Squawk to Me: Gray takes calls three hours every weeknight on WOL-AM.
Squawk to Me: Gray takes calls three hours every weeknight on WOL-AM. Credit: Charles Steck

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Former D.C. schoolboy football star Cato June was arrested on a drunk-driving charge last week in Tampa, Fla., where he now plays for the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mark Gray suggested the bust might be part of a larger story.

“They’re winning!” Gray said on WOL-AM last Monday, the night after June got popped. “Normally, if you’re a player on a team that is winning, you catch a break!”

Gray, as regular listeners of his underappreciated sports-talk show, The Sports Groove, could tell, was half-joking.

But only half.

Gray has devoted a lot of airtime to the police blotter this year. June isn’t the only guy who hasn’t been, well, catching a break. The stories about Pacman Jones and Marion Jones and Tank Johnson and Barry Bonds have Gray worried, and he wants to talk about it.

“Is the black athlete under attack in 2007?” Gray asked his audience last week.

That exact riff or one like it has become a regular feature on Gray’s show, which airs nightly for three hours from WOL’s Lanham studios.

Gray, a D.C. native who grew up in Baltimore and attended Morgan State University, did radio for ESPN before coming to WOL in 2002. And during his time in Bristol, he says, he tried soaking up everything possible from fellow ESPN’er Ralph Wiley, who could be counted on to put every game story in a social and probably racial context.

“Whenever I’d talk to Ralph, it was like the Cosby Show, when Theo was talking to Bill, like I was sitting at his knee,” says Gray, 41. “It was that profound. I think about all the tidbits I got from him all the time.”

Wiley died in 2004 at the age of 52. But his influence on Gray seems particularly plain whenever talk turns to Jones or Bonds on the Groove. Gray isn’t likely to waste time debating the morality of using performance-enhancing drugs. He’ll leave that to all the other sports-talk shows.

Gray would rather ask the audience to think about why the federal government would waste so much tax money and time policing steroid use in the sports realm and why more people aren’t upset that the federal government is wasting time and tax money policing steroid use in the sports realm. He points out, again and again, that the Bonds investigation took four years, and that Jones’ offenses go back to the 2000 Olympics.

“All that time, and they get them for lying?” he says.

And when the Notre Dame football woes are brought up on the Sports Groove, Gray won’t blame the problems on Charlie Weis’ presence in South Bend so much as Ty Willingham’s absence.

When NPR was putting together a piece this summer about blacks who thought the Michael Vick prosecution was about more than ridding the world of a dog hater, the network came to the host of the Sports Groove.

Gray didn’t defend Vick at all—he said he thinks about Tippy, his beloved childhood dog, and cringes whenever the former Atlanta QB’s behaviors come up. But, as he does all the time on WOL, he asked everybody to look at the big picture.

“There’s something we have to deal with in terms of certain segments of society not wanting African-Americans and personalities and athletes to be successful, to be idolized in certain communities,” Gray said over the airwaves, “and Michael Vick put himself in a position where he could be torn down.”

Flame-throwing isn’t frowned upon anywhere in talk radio, and it has long come with the territory at WOL—Al Sharpton’s got a show that airs on the station daily.

But nobody at WOL throws a cooler flame than Gray. And it’s never not obvious that Gray is doing a sports show, even as he’s taking the listener from the Jena 6 to the Big 10.

The Sports Groove also spends a lot more energy covering hyperlocal sports than any other sports-talk show in the market. He had a regular dialogue all season long with Howard’s first-year football coach, Carey Bailey. Gray, and Gray alone, touted the Beacon House Falcons, a peewee football club out of Northeast’s Edgewood Terrace, for advancing to next week’s Pop Warner national championships in Orlando, and he asked listeners to help the team get there.

Gray had no choice but to devote the opening of last Wednesday’s show to a debate about the Washington Wizards’ season, since news of Gilbert Arenas’ knee surgery was only a few hours old when the Groove went on the air.

But Gray was also aware that this was the night before the city’s public high school football championship. So he used an entire segment to air an interview with Craig Jefferies, head coach for perennial champion Dunbar.

All the other area sports-talkers ignored the championship game, attendance at which has long been mandatory for thousands of downtown sports fans.

“The certainties in life are death, taxes, and Dunbar in the Turkey Bowl!” Gray told Jefferies.

Gray was also the only sports-talker to regard DeMatha recently winning another Catholic-league football title as being worthy of airtime.

Gray says he goes to the high school level and the hyperlocal material partly because the sports stations in town have all the bigger bases, namely the Redskins, already covered.

“The mainstream shops aren’t doing things on high schools and stuff about Johnny that’s important to Johnny’s Mom and Grandma,” he says. “Take the Redskins. Well, over at [competitor WTEM-AM], they got two guys who were with the Redskins and are wearing [Super Bowl] rings, so I can’t win that battle. So I take the opportunity to tell stories that nobody else is telling.”

And no matter where Gray wants to take his show, listeners sometimes steer him back to the mainstream.

Shortly after Gray threw out another reference to the “Year of the Black Athlete Under Attack,” a caller named Shorty came on to declare he will be waiting for Vick at the prison gate when he’s released.

Then Shorty showed that he really wanted to talk about the Redskins. The main problem with the team, he’d determined, is that “they don’t have enough criminals.”

“They need another Dexter Manley!” said Shorty.