In a decade working for ESPN, Kevin Negandhi, anchor for the daily 7 a.m. SportsCenter telecast, has hosted most of the big-sport entities that air on the network. College and pro football, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four – you name it, Negandhi’s probably been there.
Ask the Pennsylvania native which sports event elicits his most emotional response, though, and he says it’s the same one that brought him to Lexington High on Wednesday, returning him to his – and sports’ – roots.
Along with ESPN and South Carolina officials, Negandhi took part in Lexington School District 1’s awarding of the equivalent of varsity letters to 45 local students involved in Special Olympics Unified Sports – the first such letters presentation in South Carolina. Afterward, the contingent took part in a pep rally attended by more than 1,000 students from Lexington, River Bluff and White Knoll high schools.
“It was loud,” Negandhi said. “One teacher told me afterward they don’t normally hold a lot of pep rallies because rarely do those three schools, which are such rivals, come together.”
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This, though, transcended rivalries. This, Negandhi said, is what sports are supposed to be about, and why he loves what he does.
This March, ESPN will be in Austria covering the Special Olympics Winter World Games, with athletes from 150 nations participating. Negandhi will serve as co-host for the weeklong coverage for the second time, having also worked the 2015 Games in Los Angeles (Three South Carolina athletes will be on the U.S. team: Lake City’s Keith Frostic and Florence’s Jackie Hoch, both in alpine skiing, and Florence’s Latrice Pringle in snowboarding).
ESPN’s coverage approach, Negandhi said, is the same way it would cover the “other” Olympics.
“Half the time, you’re showing competition. The other half is story-telling,” he said. “What gets (viewers) hooked is the connection to athletes and their families. In this case, you want to tell the right stories that educate people about (Special Olympians), athletes who they otherwise maybe don’t look at as athletes, but now they look at them differently.”
“Unified Sports” refers to Special Olympic athletes who have others helping them. Negandhi tells how a golfer at the 2015 Games “couldn’t see past the tee box, but she loved playing golf. Her grandmother was in the cart with her, telling her, ‘it’s 150 yards away,’ how to line up, where to aim – and she nailed the shot down the fairway. That’s what Unified Sports is about.”
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Lexington’s Unified Sports athletes were accompanied on-stage by their helpers, some of whom are non-disabled high school athletes. “Their families and friends were there, too,” Negandhi said. “To me, (winning a letter) in high school is such a big deal. Being recognized for your hard work by coaches and teammates.”
If by now you assume Negandhi’s interest in Special Olympics is more than just professional, you’re correct – though not in the way you might think. He has no family member or friend who’s in Special Olympics, “but I’m a big fan of inclusion: no limits for anyone, no one telling you that you can’t do anything. That goes to the core of where I am, what I’m doing.”
Deep in Negandhi’s résumé – after his 1997 communications degree from Temple University and his induction into the media and communications school’s hall of fame – is the notation that he’s the first Indian-American to work on-air for a national sports network. He’s seen the opposite of inclusion.
“If I’d listened to people saying, ‘You’ll never get on TV because of your background, your lack of experience, you’ll never get to ESPN,’ I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “This goes to the core of where I’m at, what I’m doing. I live by that mantra.”
That also was true at Lexington High for youngsters whose lives are enriched simply by being members of a team and experiencing the quest to push their limits, Negandhi said.
“This is where it all begins, the idea that sports shows no prejudice,” he said. Telling Special Olympians’ stories, “it revives you. When (Lexington kids) came on stage and got that letter, nothing can replace the joy, the smiles on their faces and the sense of accomplishment.”
Negandhi paused. “People were thanking me (for being there),” he said. “At the end of the day, I was thanking them.”