The Shape of the River
Last week, Leave the Man Alone (LMA) had an interesting post about the under-representation of Blacks in the sports blogosphere. LMA pointed out that Spike Lee had ponied up $1 million dollars to his alma mater, Morehouse college, to develop a sports journalism program that would encourage more African Americans to enter the field. As quoted by LMA, Spike Lee articulated the following reasons for endowing such a program:
I’m not going to make excuses for the Pacmans of the world, Tank Johnson and those guys.
I just think, historically, the black athlete has been demonized. If we can get our graduates into these positions with newspapers, magazines and television stations … hopefully we’ll get a more balanced view.”
LMA pointed out the low numbers of Black sports journalists:
Blacks hold only 6.2 percent of the sports writing jobs. Out of more than 300 newspapers, just five have a black sports editor. By contrast, nine out of 10 sports editors were white males, as were 84 percent of sports columnists. Still, those dire statistics don’t tell the whole story about the pipeline. For example, no insight on attrition, what types of publications Black sportswriters work at, what sports they cover and whether said writers are on track for columnist, editor or management positions.
But, LMA pointed out, there is also a dearth of African American sports bloggers and that this is more of a puzzle in some ways, because barriers to entry in blogging are so low:
One only has to look to the sports blogosphere to understand that Lee’s goals might be easier said than effectuated. To my knowledge, there are remarkably few Black people who choose to blog primarily about sports. Let’s see, there’s me, mighty mjd, ms. suns gossip, the starting five, nation of islam sportsblog, bench renaldo, jones on the nba, the commission… That list is based completely on my limited knowledge and I’m sure there are a few more I’m missing and some bloggers who haven’t “outted” their race, but you get the point. That’s not a lot of blogs, especially given that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of sports blogs with an audience beyond their immediate family.
This is a point of interest because blogging is completely voluntarily. No education required. No interview. No hook up. No internship. No undesirable assignments. Open up a blogger, wordpress or typepad account and you’re a writer. It’s just that simple. You don’t even need a computer. You can post from your cell phone. You can blog as little or much as you want. You can write any way you want. The blogs I listed are all very diverse in subject matter and style. It seems to me that if you wanted your voice to be heard, whether as a personal or professional pursuit, the blogosphere would be an ideal place to get started. Still, that many Black people don’t seem to be participating.
The blogosphere, arguably the most free of all journalistic venues, remains primarily the domain of 18-35 White males. Hey, I love White males as much as the next person, but I wonder why the sports blogosphere as not become as diverse as the people who are fans of sports. That goes for Blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians and all the rest.
One possible reason why there is a low incidence of Black bloggers, in sports and otherwise, could be the so-called digitial divide which, like everything else in America, has a racial hue. According to a 2005 study of home personal computers, internet access and broadband connectivity, African Americans are far behind Whites in terms of computer and internet access. For example, 40.5% of Blacks had internet access at home (as of 2003, the last year comprehensive government figures were available), whereas two thirds of Whites had such access. Furthermore, whites had twice the rate of broadband access as Blacks. Consequently, not only are fewer Blacks growing up in households with computers and internet access than Whites, but the size of audience for Black bloggers, assuming even some racial kinship in blog tastes, is dramatically lower.
I mention LMA and these data because I think this is, in part, the context in which Whites and Blacks seem to view the sports world (and the wider world) so differently. The polling data that ESPN reported a couple of weeks back, showing a dramatic difference in White and Black perceptions of Barry Bonds is, arguably, symptomatic of this larger information gap. The filter for our sports information – whether in print or on radio and television, or in the blogosphere – is an overwhelmingly White filter. This is one reason why I was sorry to see Stephen A. Smith’s Quite Frankly go off the air. Not infrequently, I find Smith to be annoying and his commentary off base, but he has long been spot on about the representation issues in American sports journalism and, as I wrote back in January, just before his show went off the air, Quite Frankly tried hard to address some of those representation issues:
I know the show’s ratings are weak, and other corners of the blogosphere are down on Stephen A. for his loud-mouthed shtick. And, he can be grating. But, Smith is doing something really interesting on his show. He has long made an issue of the under-representation of African Americans in sports journalism, and especially among the nation’s sports opinion columnists. In light of that reality, he’s decided to make his show a platform for what he considers to be some of the talented African American sports writers in America, making several of them regular commentators on his show. Rob Parker, Roy S. Johnson and the social commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson are among the regulars who bring alot to the discussion. Furthermore, Smith is not afraid to call his panelists on their points of view. One consequence of his style is that the more simplistic formulations about race are typically challenged, making for an unusual phenonemon on mainstream television: African Americans debating one another about race (and other issues of social significance). As an aside, another Smith favorite is Steve Malzberg, a (white) right-wing talk radio host and contributor to the popular conservative website, Newsmax.com. Smith’s commitment to a discussion in which everybody’s point of view will be subjected to scrutiny is clear and impressive.
I have no inside information on ESPN’s level of commitment to Quite Frankly, but there is no doubt that Smith is providing a forum for discussion – both in terms of content and, more significantly, participants – that is unique in major sports media.
What Smith did most successfully was open the door not to some singular Black perspective (there isn’t one, any more than there is a singular White perspective). Rather, Smith facilitated a conversation that showed that certain kinds of viewpoints were being systematically excluded because of the racial dynamics of sports media. It’s not that ESPN, for instance, has determined to ban Black voices. They obviously have not. It’s just that, as a whole, our sports media reflects (as do all media) the particular cultural biases of its practitioners. More than in other societies, there is a norm of objectivity in American journalism based on the presumption that information is itself objective, so that it doesn’t really matter who is providing it. But, knowledge and how we learn it is more complicated than that. One of the interesting and, it’s true, under-reported aspect of the recent study about NBA officiating was the finding of own-race bias, applicable to both Black and White referees. The theory of own-race bias proposes that we tend to judge folks more like ourselves in a more favorable and forgiving like than we do others.(as a quick aside, though most sports media absolutely pilloried the referee study and, in lockstep, cited the NBA’s own insistence that its study found no such bias, it went almost unreported that, two weeks later, it turned out that closer inspection of the NBA’s own data found the same bias that the original study did).
Applying that sensible and plausible-seeming theory to sports journalism – the divergence in views on Black athletes, for example, isn’t so surprising since an overwhelmingly white sports media is covering a substantially African American endeavor (particularly football and basketball). So, more Black journalists, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that we will get more objective journalism. It would likely mean, however, that our conversation will not be quite as monolithically biased as it is. It may have a greater diversity of biases, but that would still allow, it seems to me, for a broader and more full-bodied perspective on many of the issues that come up in sports discourse. On its own, when Chris Russo decries the thuggery in the NBA and dismisses fighting in hockey as no big deal, that’s just one man’s opinion. But, the bigger picture – the filter through which sports information and imagery is processed – is inevitably distorted by the concerns that LMA and Stephen A (and this blog, of course) have raised. It’s that filter that has created such two-dimensional protrayals of Black athletes – the saintly David Robinson, for instance, versus the villainous Barry Bonds. More Black journalists, therefore, won’t necessarily mean that everyone will come to love Barry. But, it might serve to fill in the spectrum between the extremes of Black and White with a little more color.