There’s no sphere of television more depressingly homogenous than sports broadcasting, not only in demographics, but also in formatting. Ninety percent of the content on channels like ESPN involves ex-athletes and talk-radio hosts batting around scripted talking points, and the lack of new voices is one reason there’s so little real discourse about controversial issues in sports. But since it debuted in March, Fox Sports 1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan has broken that pattern. Nolan’s freewheeling talk show, airing every Wednesday at midnight, stands out as much for its humor as it does for its willingness to tackle tough topics such as domestic violence and mental illness.
The 28-year-old Nolan is still in the “up-and-coming” bracket: Fox Sports 1 remains a junior competitor to the ESPN behemoth and Garbage Time is nestled deep in its schedule. After starting a sports blog while bartending in Boston, Nolan began hosting and producing shows on YouTube for Fox Sports. She graduated to “digital correspondent” for the network in 2013 before getting her own show this year. Garbage Time is a distillation of Nolan’s witty, sometimes sarcastic, always hyper-knowledgeable sportscaster persona: a kinetic mix of commentary, scripted comedy, and interviews peppered by off-screen laughs and jeers from her production crew. In the way it seamlessly and energetically switches from funny to serious, it feels more like E!’s long-running hit The Soup crossed with The Daily Show than typical sports commentary.
If you’ve heard of Nolan, it might be because of her coverage of the Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy’s return to the game after serving a four-game suspension for domestic assault. Hardy was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend in 2014, but he appealed the decision and reportedly settled the case out of court. When his ex-girlfriend didn’t appear to testify at the appeal, the case was dropped, and a 10-game NFL ban was reduced to four on internal appeal. Nolan’s reaction to Hardy’s return was measured and all the more powerful because of it: Though she called him a “garbage human,” she spent as much time excoriating the media’s soft endorsement of his behavior. Many journalists asked him softball questions in the locker room about his return to football, while others even defended Hardy’s flippant attitude toward the case.
If it seems like Nolan is picking on an easy target, that only underlines how weak sports broadcasting is when it comes to domestic violence. When Terry Bradshaw ripped into the NFL on FOX NFL Sunday for letting Hardy back on the field, his co-hosts gazed at him uncomfortably. Nolan herself is subjected to online abuse from fans for daring address the topic, a depressingly predictable state of affairs in the world of sports fandom. But what stands out most about Garbage Time’s segments on the Hardy issue is the nuance Nolan injects: In a subsequent bit, she noted that Hardy exhibited all the signs of a mental-health problem (his anger issues on the field have only increased since his return).
“Don’t let ... anybody in the Cowboys organization fool you into thinking they support Greg Hardy. They don’t,” she said. “They support sacks. They’ll say and do whatever they can while he’s in Dallas to get him to keep devastating offensive linemen, and when he’s done doing that they’ll shove him out the door a worse man than he was when he got there, thanks to their years of enabling him.” Referencing past NFL players with histories of mental-health issues, Nolan turned a simple direct-to-camera rant into a look at a wider systemic problem in a sport that’s just beginning to emerge from its prehistoric thinking on its players’ well-being.
Mostly, Garbage Time has a looser feel, and is happy to indulge silly comedy bits as often as in-depth reporting. Its time slot works as a fun perch from which to razz the rest of sports media. After Bill Simmons’s much publicized departure from ESPN, Nolan had him briefly “take over” her show for a hastily staged bit that was as funny as it was amateurish. (Simmons has long touted Nolan as a rising star in sports media and reportedly tried to poach her for ESPN while he was there.) When Deadspin’s Greg Howard published a searing take-down of Jason Whitlock’s disastrous tenure at the ESPN site The Undefeated, Nolan had the writer on to talk about his reporting process, something that couldn’t have happened on ESPN (Fox Sports 1 now, ironically, employs Whitlock and Colin Cowherd, another ESPN cast-off Nolan has been happy to mock).
For now, Garbage Time is a lovable underdog, and Nolan is the ideal host, but she’s definitely on the rise: She just launched a popular new podcast and currently boasts 158,000 followers on Twitter. Sports broadcasting often softens the edge of its renegades, especially those climbing into higher positions—Simmons, for example, never seemed comfortable hosting NBA broadcasts for ESPN, and remains at his best when hosting a podcast. Nolan may have to strike a tougher balance in the future, but for now Garbage Time should be celebrated as the much needed rebel in the otherwise uniform world of sports TV.