s her turn to ask a question, she shows that “kids can be professionals, too.” If there’s a 10-year-old journalist, like herself, in the room, it’s not just because they’re cute.
“I think what is really interesting about kids in roles where there's a lot of adults, like in the situation of journalism doing interviews, a lot of the time, people will be like, ‘Oh, that kid's cute.’ And then they'll (move) on versus actually thinking, ‘Oh, this kid is asking a question. This might be impactful for my daughter, or my son, or my child.’” Persley said.
During the height of the NCAA Tournament in March – as Oregon center Sedona Prince’s viral Tik Toks unveiled stark differences in how the NCAA treats the women’s tournament compared to the men’s – NCAA President Mark Emmert fielded questions from reporters.
Persley, of course, was there, and she asked a question that only a 10-year old who dreams of playing college basketball could: “Where does the NCAA want to be in ten years in terms of eliminating the disparities between men’s and women’s basketball?”
Emmert chuckled and said he didn’t know where the NCAA would be in 10 years, but said he wanted the disparities resolved in one year.
“I want a young woman, or anybody who cares to look at our tournaments, to see that the women athletes, these incredible women athletes that are here in San Antonio, are being treated with the same respect, the same level of support, the same level of energy and marketing and clout that goes into these games, as the men,” he said. “Doesn't mean they're identical because they shouldn't be necessarily identical; they're very distinct in many ways. But gender equity between these tournaments is something that can and should be and must be addressed. And in short order. There's no reason for this to go on for another 10 years while we debate and discuss it and, and I want the girls and women you're talking about to know that and to see it.”
Emmert’s answer seemed to gloss over the point of the question. Women’s basketball has always been treated as less than the men’s game, and the disparities go beyond weight rooms and swag bags at the NCAA tournament sites.
There are still fundamental disparities in how little the women’s games are marketed compared to men’s, and how the NCAA has undervalued the women’s game when negotiating TV deals. Those issues won’t be resolved by next year, and Persley wanted to know how the NCAA wll be fully supporting the women’s game by the time she is in college.
“The reason it was so important for me to ask that question is … that so many of the questions were in the now. And just knowing that I could speak for many of the girls who hope to be in the future of women's college basketball, knowing that no one else was bringing that perspective of ‘where do you want to be then?’” Persley said. “I kind of get it. There's a lot of stuff that as the NCAA president he can't say and he doesn't want to say. Ten years is a large gap, and I also get that, but I was kind of frustrated in the moment that he didn't really answer my question.”
Persley not only represents a younger generation, she represents a generation that has grown up with the WNBA – she went to her first game when she was two years old. The league is more than twice her age, and some of the players she interviews have been in the league longer than she’s been alive.
“I'm just really grateful that I'm able to grow up in a time where there are role models, where a short time ago, a girl growing up could have not been able to see herself,” Persley said. “Whatever I want to be in most of those places, there's a woman I can look up to, no matter where it is, and especially in sports.”
Persley has seen first-hand why it matters for young Black girls to see Black women thriving in sports – in fact, her work is proof that it matters. Over the last year, Persley not only witnessed amazing feats and milestones, she covered them in real time.
During the 2020 WNBA season that players dedicated to Black Lives Matter, Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign, she had deep conversations with athletes about their activism, police brutality, and racial justice.
She covered these same athletes as they used their voices and their platform to fight for social change. She watched them campaign for Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock when he was running against former Georgia senator and Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler. She saw players rally to push Loeffler to sell the Dream. Two weeks later, she saw Renee Montgomery transition from Dream player to part-owner and vice president of the team.
During the college season, she covered Stanford head coach Tara VanDeveer as she became the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball. She saw WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson get her own statue on the University of South Carolina’s campus. She watched two Black women head coaches and former WNBA players compete in a Final Four for the first time.
But she also knows the needle isn’t moving fast enough, and not just in sports: “I think that there's a lot of representation, but it's kind of frustrating that we're still at so many firsts.”
“These doors are shut on us because the people inside, who are the leaders of this country, of this world, of athletic departments, like whatever it is, are mainly white men or men, … (rarely) women of color,” Persley said. “I think that we just need a lot more women, people of color, and women of color in places of power so they can kind of open the doors and let more women and people of color in.”
Over the last year, Persley said she’s grown her journalism skills through her work on her talk show, as well as her podcast for The Next and writing for Nets Republic. She’s evolved from simple Q&As from press conferences to more conversational interviews.
After all the work she has put in, Persley is not as nervous as when she began a year ago, and interviewing feels more natural, she said. She knows her work will continue to get better with time and practice, and she doesn’t plan on stopping her coverage anytime soon.
“My confidence in me and my personality (has improved) because journalism has given me a place for me to really be myself and be passionate about what I believe in because sometimes it’s really hard to do,” Persley said. “It’s helped me gain more of a circle of people who are supporting me.”
Persley knows where she wants to be in ten years. She’ll be 20 years old and playing college basketball at a Division-I program that has great academics, and hopefully on her way to her dream of becoming a WNBA point guard.
But for next year? She said she has no idea, but everyone asks her about it. There are still a lot of things that she wants to accomplish over the next 365 days.
“I always have like so many dreams that I could give you a list of stuff of where I want to be in a year,” Persley said. “Outside of journalism, I want to still be playing the violin, doing Taekwondo, playing basketball, continuing to learn softball, possibly playing soccer. I want to do theater and I want to continue my journalism and work on my writing. It’s all stuff that I want to do in a year. Let’s hope I can get it all done.”