Let’s get this out of the way: Cari Champion is Black excellence. And so is MJ Acosta Ruiz.

Black media, Black journalists, and Black content period are important and it’s up to us as a community to let it be known. We thought there was no better way to close out Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month than by highlighting Black and brown women in the field of journalism amplifying the voices of their peers.

CÎROC and Sean “Diddy” Combs launched the latest iteration of #CIROCStands for Black Excellence Month during Super Bowl Weekend in partnership with the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) as they recognized powerful Black & Brown women in Sports journalism.

Together with host Award-winning journalist, NYT Bestselling author, and TV host Elaine Welteroth,  and fellow journalists MJ Acosta-Ruiz, Cari Champion, and Kelsey Nicole Nelson on Saturday, February 11th at NFL House, CÎROC hosted an intimate panel discussion for invited guests and media to explore their inspirational stories and spirit as they toast to their success and journeys. 

21Ninety caught up with some of the trailblazing women to talk about the partnership, amplifying and celebrating black voices, and everything journalism!

Liz Smith: How important was it for you to be a part of the #Cirocstands initiative and amplify the voices of other women within sports television and other areas within broadcasting?

Cari Champion: That’s a great question! It’s important because I think in our business we have made so many strides especially since I came into the business but the reality is that it’s important to see the images that look very familiar to you. Images that are also diverse because we have to change the landscape of the conversations that we have around sports. I think we have done a good job, we’ve opened the door and we see other people walking through which is amazing but we would like for it to be more common than unusual and that’s the goal.

MJ Acosta-Ruiz: That was honestly one of the highlights of the entire week leading up to the Super Bowl. To be amongst women who I admired my entire career and to be sharing our stories and be transparent and pour out our hearts…it was just a redefining moment that reminded all of us that there’s so much strength and power in numbers. It was just something very special that amplified what black excellence is and why we do what we do regardless of the bumps and bruises that we get along the way.

LS: How did the NFL, Ciroc panel in Arizona go and what’s one takeaway from that day you wish everyone knew?

Cari Champion: That panel was so special! I felt as if the vibe and the energy in the room were important to be able to open up and share very honest stories, similar stories, and shared experiences as black and brown women in this business coming together. Saying that while it may have been difficult, and we may have struggled in the beginning, you too can win! I do believe everybody represented a dream, whether it be a dream of a family member, a young woman in the audience, or black and brown people period just to see faces that are familiar! To me what stood out was just the transparency! There were so many people who after the panel just stood around to talk to us about our experiences or just to say thank you. This business only works for those who thrive in authenticity and what I mean by works, is that it only rewards you if you thrive in authenticity.

Credit: Team Diageo

LS: Now speaking of the Super Bowl, MJ you were front row, on the field when Rihanna performed what was that experience like for you being so close?!

MJ: I think I blacked out at one point! It was incredible! In the almost 15 years I’ve been covering the league I never experienced Super Bowl complete from pre-game to the Lombardi Trophy presentation from the field level. This year was the first year that I was able to do that because I was an in-stadium host for the game so I was able to stay there for halftime and it’s surreal! The moment Rihanna levitated off the ground, Jordan Sparks and I lost it. You couldn’t tell us anything, we had a time!

LS: Speaking from experience I know being a black woman in this industry is no easy task, so can you tell us of a time you faced adversity as a journalist and how you overcame it?

CC: Oh gosh every day! Every day is a challenge just being there as a woman in a world that is completely dominated by men because it still is no matter what. The adversity that I think I find is the back and forth between myself and the world that tells me not to show up as my black self. I have to tell myself consistently and constantly that “you are here, you are worthy and your voice does matter.” I think that no matter how long you’ve been in the business there are always challenges that put you in a place where you find yourself of a few or the only one. You have to look at it as an opportunity to educate, as an opportunity to prove others wrong, and help the next one behind you because that adversity doesn’t change overnight. We still have a long way to go and I stand here as someone who’s been able to do it. Someone who’s successful and someone who hopes that the more I find challenges easier to deal with those who are next or right beside me can say the same for themselves if not have any challenges at all!

LS: I have to ask what sparked your interest to transition from the sidelines as a cheerleader to the sidelines as a reporter.

MJ: So the great part is that I was doing both at the same time. When I finally became a Miami Dolphins Cheerleader, I tried out 5 times before I made the team it was not easy, I was already very much into my career as a sportscaster in South Florida working mostly freelance at the time but I always had that goal and I didn’t feel like I had to give up one for the other. When I have something in my mind I feel like I have to go after it, and exhaust all options. The process of being an NFL cheerleader is pretty extensive and I would make it all the way to the finals but not make the final roster. I knew that I was close and I knew that I would really regret it if I didn’t give it another go. If something is meant for you it’s meant for you, as long as you are willing to put in the work willing to get there.

Credit: Team Diageo

LS: Let’s talk about the business side of journalism because we do not get taught this in school! What’s one business tip you would give journalists that you find most important?

Cari Champion: I always say if you do something that you love especially in this business stick with it because the reward will always be in your success and in inspiring others. Success and inspiration always equal finances and dollars. When you first get in the business you don’t make money and you don’t get in the business to make money right away, that will come but you just don’t! I always try to say perfect your craft, if you do that the money will come. When you’re black and brown in this business you can’t be mediocre because there is little to no room for error

LS: What do you all believe your brand represents for your community?

MJ: Whew I hope it represents just the willingness to put yourself out there as authentically and transparently as you can without giving too much of yourself away. It’s a delicate balance in this industry but if someone can look at my story and my path and see that they can forge their own as well, then I’ve done my job.

Cari Champion: My brand represents making sure that I am really standing in the gap for black and brown women. I realized early on that I was in a position that was unique to journalists such as yourself. There was never a Northstar for me that seemed attainable or within reach. Now, I pride myself on being a mentor and by that, I don’t mean being your friend or your best friend but someone who can give you this advice on how to move through this world that doesn’t always seem friendly. My brand is for those in the culture to see that I have made it and you too can do the same! It’s so important for us to find people that we can reach out to and people who are doing what we want to do or a career that we want to model yours after and reach out to them. That’s what I try to do.

CÎROC continues to honor its commitment to celebrate Black excellence year-round with its community-centric platform #CIROCStands. The brand has amplified the achievements, stories, and voices of Black businesses in cities such as Chicago and New York, highlighting those defining culture and shaping the future in each of their communities. 

Editorial note: Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.