January is a month of sports news. From college bowl games to NFL playoffs, we hide from the cold and indulge our inner fanatics. As someone who’s made a career of chronicling sports, it’s both an exciting and troubling time, because it reminds me that sports media remains a bastion of white privilege in journalism.
I covered my first World Series in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2008 at Tropicana Field, when the Tampa Bay Rays squared off against the Philadelphia Phillies. As I walked into the stadium, it was packed with fans and full of energy, and I was reminded of my love for the beat I work. But when I made my way to the press box, I suddenly realized the real story wasn’t on the field. As I entered press row, I was first shocked by how many journalists were there—nearly 1,000—and then more stunned by how few of them looked like me, a person of color.
So while most of the writers on hand for Game 1 were watching the play with a keen eye, I spent my time researching the industry pioneers who set the table for African-American writers like myself today. I had nine innings to identify just how lily white the sports media has always been, and to chronicle how little has changed in terms of diversity over time.
It’s clear African Americans, and people of color broadly, have made strides as athletes. Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 sparked even greater African-American participation in the National Football League and, later, the National Basketball Association. Notably, Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball not only helped begin the methodical task of integrating professional sports, it helped tear down the color bar for the entire country as well.
American Newsrooms in the 1940s were as segregated as the society they reported on. Unable to be hired by white-owned newspapers, African-American journalists instead worked largely for predominately black-owned newspapers. But a handful of African-American writers like Wendell Smith, Joe Bostic and Sam Lacy still wielded their pens to push baseball toward integration.
In the 1940’s, writers like Lacy, who wrote for 60 years for the Baltimore Sun, were granted media credentials to cover Major League games, but were sometimes denied entry into the press box. On other occasions, whites allowed Lacy to cover games from the dugout—sitting on top of it.
Today, the number of African-American journalists writing at mainstream outlets remains appallingly low. According to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports, whites account for 94 percent of sports editors, 89 percent of assistant sports editors, 88 percent of columnists, 87 percent of reporters and 89 percent of copy editors.
As a result, the vast majority of what we digest about professional sports—which are dominated by black athletes—is written, edited and reported by white journalists. The NBA’s players are 80 percent black. In the NFL, African Americans are 68 percent of players, and they are 10 percent in Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press Sports Editors, African Americans make up just 10.6 percent of all sports positions at mainstream newspapers.
This lack of diversity often contributes to inaccurate and flawed reporting on African-American athletes. The largest sports story of 2010 was NBA star LeBron James’ much-maligned decision to move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat. Seemingly endless hours of airtime have been filled by chronicling fans’ outrage at James abandoning Cleveland, but very little coverage has explored the racially tinged nature of that uproar.
It took CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, who identifies as biracial and is not a sports journalist, to ask James about race. O’Brien asked James if he thought race was a factor in the tone fans were taking about his business decision. “I think so, at times. There’s always, you know, a race factor,” James responded. His manager Maverick Carter put a finer point on it: “It definitely played a role in some of the stuff coming out of the media, things that were written for sure.”
Later, James revealed Twitter messages backing up his claim. One of the Tweets characterized James as a “”a big nosed big lipped bug eyed (racial slur). Ur greedy, u try to hide ur ghettoness,” according to ESPN.
Few sports reporters followed up on the story with questions about if and how race plays a role in the way in which fans react to the overwhelmingly black athletes they watch on television. Nor has anyone explored why white athletes like, say, NFL quarterback Brett Farve maintain enormous popularity and good-guy reputations despite well-documented off-the-field bad behavior, while black athletes like James become synonymous with bad sportsmanship.
Amid the James story last year, a Q Score poll came out ranking public opinion about athletes. The six most-hated were all black: Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Where are the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong and Mark McGwire, all of whom have been in trouble with the law, had doping scandals or otherwise shown bad behavior on or off the field in recent years? Where are the white guys? Sports reporters and editors showed no curiosity about this question.
Richard Lapchick is the director for the Instituted of Diversity and Ethics in Sports. He suggests media diversity can enhance the overall quality of sports reporting—both in getting things right and in finding more interesting story lines than the I-hate-LeBron-James drumbeat of 2010. “The chance to make the stories more interesting and, in some cases, more accurate, should be apparent,” says Lapchick. “In addition to the writing of the stories, the assigning of the stories by a sports editor might take a different angle in coverage if there was a team more representative of our athletes and coaches making those decisions.”
So why, then, aren’t there more people of color on the sports desks of mainstream news?
“Exposure and retention are huge issues,” said ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who is black, when I asked her that question. “A lot of our kids think the only way they can be connected to the game is by playing or coaching it. We have to show them there’s another way.”
But it’s not just about choices would-be journalists of color make; it’s also about who their erstwhile employers recruit, train and promote. And on that score, history reveals white powers-that-be are slow to change unless they are either forced to do so or they spot an economic benefit from it. Integrating Major League Baseball, for instance, infused the league with new fans. When African-American players began integrating white teams, attendance dropped for Negro League games because many of the best players, like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, were fleeing to sign Major League contracts. African-American fans followed their favorite ballplayers, and this wider audience made Major League teams more profitable.
I also asked ESPN’s Hill if African-American writers have a responsibility to talk openly about these structural forces that keep press boxes so white. Her answer sums up why I spent that 2008 World Series writing about race rather than base hits, and why my mind is there instead of on the gridiron this January.
“We would look foolish if we maintained silence just to make ourselves or others comfortable,” Hill offered. “Our job is to speak for those who don’t have a voice and tell uncomfortable truths.”