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How Marcia McKenna Gave a Voice to South Central During the Super Bowl

The writer shares the message behind her powerful Emmy-award-winning short that pays homage to the L.A. neighborhood and why women writers are necessary in sports.
Sports Emmy-winning writer Marcia McKenna

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

While 2022 saw the 56th Super Bowl, it was a Super Bowl of firsts in many ways: the first big Super Bowl since the pandemic; the first Super Bowl at SoFi stadium; the first halftime show headlined by hip-hop artists; and the first Sports Emmy win for a Black woman for the short documentary, NFL 360: Ode to South Central, a tribute to Los Angeles’s iconic neighborhood that aired during the big game.

Marcia McKenna became the first woman of color to win an Sports Emmy for writing last month, beating out top contenders in her category like the legendary Bob Costas, and Aaron Cohen to bring home the Dick Schaap Outstanding Writing Award for Short Form. The only woman to previously win a Sports Emmy for writing was journalist and commentator Mary Carillo. The groundbreaking win took Marcia by surprise. “It was an out-of-body experience,” she says. “It's really humbling. I feel honored and grateful.”

A veteran in the entertainment industry, having written scripts for film and television, as well as worked in story development and copy editing, McKenna still faced hesitation about if she could deliver what the NFL Network was looking for. The only instruction she was given was to honor South Central and have a sports tie-in. McKenna, who was born and raised in South Central and was familiar with its history, aimed to humanize her former hood by giving it a voice. After just 15 minutes of writing, the award-winning copy was complete.

“I didn't take for granted what I wrote,” McKenna says “I didn't necessarily think they were going to like or accept it. I didn't expect, ‘Oh no, don't write another word, you're going to win an Emmy for this.’ It was so close to my heart in terms of what I'd seen and been through. It took me 15 minutes.”

While the accolades and support were overwhelming, her short didn’t come without its share of critics. There were those who didn’t understand the connection to football. But to the girl from the Crenshaw district, sports and South Central were one in the same—representing all the gentrified, redlined urban neighborhoods across the United States and the resilience and persistence they embody in both good and bad times, much like in sports. To McKenna, sports is a glue that bonds people emotionally.

“One of the things I've always appreciated about sports is that race goes away,” McKenna says. “You are a team, and it doesn't matter that you're white or Black, you're all pulling together to do something. There's so much more about us that is alike than different. With sports you're judged on a different level, on your athleticism, on your leadership, on your ability to come back after an injury, your ability to work through pain. So those are the things that are universal about us.”

The South Central many are familiar with is the one depicted in gangster films or by rappers who paint a vivid image of violence and destruction. McKenna acknowledges the region’s well-deserved bad reputation, but sees her hometown as more than that. She wanted the subtext of the video to represent the history before the violence. The families that migrated from the South to buy homes and work in industries that are the fabric and foundation of Los Angeles just as much as any other area. Generations—Black, Hispanic, Asian—that still live there. That it represents the U.S., and that Compton, Inglewood, Watts and Crenshaw belong just as much as Beverly Hills and Malibu.

Like a true team player, McKenna doesn’t take all the praise for the short. Just as football is a team sport, so was the making of NFL 360: Ode to South Central. She credits the visionary director Julian Gooden, who brought her words to life; Emmy-nominated Black-ish actor Anthony Anderson, who gave her words a voice; Stephanie Yang, who won an Emmy for editing; and more importantly she credits the NFL for wanting to pay homage and celebrate the true South Central.

“The NFL specifically said let's embrace what this is and where this is, and made a conscious and valued effort to be inclusive and to say, we are not forgetting, we're not tossing it aside,” McKenna says.

Having been taught by her late grandmother that the strongest and greatest thing you could be is a woman, McKenna wants to see more women writers in sports. She says she writes from the heart and with emotion, using it as a strength not a weakness. The South Central tribute is gritty, but the words are benevolent.

“I don't know that a man could have written Ode to South Central in the same way,” McKenna says. “Even behind the scenes in sports, I don’t know that a man is going to tell stories the same way a woman would. Men have limitations on them that women don’t have, some stories just need that woman’s touch. I absolutely love being a woman writer.” 

Empower Onyx/Sports Illustrated present Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports

Senita Brooks is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.