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Viewpoint ESPN’s Qerim a voice to be heard

September 23, 2018

NEW YORK — She walks into the small reception area in the new ESPN studios at the South Street Seaport. Ten minutes after the conclusion of “First Take,” ending the show with pointed words about Mark Cuban, Molly Qerim considers her Connecticut audience.

“I miss the Big East!” she said. “That’s my hot take.”

And with that, Qerim, already out of the dress she wore on camera and in warmups, settles into a chair and considers 2018.

In the spring, she spoke out about her personal battle with Stage IV endometriosis. On July 1, she married former NBA star and ESPN personality Jalen Rose. And now the daughter of Cheshire, her national media profile ever-expanding, finds herself moved to New York’s big stage five days a week with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman.

“In March, I went to the Endometriosis Foundation of America event,” Qerim said. “I heard women telling their stories and basically their only option was to have a hysterectomy. There were teenagers and in their 20s. I was distraught. It wasn’t something I ever planned to speak out about, but hearing the horror stories, some of the poor medical treatment, losing their fertility at such a young age, I felt like I had to use the platform I have.”

She told her story to Bustle and that led to an appearance on Good Morning America.

“I was nervous,” Qerim said. “It’s something so personal and I work in male-dominated industry, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. I wanted girls to know what I’d been through, my surgeries, treatments, what worked for me and that they have other options.”

On July 1, Qerim married Rose in a small ceremony in a Greenwich park.

“We’re always on, always crazy,” Qerim said. “We wanted it to be very intimate, private, chill. No hair and makeup, no glam. Just about us and our union. It was outside, very casual. Small dinner afterward.”

Stephen A. is known to occasionally call her as “Mollywood.”

“This was not a Hollywood wedding by any means,” Qerim said. “It was either going to be enormous or really small. We were trying to figure out how to orchestrate this massive thing and we were just like, ‘Screw it. Let’s do it.’ There were 12 people there. It turned out perfect. The perfect day.”

They went to Turks and Cacaos and the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach for two “mini-honeymoons.”

“We lived it up because we knew it was back to the grind,” Qerim said.

The couple lives in Greenwich. Five days a week in Manhattan for First Take, which recently moved from Bristol, Qerim also hosts “Fantasy Football Now” on Sunday in Bristol.

Qerim was born at Yale New Haven Hospital. She played tennis at Cheshire High. She got her undergraduate degree at UConn in 2006 and master’s in journalism from Quinnipiac. Her first job was at ESPN.

“All Connecticut through and through,” Qerim said. “My father, who went to UConn, is a season ticketholder for men’s and women’s basketball and football since before Gampel. My mom went to Southern and got her master’s at UConn. When I was there the men and women both won the national championship in 2004. Incredible. When I was working for CBS Sports Network I was at the 2011 men’s national championship.”

As a kid she attended Celtics, UConn and Whalers games at the XL Center, the Yale Bowl for football, tennis in New Haven. The Qerims watched the Giants on Sunday.

“My dad will tell you Connecticut is the greatest state,’” said Qerim, of Albanian-Italian descent. “He goes. ‘Who’s better than us? Halfway between Boston and New York. We got four seasons!’ Guess what he does? Insurance. He should be the poster boy of Connecticut.”

Ray Allen is a favorite. She loves Jim Calhoun.

“Don’t say anything bad to me about Calhoun,” she said. “He’s the greatest.”

Somewhere between the gravitas of the late Tim Russert on Meet The Press and Vince McMahon mugging between two wrestlers, Qerim serves as the moderator of the daddy of TV sports argument. A few media observers cheekily have called it “the worst job in America.” Qerim is good at what she does.

“It’s a bit of a tap dance,” Querim said. “It’s also timing. We’re looking for heated debate, so I never want to interrupt it. You also want to move the conversation forward. You want to actively listen and hold the guys accountable. When I do step in with an opinion it’s usually to spark more debate.”

Kellerman?

“Max is the best, such a good guy,” Qerim said. “He’s so intelligent. And he’s cool. I love working with him. I loved working with Skip Bayless, too. When Max came in, I felt like I knew him my whole life.”

Stephen A.?

“We’ve worked together 31/2 years and I think we have really good chemistry. I feel like we know each other really well. I feel like I can read Stephen A. I don’t know if he’d say the same about me. He is the ultimate entertainer. He is a showman. People love not only what he has to say, but how he says it.

“The one question I get all the time is, ‘Do you actually like them,’” Qerim said, breaking into a laugh. “Yeah, I actually do. Sometimes they are screaming in my ears and I want to kill them both. I’m like, guys, we got to get to a commercial. They pay our bills.”

Qerim, who took over as host in 2015, recognizes the obvious. People who love the show really love it. And those who don’t?

“It can be polarizing, that’s the way it is with strong opinion,” she said.

My two cents? The show is the best it has been. At least for my taste, it’s finding the confluence of scream, cerebral and sensitivity.

“The No. 1 thing that helped me was I watched the show regularly before I was on,” she said. “I knew the pulse of the show. I consider myself the fan at home. ‘This is good, keep it going. Heard that, let’s move it on.’

“Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments when I’m fiery, and you’ll see it, but for the most part I’m pretty chill. I’m Switzerland. That’s my natural personality.”

She stood up for Eric Reid the other day. “He should be a starting safety in the NFL and he doesn’t have a job,” Qerim said. She was extremely hard on Urban Meyer and blistered Michigan State and the NCAA in the fallout of Larry Nasser’s heinous abuse. On this day, she echoed Smith’s call for harsher punishment against Cuban after allegations of sexual harassment by Terdema Ussery in the Mavericks’ office. Smith gave Qerim the final word.

“Cuban didn’t commit any of those acts,” Qerim said. “But he either turned a blind eye and hired people that were incompetent or he was aware and enabled this behavior. Neither are acceptable.

“I feel I have a responsibility to stand up for women who haven’t had a voice. It’s about what is right and wrong. We’re at a time in this country as women where we’re coming together and not going to stand for it.”

A few years ago, she criticized Colin Kapernick for wearing a Fidel Castro T-shirt and for praising Castro about improving education.

“I had family that was under communism (in Albania),” Qerim said. “I remember getting calls in the middle of the night screaming my dad’s name. They wanted help. They wanted medicine. I think it was an error in judgment praising Castro and don’t think he was fully aware, but it was very personal to me. I didn’t feel like we should be glorifying someone supporting communism. I know how it destroyed my family. Relatives shot and killed for no reason.”

Qerim calls Rose one of the best analysts in the industry, “a trendsetter,” and will often talk through topics with him.

“We watch and talk a ridiculous amount of sports,” Qerim said. “Sometimes I go, “We’ve got to shut it off the rest of the night.’ We’re so passionate about our careers.”

One matter Rose doesn’t have to face is constant judgment of appearance. At a previous employer, Qerim said she was body-shamed. She was being treated for endometriosis. She was in LA, away from her family, working early hours. She was on medication that caused her to gain weight.

“I remember the head of talent saying to the boss at the time, ‘Does Molly have a weight problem? What’s her deal?’ Or, ‘She’s kind of thick. Is she a little too ethnic? She’s OK for African-American audiences but not white audiences.’ That was a tough time.

“I want to stay in shape, look my best. It’s a visual medium. But what trolls say on the internet, I truly don’t give a damn. It used to bother me. Someone would say, ‘Oh, shut up you fat pig.’ It was crushing.”

No more. At 34, she’s comfortable in the star she has become. She’s battle tested and qualified to break up battles on sports media’s biggest stage.

“I realized I don’t need validation from a stranger,” Qerim said. “I’m more worried about screwing up details of Ussery-Cuban case than if people think my eyeliner looks bad. Or if I’m pregnant and I’m not.

“Relax. I ate a piece of pizza.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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