Rooks receives 2022 College of Media Emerging Leader Award

Taylor Rooks
Taylor Rooks (Photo by Raven B. Varona.)

Taylor Rooks (BS ’14, journalism), sports journalist and broadcaster at Bleacher Report, is known in the field of sports journalism for her interviewing skills and for her ability to connect with athletes. She was recently nominated for a 2022 Sports Emmy Award for “Outstanding Personality/Emerging On-Air Talent.” 

Rooks said her time at the University of Illinois provided the opportunity for her to ask questions and was an important foundation for her career today.

The College of Media has selected Rooks as the recipient of the 2022 Emerging Leader Award, which honors an alum for their exemplary early career achievements and engagement with the college. 

“As sports media fans already know, Taylor Rooks is a talented and innovative journalist, and we are fortunate to have her share inspiring personal and career experiences with students in the College of Media,” said Dean Tracy Sulkin. “We are proud to recognize her with the Emerging Leader Award.”

Rooks has been a panelist at a 2021 Media Career Night focused on sports media; she is part of the college’s Alumni Speakers Bureau and has been a featured guest in journalism classes; and she is involved in a College of Media mentoring program that pairs alumni and students from underrepresented populations, where alumni share perspectives and advice.

“Things are so much more special when they come from places or people or institutions that you have a very deep emotional tie to, and the University of Illinois has been so important in my life and in my family’s life,” Rooks said.

Both of her parents attended Illinois, where her mother was a broadcast journalism major and her father was an Illini running back and studied political science.

From the start of Rooks’s time at Illinois, she was involved with the athletic department and applied her studies to her interests in sports media.

“Being around that environment really showed me that doing the media side of it was something that I could do, and could excel at,” she said. “And the College of Media gave me the tools.… That was the first time that I really saw how the team aspect of news is what really makes it work. And that’s something I have carried with me ever since.”

Rooks was involved with the Big Ten Network as a student, and worked for them full-time after graduating. From there, she spent two years at SportsNet New York before being hired at Bleacher Report.

At Bleacher Report, Rooks had her own web series, Take It There with Taylor Rooks, where she did longform interviews with athletes such as Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan. Her episode “Inside the NBA Bubble with Taylor Rooks” was a 2021 honoree for a Webby Award in the Social, Sports (Series & Campaigns) category. Along the way, she has developed a large following on social media, with nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram and more than 240,000 followers on Twitter. 

As an interviewer, she tries to engage in conversations that tell a story.

“When you have conversations with [people] on a human level and you allow them the space to tell you who they are, you have a better understanding of them completely,” Rooks said.

Rooks said she sees a lot of dehumanization of athletes in sports and it can be hard for fans to understand that these players are human beings with real emotions.

“We only see people for what they do,” Rooks said. “And it's just really important to me to let them feel like their voice exists and that it's important, and that when they sit in the chair, they can use their voice in whichever way they wish.”

And these emotions are often connected to identity, Rooks said. Most of the athletes she talks to want to discuss how they feel in relation to their Black identity or womanhood, for example.

“Those are all things that have to be in the conversation to get a full scope of someone’s life from a perspective, someone’s point of view,” Rooks said.

Rooks said it also helps when she shares her own experiences as a Black woman, something she did when she was inside the NBA Bubble, an isolation zone for basketball players during the final games of the 2019-2020 season and 2020 NBA playoffs, when the pandemic began.

It was the summer where protests following the murder of George Floyd were at their height, affecting many of the players inside the bubble but also Rooks herself, as a Black journalist.

Calling it the best thing she’s done in her career, Rooks said the experience taught her about her responsibilities as a journalist and how it’s necessary to tell multiple stories at once.

“Because with all these people in a place, the experiences aren’t monolithic,” she said. 

There were players who wanted to leave the bubble to join the George Floyd protests, and players worried about their families getting COVID-19.

“You wanted to do right by them and tell the stories in the ways they intended for them to be told. And we all just wanted our work to reflect the duality that was happening in the bubble,” she said.

Her own identity and experiences has helped in the storytelling she does—something that Rooks encourages students to remember.

“It’s so much less about having to shy away from stories you have a personal connection to and more so about understanding how lending your voice to it actually pushes it forward,” she said. 

Everyone’s lives are different, Rooks said. She advised focusing on things that can be controlled and that it’s okay to not have everything figured out as a college student.

“What you can control is working, waking up and trying to be better, looking inside to figure out the things that move you, that make you feel passionate, and you cultivate those,” she said. 

—Vivian La, Communications Intern