Sports Journalism: The (White) Men Behind the Curtain

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“Trouble is, it’s impossible to have a serious discussion about race without also mentioning class. And that’s even more frowned upon ’round these parts. Rather than substantive debate, what’s usually conducted instead is a chat about symbols. There’s usually a problem differentiating between the signifier and the signified, but hey, the media don’t exist for your edification, or even for your amusement. They’re here to sell your eyeballs to advertisers.” — March 4, 2001

“There’s also a cheerful historical tone to commentary. Things do just happen in a vacuum. Who has time to provide context? People have short attention spans, and there’s a commercial break coming up.” — April 29, 2002

— Aaron Hawkins

the great myth of sports is that athletic ability keeps you safe from the judgment of society. as long as you can run and jump and shoot and catch and score, you can exist inside the safe zone of money and heroism.

and then I got into sports journalism, and lemme tell ya, you’re about as safe there as you are from a white woman’s fingers in your hair while in line at a Starbucks.

that’s because it’s full of mediocre white men who’ve been able to advance or stay in these positions because nepotism, because white people only watch out for white people, because the pipeline that feeds new writers into this industry is continuously filtering out people of color and diverse genders and sexualities.

these are the guys who work in newsrooms and never come out. who cover your high school and college games – especially college because there’s so much unchecked toxic masculinity and racist undertones on campuses. but you know that, don’t you?

these are the guys who couldn’t play professionally and decided that they would stay as close as possible to the sport. I can’t blame them for that, tho. by the time I was 19, I had planned the same thing.

these are guys who don’t have any kind of nuanced understanding about race. who see black people as threats until they throw on a jersey and help live out some childhood, curse-breaking fantasy. they can analyze a game but can’t see why a Redskins or Indians mascot might be offensive to indigenous people. even their game analysis is bland and surface level as hell. I’ve been in press conferences and post-game lockerrooms where reporters literally ask the same questions after every game and get the same answers. why do you think most clichés come from sports?

Just Get Out There and Play

that’s sports culture for you, tho, where athletes don’t have to respond with depth or knowledge of their own sports, let alone societal and systematic oppression. you aren’t supposed to be able to say concise, thoughtful, meaningful answers. you’re supposed to just get out there and play.

so what happens is when one sparks a nationwide protest that’s duplicated by youth and professional athletes across the country, we have journalists who can’t ask a decent follow-up question.

Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem kneel was broken by a journalist of color, which led to people asking why there aren’t more black sports journalists. the vast majority of black sports personalities are people who come with an athletic background (i.e. former players and coaches). those are the people who get the most airtime. where does that leave talented journalists who have the foresight and contextual intelligence to cover sports but don’t have a career to their name? jobless and unable to break into an industry they care about a lot. It’s because we can’t get through the ringer of that system.

Not Enough ‘Diverse’ Candidates

From an article published last year by the ColumbiaJournalism Review:

When BuzzFeed asked Ben Williams, digital editorial director of NYMag.com, what would make it easier for him to hire more diverse candidates, he expressed a common sentiment—that there are not enough candidates. “It’s well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough ‘diverse’ candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with,” he’s quoted as saying. “So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white … employees into the profession to begin with.”

just in case you think I’m salty about using my journalism degree as a paper towel to clean car windshields.

until we get more black and brown people that represent the spectrum – until our numbers mirror those of the athletes who compete in these leagues – we won’t have the context that apparently only a white liberal history professor or a black American can provide. part of the reason I got out of sports journalism was because it unapologetically seeks out, chews up and spits out young black athletes with little to no equitable real-life skills.

when I was in college and going to conferences to meet other sports journalists, many times I was the only black woman in those rooms. my queerness has kept me from going to larger conferences like those with the National Association of Black Journalists, but even at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association’s national conference, not only was I one of the only black people there, I was also one of the only black women.

None of These People Look Like Me

ESPN, because it bills itself as The Worldwide Leader In Sports, has worked hard to reflect the diversity of the sports industry; however, none of these people look like me. when I say me I’m speaking about being a black queer masculine-presenting woman. SportsCenter now has an impressive roster of women anchors, but they’re all feminine, which says a lot considering how much masculine-of-center women have given to sports.

when the Olympics were trending and we were seeing the treatment that women athletes were given in newspaper front pages and sports pages, please know that’s just indicative of staffing and of the way men think of women’s sports. the sports industry is going to be the last bastion that feminism breaks through.

if we talk about accurate representation, let’s also remember that mostly white men cover the WNBA.

(WNBA image credit: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39457242)

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Princess McDowell is a poet, writer and journalist from Dallas, Texas. She's released a CD of poetry entitled Not A Storybook <3 and a chapbook named faith move muscle. She's currently writing her first fiction novel. She can be reached at princess.mcdowell@gmail.com

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