A mountain of research demonstrates that sports media has not yet outgrown its history of racism against black athletes.
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Bradley Zimanek, a Montgomery Advertiser columnist, stirred quite the dust-up early this college football season when he suggested that ESPN personality Andre Ware favored Blake Sims as Alabama quarterback because both are black. The column caused a great outcry at the Worldwide Leader and even prompted Ware to go on The Paul Finebaum Show and deny the claim.
The column is flimsy at best, perpetuating the stereotype that black people are monolothic, even robotic in their behavior. One wonders if the author would contemplate whether he, in turn, would favor Sims' competition Jake Coker simply because he and Coker are both white. Such a statement would be ridiculous, of course. Or would it?
If you believe the research, the problem isn't broadcasters like Ware lobbying for black athletes. The problem is white broadcasters and sports writers favoring white athletes over black ones. And it has been happening for decades.
It's not overt. No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback. Rather—and this situation has improved recently— the overwhelmingly white sports media consistently uses terms that enhance the image of white athletes while dismissing black athletes as being over-reliant on their natural gifts. White athletes are smart, hardworking, team players. Black athletes are freaks and beasts who get by on their natural gifts as opposed to their work ethic, which perpetuates the broader stereotype of black people as lazy.
The earliest research on this subject emerged as pro football solidified its hold on TV audiences in the 1970s. A 1977 study by Raymond Rainville and Edward McCormick (Extent of Covert Racial Prejudice in Pro Football Announcers' Speech) that analyzed NFL broadcasts matched players of different races according to their stats (fantasy football meets content analysis!). They found that white players were more likely to be praised for good plays, while black players were more likely to be criticized for bad plays.
Almost 20 years later, James Rada of Ithaca College studied NFL broadcaster comments, in his study, Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television's Coverage of Professional Football Games. He found that when they described individual players, they would highlight intellect-related qualities for white players, but physical qualities (particularly their appearance) for black players.
In a 2005 follow-up study—Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports—Rada looked at college football and basketball games. He again compared comments, but went deeper. His follow-up study actually found that positive comments about the intellect of players were equally distributed. Negative comments about intellect, however, were more often aimed at black players. As for comments about character, again, white athletes received a disproportionate share of positive comments, while black players were more likely to be the focus of negative character comments. And when the athletes were the subject of human interest stories—well, you can imagine which ones got the negative stories.
The situation has improved over the years. Andrew Billings (now at Alabama, then at Clemson) looked at broadcast descriptions of NFL quarterbacks in 2002—a time when black quarterbacks were not only emergent, but also prominent (Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick). In Depicting the Quarterback in Black and White: A Content Analysis of College and Professional Broadcast Commentary, Billings found that while many descriptors were equally distributed, physical skill was the main difference. If a black quarterback succeeded, it was attributed to his physical gifts. (Interestingly, if a white quarterback failed, the same factor was cited—but on the debit side.)
So what's the big deal, you might ask. If all this talk is stealthy and unintentional we can resist the message, right? Not exactly. The very power of TV exposure is in its long-term subtlety. Considering the society-wide ritual that sports viewing has become, we can safely assume frequent long-term viewing, which means years and decades of having stereotypes quietly drilled into the American subconscious. While it's tough to measure such impact directly, that doesn't mean it's not real.
And don't think the problem is going away quickly. This kind of racial profiling still emerges in recent studies, and the phenomenon even happens within college sports information offices. A 2010 study led by George Cunningham of Texas A&M (Race Ideology Perpetuated: Media Representations of Newly Hired Football Coaches) looked at releases announcing the hires of new assistant coaches.
The releases were likely to describe white coaches as great strategists, while black coaches were noted for their recruiting skills and relationships with players. Little wonder then that black coaches have a difficult time landing head coaching jobs. The coaching stereotype implies that to hire a minority coach is equivalent to handing the asylum over to the inmates.
Perhaps the recent success of black coaches such as Mike Tomlin, David Shaw, and Kevin Sumlin will finally put such stereotypes to rest. But even Sumlin faced whispers that his coaching success was attributable to talented quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel. Maybe A&M's success this year will put the final nail in that coffin—Michigan fans certainly are bristling at reports that Sumlin was passed over in favor of Brady Hoke. But at this point, the stereotypes are still kicking around.
Further, realize that these research results are not a byproduct of cherry picking by agenda-driven researchers. Most of these content analysis projects are rigorous, coding many hours of game broadcasts over a broad time span. The data consists of thousands of broadcaster comments —and those folks talk quite a bit. As for specific coding decisions—what's considered positive and negative, what's an intellect comment vs. a physicality comment—that is decided early on, and often more than one person codes the content.
Readers, of course, are free to reject the findings of any academic based on their own biases. Climate change isn't man made, right? Actually, facts are facts and the fact is that black people were once banned from professional and college sports. While participation has equalized—exceeded equalization in some sports—the inheritance of centuries of mistreatment of black people in America endures. One of the many remaining obstacles to true equality—justice even— is lingering in the way people talk about race, even when they don't realize they are talking about race. The media isn't responsible for all of this, but it is responsible for closing the gap in its treatment of black athletes.
John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism and a sports reporting history geek at Auburn University. (Yes, he was there for both the miracle catch against Georgia and the last-second punt return against Alabama.) He discusses sports media professional issues on his Twitter feed.