Kayla Grey: On Anti-Black Racism, Storytelling, and the Future of Sports

Perched above the frenzied crowd of 1.5 million people, Kayla Grey witnessed the biggest celebration Toronto has ever seen from atop a Raptors’ open-air double-decker bus. She calls covering the chaotic excitement of the 2019 Toronto Raptors NBA Championship Parade, one of her most memorable career highlights. 

“I’m still not over the moment,” says Grey, who became the first Black woman to host a flagship sports highlight show in Canada when she debuted SPORTSCENTRE in 2018. She had returned to Toronto just in time to watch the Raptors claim their first championship victory after she traveled the country as a correspondent for Season 7 of Amazing Race Canada. “I am so grateful that I got to explore Canada the way that I did before coming home to my city and seeing it on this beautiful wave of excitement and joy—seeing familiar faces in that crowd. The noise. The weather. No picture does that moment justice,” she says. 

Much has changed since Grey watched thousands of fans chant “One more year!” at Kawhi Leonard’s bus on parade day. Just over a year ago, Kawhi signing with the L.A. Clippers was the most significant blow the Toronto sports world could imagine. No one could have predicted that professional sports would soon be halted indefinitely by a global pandemic. 

“It’s wild to think about how quickly things can change, but here we are,” says Grey, who, like many in sports media, adapted to a new normal that includes broadcasting from home. She’s transformed her living room into two studios—one for SPORTSCENTRE, TSN’s flagship sports news program where she’s a regular host, and one for Sports AM by TSN. The new fast-paced daily sports show delivered directly to devices through the mobile video platform Quibi. As if life isn’t busy enough, Grey is also a mom to two-year-old son Levi. She is a fierce advocate who uses her platform to call out anti-Black racism, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and organizing demand justice and inclusion in sports and beyond. 

A graduate of Toronto’s College of Sports Media, Grey began her broadcasting career in Winnipeg as a Digital Broadcast Journalist for Global News. She then moved to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to become a senior reporter for CFTK-TV news. She went on to join TSN in 2015 as an update anchor for TSN Radio 1050. Since then, she’s won the ByBlacks.com People’s Choice Award for T.V. Personality, has been named one of CBC’s 150 Black women making history in Canada, was called one of 100 women to watch by Canada International Black Women Event’s (CIBWE), and most recently nominated for a 2020 Canadian Screen Award. Grey has also become a familiar face on several popular Canadian television shows, including The SocialThe Marilyn Denis ShowYour Morning, and Etalk.

A first-generation Canadian growing up in Toronto, Grey’s love of sports began as a family affair. She spent a lot of time with her grandparents, who tuned in to all the latest Toronto Blue Jays action.

“My grandmother would watch the games on mute while my grandfather would blast the radio. The mix of the picture and radio-call to me was so interesting,” says Grey when the Jays weren’t playing well. “They’d be taken down by Goliath after Goliath, series after series, but that initial feeling of excitement of watching with family—no matter the outcome- made my heart beat fast. That feeling of ‘we’re going to ride this out—through the good, the bad, and those awful black uniforms!’ I knew pretty early on that in some way, and somehow, I had to be part of the industry.”

Historically an “old boys club,” the industry of sports journalism has a record of exclusion, particularly with women and people of color. Even in 2020, Grey is still one of the few Black women in Canadian sportscasting. When asked about the trend of performative allyship throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, Grey says, “I think we are now seeing companies trying to capitalize on the climate. P.R. statements and D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) positions being created. While we need those, we must also acknowledge that racism is also what makes so many Black people unsafe at work. So, while it’s one thing to hire Black people, one must also examine where they are asking us to work: What kind of culture exists? Does it make BIPOC feel safe and empowered?” 

As the world shifted in the conversation surrounding social justice and culture, many eyes in the sports world turned to NASCAR. In June, an alleged noose was found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black competitor. Grey tweeted that “the work is more than just being willing to amplify Black voices. You must also be willing to PROTECT Black voices too.”

Grey believes the industry has a long way to go, but she’s hopeful the change will come. “We need to lengthen the list of stories that audiences should hear. Because the scales are so unfairly balanced from an editorial standpoint, certain audiences feel isolated or feel as though they don’t matter. Adding more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices to the table—not only on-air but especially behind the scenes and in positions of power—is a huge step because it elevates the quality of storytelling.” Grey’s lived experiences shape the stories she tells.

“Being a woman and a Black woman in the Canadian sports landscape usually means that I find myself being the only Black woman in a room,” she says. “I may see things through a much different lens, and I like to present my stories that way. It’s important for me to be authentic.”

Grey’s commitment to authentic storytelling is evident even when the camera is off. She also has a prolific social media presence on both Instagram and Twitter. Grey does not take her growing influence for granted, using the space to call out anti-Black racism and ignite much-needed conversations surrounding race and inclusion.

On the first anniversary of the Raptors’ championship celebration parade, #KaylaGreyAppreciationDay was a trending topic on Twitter. The hashtag was not to commemorate one of Grey’s career highs but support in response to criticism she faced when calling out a white journalist for using triggering language. Many young women used the hashtag to share that they also felt excluded in sports journalism. “@Kayla_Grey has broken down so many barriers for Black Canadian women in sports journalism. Black women in journalism experience so many microaggressions & racist gatekeeping,” wrote Twitter user @GenelleL.

“#KaylaGreyAppreciationDay was a day that I will never forget. It was a day where my community truly showed up for me. It was a day where my people were like, “Rest. We will mobilize, and we got you,” she says. “That is our power. How we come together. It meant the world to me because, truly, that is who I want to make proud. My community. Not anyone else.”

Among her most prominent champions, Grey cites her mentor, CTV journalist Marci Ien, as a guiding force. “Marci is as selfless as they come and has been so incredibly gracious. When it comes to a legacy, she is just it. Always opening doors and making sure she’s looking behind her to make sure more are coming. I am inspired by her, always.”

With courts, fields, and rinks being occupied once more, Grey knows that authentic storytelling in sports is as relevant now as ever with a new kind of normal. “While the scoreboard watching had paused, the news around COVID-19 as it relates to sports had not, so my drive to tell stories hadn’t either,” she says. “Launching Sports AM by TSN in the middle of a pandemic was no joke, but, honestly, it has shown what an incredible team we have. The fact that we still have been able to make it to air despite being remote and the fact that we’ve been able to pack up our shows with excellent content lets me know that we will be more than prepared for when the wave of leagues are fully back in action.”

When asked how she manages her busy career, motherhood, and activism, Grey answers candidly. “The labor straight up can be hard. It also forces me to revisit a lot of trauma,” she says. “I’ve had to put my foot down and say no. I have to cultivate and protect my peace. Sometimes that means making barriers. It’s okay to say a text, call, email, or post is all I have the capacity for. I’ve been going to therapy regularly and trying to carve out time each day to do something for me,” she says, adding that workouts, reality shows, and two minutes with a book are part of her self-care regimen. 

With a confident on-air presence that rivals even the most seasoned sportscasters, it’s easy to forget that Grey is still a few years shy of turning 30 – there’s a lot left to come in her promising career. When asked what’s next, her answer is simple: “I hope I can continue to do the work that I love while working towards the change that I want to see in our industry.”

Photography by George Pimentel