When it comes to attaining success in the sports industry — and in life — Jason Benetti has created his own blueprint.
The ESPN and Chicago White Sox play-by-play announcer has cerebral palsy, but his ability to laugh at himself has allowed him to build a career in a field that hasn’t always been accessible to those with disabilities.
“If I were giving advice, it would be just absolutely have a sense of humor about yourself, and don’t take yourself so seriously,” he said. “I’m in an industry that cares about what you look like, in some regard. Not that it was a major impediment, but people sort of have to be convinced that you should be on TV. But it’s just a matter of navigating the perceptive feelings of others, and that usually goes away.”
Benetti’s cerebral palsy manifests itself in a way that gives him an “unconventional” appearance, but he has been able to thrive despite his diagnosis.
“The cool thing is, it doesn’t look great, but it gets me where I’m going,” he said. “There’s no pain in any way, and it’s really not something I have to manage at all. I’m pretty fortunate that there are no lingering effects, other than things that are perceived by others — like, someone sees me walking toward them, sort of staggering toward them — but there’s no pain or increasing severity. I just am what I am.”
Recently, Benetti has taken on a venture apart from his sports career — one that capitalizes on his witty personality and dedication to disability awareness. With the help of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF), he has taken part in a campaign called “Awkward Moments.” The animated video series, written and voiced by Benetti, uses humor to chronicle awkward encounters between people with disabilities and the rest of the world.
“We decided to do something campaign-wise that hit on the dry, funny, observational part of having a disability because that’s the way I approach it,” Benetti said. “We talked for a long while and came upon this series. I love it, and I couldn’t love it more.”
“It holds a unique place where it addresses, head-on, the experiences that someone with disabilities has, and it tries to change the way people look at disabilities,” added Richard Ellenson, CEO of the CPF. “It’s our only animated campaign, the character has a terrific persona, and it’s a continuing series.”
As a former advertising creative director, Ellenson co-writes the series with Benetti, bringing his eye for sharp, witty commentary. He explained how the series fits into the CPF’s broader objective.
“Our mission is that we want to be a catalyst for creating new possibilities in the world of disabilities,” Ellenson said. “We look to amplify and communicate, and we are one of the strongest communicators in the field.”
The most recent episode of “Awkward Moments” detailed the uncomfortable exchanges that may occur in a museum, poking fun at the security guards who look on with apprehension as people with disabilities approach valuable artifacts.
Welcome back to Awkward Moments with @whitesox announcer, @jasonbenetti! This time, he goes to a museum and security makes a quick judgment about him and his ability. Has someone ever assumed you couldn't do something just by taking a quick glance at you? #AwkwardMoments pic.twitter.com/ctrQmkj6BF
— Cerebral Palsy FDN (@yourcpf) December 17, 2018
The point of the series is not to shame people for their treatment of those with disabilities, though, but rather to inform, entertain and spread awareness.
“We’re not trying to tell people they’re bad for being awkward around us, because you’re not,” Benetti said. “You’re just experiencing something you haven’t experienced a lot. I’d rather explain to people. I find it hilarious.”
The response to the videos has been positive, from everyday people to well-known media members, according to Benetti.
“It’s pretty heartwarming,” he said. “Scott Van Pelt and David Axelrod were nice enough to tweet about it, so I guess this has touched them in a way that they’d want to send it out.”
Although the series takes on a lighthearted tone, Benetti mentioned that it hasn’t always been easy to remain upbeat in his career. Like many people who’ve had to overcome obstacles, he’s gone through his fair share of moments of doubt.
“The thing that’s insidious about being someone with a disability or in a minority group is that when you aren’t getting opportunities, it’ll float in your head that maybe it’s because of X, but some people legitimately don’t care,” he said. “You just kind of play with what you have. You don’t know if there are opportunities you would’ve gotten otherwise. All I have is this life and me. It’s hard to not roll around in your mind when stuff isn’t happening, but what does it do for you?”
He added that he has great respect for those who dedicate themselves to taking on the system and fighting the status quo, but that he takes an alternate approach.
“That’s not to criticize people who pioneer — it’s just a different view of the system,” he said. “I tend to believe over the course of time that people don’t mean to discriminate, even if they slightly are. If they treat me in a way I don’t think others would want to be treated, you can get to know them further or give up. I prefer to get to know them.”
Benetti maintains that first impressions can be overcome, particularly because those impressions stem from the initial look at someone’s appearance and don’t reflect skill or work ethic.
“If there’s something about you that you don’t think is exactly welcome to some people, it’s OK,” he said. “If you have a thing you think people can’t overcome perceptually, you’re probably wrong. I’ve been fortunate that the effects of my disability have not touched my speaking, and that’s kind of why I leaned into this job. There’s a place for everybody, and the first thing people think about you is generally wrong.”
Ellenson, who has gotten to know Benetti well since collaborating with him on CPF initiatives, said that Benetti’s self-assurance is the reason he succeeds as both an announcer and as a person.
“He knows who he is,” Ellenson said. “He has a strong sense of identity — he’s open, yet strong, and he projects confidence, yet warmth. There’s an enthusiasm and warmth from his voice that is pretty unique in sportscasting, and it fills and illuminates the room.”
“He is one of those remarkable individuals who sort of walks through life embracing the complexity and joys around him,” he added. “He shares his passion for sports, life, and storytelling.”