Mary Carillo’s voice is synonymous with tennis, the Olympics, and “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” She has worked in sports broadcasting since 1980, spanning jobs with USA Network, PBS, MSG, ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, and HBO, where she won a Sports Emmy Award.
Soon, she will be inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. But first Carillo will emcee the Project Play Summit on October 16 in Washington, DC. Risa Isard, program manager at the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, recently caught up with Carillo and discussed her concerns about kids turning to technology instead of physical activity, early specialization in sports, and what kind of sport parent she was for her children.
Risa Isard: What excites you about what Project Play is doing, and specifically the Project Play Summit?
Mary Carillo: I recognized at a pretty early age that I was a jock. I will never forget the feeling — the first time my dad threw me a ball and I caught it. I think anything that I’ve ever done after catching that first ball as a little kid has informed how I feel about myself. That is what excites me so much about Project Play. What worries me is that so many kids consider sports something they play on their phones or on their iPad. If there’s something that this country can do to get kids more engaged at a young age, and keep them there, I think we’re going in the right direction.
Isard: What would it mean to have a country in which all kids have the opportunity to be active through sport?
Carillo: The sport I come from, tennis, is a sport that requires grownups to take you to tennis tournaments, get you lessons, [etc.]. But a lot of sports are street sports. You learn how to play hockey and basketball and football, soccer especially, from your friends. We have got to do a better job of opening up sport so that every kid feels like they get a chance.
Isard: What have you seen in your own life and in your broadcasting career as it relates to early specialization in sports?
Carillo: Specializing can be a dangerous business. The unfortunate part is that if you do not specialize you’re way behind. Steffi Graf turned pro and she was 13 years old. Jennifer [Capriati] did too. These are kids who don’t even finish high school, so they separate not only from other sports but they separate from any kind of a formal education. That to me is dangerous.
Isard: We’ll be talking at the Summit about the promise of mixed-gender sport among kids. What were your experiences growing up playing in mixed-gender settings?
Carillo: I love that we’re going to spend some time focusing on this. Mixed doubles is the only [Grand Slam] event I ever won. It was 1977 with a kid I grew up playing with — John McEnroe. I’ve played with a lot of boys from an early age. So often in team sports the girls would be trying to get the football, get the basketball, and the boys would just block them out. “Oh, she’s a girl. She throws like a girl.” Accepting mixed-gender participation at an early age is key. Boys have to know that they can pass to girls.
Isard: Thinking about our theme, which is to Think Global, Play Local, what’s something interesting you’ve seen from your travels that you’d love to see brought to the US in youth sport?
Carillo: Especially in Rio in Brazil, where soccer is king and the women are so tremendous, there is a freedom to their style of play. The flair, the imagination, the freedom that those kids who become great players have is because they teach themselves. It’s like the way the Canadian hockey players play — you can tell that a lot of what they do is just instinctive.
Isard: What kind of sport parent were you?
Carillo: [My kids’] dad and I both came from a tennis-playing society and at an early age we noticed that both our kids preferred team sports. We didn’t want to be real tennis nerdy parents and force them to play. My son played basketball. My daughter was a track star and a volleyball player. I enjoyed watching them play. I had become so inured to the idea that there’s no cheering in the press box that I would pretty much sit on my hands, and I remember the parents of the other kids would say, “Why aren’t you getting more excited?” My kids are still very active … so I don’t think I screwed them up too much. They might give you a different answer!
Isard: You’ve covered the past 14 Olympic Games. What do you think is the role of the US Olympic Committee in protecting athletes from abuse? Or what should it be?
Carillo: The scandal in gymnastics has been an absolute horror, and clearly US Olympic [officials] have to all get better about this. It’s tragic to hear what can happen, what got buried, and what should have come out years and years ago. You hope that we pay far greater attention and take much better care of these young athletes because, you know, kids trust coaches. Kids are taught to trust people with whistles, people in uniform, grownups who are supposed to be doing only the best things for them. We’ve got to make sure that that stays true.
Isard: What’s your advice to kids who say they want to retire from sport before age 12?
Carillo: Even if you’re not a great athlete, if you just stay physical, stay a part of something larger than yourself, understand how to share and how to divide roles and how to follow rules, there is nothing but good that comes from that.
Isard: Who is the best coach you ever had and what made them the best?
Carillo: When I was around 12 years old, I got the chance to be coached by the late, great Harry Hopman. I would say he was more of a coach than a teacher. He didn’t tend to spend a lot of time on your strokes. He just taught you what to do with them. I think there’s a great difference between teaching and coaching. He made me want to be on his court.
Isard: You’re being inducted later this year in the Sports Video Group’s Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. What are you most proud of in your career?
Carillo: Probably the longevity of it. I’m going in with an unbelievable group of fellows, including the great Bob Costas. Over all this time, I have gotten so much appreciation and respect for all sports, and I’ve been able to tell stories all these years and to get to know the athletic heart of some of the most remarkable athletes of our time.
Tune in to the Project Play Summit on Oct. 16 by watching selected sessions live at as.pn/PPLive. Speakers will include Kobe Bryant, Tony Hawk, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. See the Summit agenda for approximate livestream times. Learn more about Project Play at www.ProjectPlay.us.