Late last year, AOL Fanhouse columnist David Whitley wrote a column chiding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for sporting tattoos, starting off by saying:
Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos. I don’t know that as fact, but I’ve watched enough “Lockup” to know it’s close to accurate.
And then continuing:
NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.
As I read this, I noticed that the column had taken a turn into some dangerous territory. This line of attack perpetuates a stereotype that says that African-Americans are somewhat inherently criminal. I guess the fact that Kaepernick graduated from the University of Nevada with a degree in business management would not have fit in the ‘prison’ narrative Whitley was going for.
The one solution to this sort of problem is, of course, to diversify sportswriting, but when I go to media events around town, I can’t help but notice that I am one of the few African-Americans I see. For example, I went to the media reception at the Cubs Convention earlier this year, and the only African-Americans I saw in attendance were myself and WCIU’s Kenny McReynolds. A couple of months later, I went to a similar media reception for Sox Fest. Laurence Holmes, Micheal Mayden, Ryan Baker and yours truly were the only black media professionals I came across.
I’ve always wondered why there was such as discrepancy between the number of black sportswriters and the number of black athletes. Even though two other African-Americans have contributed to ChicagoSide in the past, I’m the only one who contributes on a regular basis. Come to think of it, I’m one of the few African-American sportswriters at the other websites where I write. I don’t blame the publications, It’s just something I notice. I appreciate those sites for allowing me to add my own ingredients to the mix.
As a journalism student, I didn’t want to write about sports until I started to notice the dearth in the number of sportswriters of color. When there’s a lack of diversity in sportswriting, the complete story isn’t told. Ernest Shepard is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report, and he says he’s struggled to understand the lack of black sportswriters as well.
“With so much talent that is available, to not see African-Americans have a stronger presence in that industry is troubling,” Shepard said over e-mail (all interviews for this story were conducted via e-mail). “I feel as though there is extra scrutiny for African-Americans looking to get into the sports media industry.”
Kevin Blackistone, professor of journalism of the University of Maryland is known more for being a frequent contributor of ESPN’s talk show, “Around The Horn.” In 2011, Blackistone authored a study exploring the reasons for the lack of African-American sportswriters: “The Whitening of Sports Media and The Coloring of Black Athlete’s Images.” The study cited a report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that sports departments were led almost exclusively by white men. The report stated that the percentage of sports editors who were women or people of color declined from 11.7 percent in 2008 to 9.42 percent in 2010.
The study also notes:
That lens of a predominantly white sports media also treated black athletes in a pejorative manner more often than it did white athletes. Black athletes have been presented as more self-centered, arrogant, and mercenary.
ClickOnDetroit.com sports columnist and former ESPN contributor, Rob Parker, believes that the reason there is a lack of African-American sportswriters is due to the economy.
”Sadly, most of the strides made by African Americans in the sports media in the past have been eroded away,” he says. “When the economy goes bad, we are usually shown the door first, mostly because we were the last hired. Plus, news organizations care little about diversity when they are in survival mode.”
Parker also believes that if there are not enough African-American sportswriters, the entire story of an athlete will not be told.
”It’s a sad situation,” he says. “Diversity is so important in sports media. You want to hear as many voices as possible, especially in sports. The last thing you want is mostly white reporters talking about mostly black players. It’s hard to get the full story told.”
According to a study by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), journalists of color make up roughly 12 percent of the newsroom employees at daily newspapers. That’s down 0.5 percent from the 2011 number ,which was down the same amount from 2010.
Eric Stephens, the Anaheim Ducks beat writer for the Orange County Register, believes that the journalism field is not appealing to young people these days.
“I wonder, in this day and age of instant gratification and the idea of “getting paid,” whether the field is seen as glamorous or desirable enough for young black men or women,” Stephens says. “Are they willing to put in the time—which in my case is over two decades—and work to hone this craft? I hope so but I really don’t know.”
Jonathan Hood is an on air personality ESPN 1000, along with being a teacher at the Illinois Center for Broadcasting. Hood says he sees signs that things are improving.
“I would love for aspiring broadcasters of color to achieve success as I did,” Hood said. “Chicago’s own Jason Goff and Laurence Holmes, Miami’s Sports Brothers (Ed Freeman and Jeff Fox), Bay Area’s Rod Brooks, Indianapolis’s Michael Grady, Milwaukee’s Steve Haywood and many others across the country have made it in sports, radio and are writing and broadcasting more than ever before; I’m encouraged by that.”
Maya Akai, the co-host for WVON 1690’s “The Sports Cypher,” says there is no one answer to why there are so few African-Americans in sports media.
“I don’t think there is a direct answer that can explain why there are few African-Americans in sports media,”she says. “It could be because they are not being hired or it could be because those jobs are few and far between and how many people are pursuing journalist jobs??”
I’m not calling for a Rooney Rule for journalists but something has to be done. Getting a half or a part of a story still isn’t good enough. Hopefully, things will change sooner rather than later, and columnists will no longer have to glean their insight from “Lockup.”