Chatting with Hall of Famer Moses Malone and Earl Cureton…who were honored as well as other members of ’83 Championship Sixers team earlier this season…
African-American athletes make up for more than 66 percent of the players in the NFL and 82 percent of the players in the NBA. In 2006, a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed 95 percent of sports editors, 87 percent of assistant sports editors, 90 percent of columnists and 87.5 percent of sports reporters were white. Of the 303 newspapers that participated in that study, only three African-American and four Latinos were sports editors. Among columnists only 19 were African-American, 3 Latino and 2 Asian. The numbers aren’t much higher for women – 5 percent editors, 13 percent assistant editors, 7 percent columnists and 10 percent reporters.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Eric Daniels. Eric was an avid reader and supporter from the inception of The Starting Five and remained with us as long as his health would allow. Eric pushed us to think and excel as writers and although there were times when opinions and thoughts differed, Eric remained true to his standards. Thank you Eric for your support, encouragement as you become our inspiration moving forward.
Not exactly sure how much the needle has moved either way in the years since that study, but judging from my view there’s reason to shout.
I found very early in the sports journalism game that not having a formal education is not as big an obstacle as being African American for advancing in the field. I’m good enough and smart enough – I’m just not sure if the establishment wants too many of my race in heavy rotation.
The majority of credentials issued to print media and “stand alone media”- which The Starting Five falls under – are white. Is this indicative of the population or more about perspective? More than enough media credentials exist to accommodate Philadelphia sports media for every game, every night. For reasons that have become obvious, writers at The Starting Five are asked to jump through special hoops. Hoops not existing for other affiliates – such as constantly following up with emails and phone calls just to make sure our requests didn’t slip through the cracks for that event. We have to be especially detailed in what we do because the slightest oversight could be a tripwire to being on the outside looking in. The lack of African-American journalists in locker rooms across the country denies writers like myself the ability to give the reader more than just what occurred in the game the previous night. When I’m sitting with a player minutes before he goes to work, I realize that he has a life. A life with real issues in the same real world that we all live in. An athlete having a bad day or not wanting to deal with a common media member can go from being unhappy with his contract to just being a jerk altogether. In the case of any African-American athlete, that speculation is tenfold.
If a white dominated press has shaped America’s view of the African-American athlete in a negative way for decades, it would seem African-American journalists would seek to change that perception by giving the public more than what is just commonly written. Instead those same common writers fear stirring the pot, and are just as happy to piggyback a story instead of digging beneath the surface as they well should.
And that is where many African-American sports writers in the position to make a difference have failed to give America an alternative view of the Black Athlete.
A priority should be placed on developing young African-American writing talent outside of what is done here at The Starting Five. Can’t just play the game, African-Americans have to write the game as well.
The credentialing power lies within the public relations structure of sports franchises – people who are in my opinion taught to adhere to a certain quota of non-white reporters regardless of the outlet. In my interaction with these individuals, their intentions are evident, “Put a lid on the pot before it boils over.” I’m sure that their pre-season briefings are hypothetically, “Remember, we can’t control who they put on the floor or in the stands, but our power lies in who we have talking to these guys (players) and the less that it looks like a North Philadelphia street corner, the better.”
For the most part PR representatives are about their work and could care less about who’s covering what. Naturally, there are a few who use their false sense of authority to put their bigotry on display in the most subtle of tones. It can come in the form of accommodating TSF for games during the season – the majority being games vs. teams lacking a superstar or an approval for one playoff game in a seven game series. Try swallowing that pill when a writer – African-American or white – is credentialed for the season, doesn’t show up until the playoffs and is still accommodated. It’s only because TSF is trying to break through that we roll with the punches. To these public relations folk, walking around with a non-laminated 3×5 card around your neck with name and affiliation scribbled with a Sharpie, is a privilege and we’d better take it with a smile or get to steppin’!
It becomes more frustrating when I’ve done my due diligence as a writer only to have to knock a little harder and longer the next time out. Working twice as hard as the next guy because I’m from a stand alone site focusing on the African-American athlete is a given, and that is the story of most of our African-American lives. I would like just as much attention paid to me for reasons to keep inviting me back as they have reasons for wanting to keep me out. Coverage of a game usually begins after leaving my 9 to 5. I’m usually one of the first from the media showing up at the arena, first in the visitor’s locker room and one of the first with an inquiry in the post game presser. I remember the first time I asked a question in a press conference and I noticed heads turning because it was someone other than who they would’ve expected asking a question and it wasn’t nothing slow pitch softball. That was a great feeling because the elephant in the room had just stood up. And while none of those writers felt threatened by my presence, I viewed each one of them as a measuring stick and a soon to be a notch on my belt each time their pens touched paper after I made an inquiry to a coach or player. That was my victory and validation that I was in the right place.
With Hall of Fame NBA legend, Dominique Wilkins…
One benefit I never paid much attention to was actually building a professional relationship with some of the players. Sometimes I’m greeted openly in the form some dap and a shoulder hug instead of eyes rolling skyward and a player dipping into the training room when I show up. Quite naturally, some white reporters give the scene that it must be a Black thing expression, while the PR representative wanting to keep me out is seething inside.
“False media, we don’t need do we?“
There’s no doubt African-American athletes would welcome more Black press into the locker rooms. Someone they relate to in ways that a white reporter would not understand (this is a Black thing). Could a white reporter relate to Allen Iverson about walking through sewage-filled floors before becoming a generational icon in the NBA? I doubt it. For the greater part of his career, the only thing reporters seemed to worry about was the number of practices Iverson brushed off in a week, or which Philly club he and his entourage…I mean posse occupied the night before. Should any writer worth his/her salt feel comfortable writing a story that they have trouble understanding on any level? Yes, they should. The Struggle is the calling card of today’s African-American athlete no matter how they’re viewed by the rest of the world. The majority of those covering them have no clue of any struggle and are not about that life. If reading ten stories about Iverson’s upbringing, nine will sound the same, while the one with the most passion and sensibility never makes it to print.
Why did we find out nearly a year later that Terrelle Pryor signed Ohio State memorabilia for money to keep his mother and sister off the street? African-American and also white journalists lambasted Pryor for bringing down the Ohio State program. Pryor was also seen as costing Jim Tressel his job but it was Tressel who was oblivious to the actions of his star player and African-American journalists failed to dig deeper in getting to the root of Pryor’s dilemma. So what happens? A young man’s reputation is ruined and he’s left to pick up the pieces and continue on his own the best way he knows how – falling back on those same survival skills that cost him his collegiate career. Where white reporters see the cars, expensive clothes and jewelry and think Pryor is in it for himself, African-Americans who aren’t journalists have the instinct to look one layer beneath the surface and see that there is a 90 percent chance that this kid is sending money home. He is sending money home to keep a younger brother from falling victim to the streets or a baby sister from running with the wrong guy.
The relationship between African-American athletes and white reporters is awkward at best and at the end of the day that player is reluctantly emptying his soul to someone whose color represents the root of his struggles. Hypothetically he may say to himself: “A white man fired my dad to hire another white man and because of that a white man cut our lights off. My white coach took me in only because I could dunk a ball like no one else and wants to cash in later. Now this white reporter wants me to give him a lily-white story of my struggles so he can make some green to feed his white family.” It’s hard to build any sense of real trust when every door that was closed in your life was at the end of a white hand.
It’s equates being at Augusta National on Masters weekend, having five minutes with (name white golfer here) and that conversation last all of 15 seconds. Reason: there is no common ground between that golfer and myself. Color plays a role but it isn’t the sole reason. His first thought is hypothetically, “What does he know about golf?” I can’t relate to the that golfer being a child of privilege. Nowhere in our timelines can we ever relate to one another on a socio-economic plane, so in his conscience I’m already inferior to him and his way of life. Being on the grounds of Augusta where I’m welcomed reluctantly even as a journalist solidifies his feeling.
If professional sports incorporates a plantation philosophy, then the American sports media is the last line of defense between the African-American athlete and the level playing field non-existent since our arrival on slave ships to America.
The lack of diversity in the press rooms and locker rooms around the country is a simple game of divide and conquer. As long as there are people in the press seeking to reinforce stereotypes about African-American athletes as opposed to a respectable percentage that mirrors the African-American presence in sports, it only highlights the problem. Black athletes will continue to be conditioned to the white hand at the end of every microphone or recorder which becomes a whip of recorded words held against him if he/she chooses to get out of line.
That playing field will be hard to come by as long as the majority of reports and columns read have the same opinion and bias. If there’s only one side to the story, how can an intelligent opinion develop? It’s almost conditioning the reader to not think for themselves or outside of the box they’ve become accustomed to. So, when it comes down to an opinion of an African-American athlete, he’s already stereotyped and placed in the all too familiar categories: pampered, selfish, childish and troubled with an attitude problem before the story hits the web or your newsstand.
My goal as a writer is to continue to seek the good in every athlete (and scrutinize when needed), instead of mimicking the lazy and all too tired narrative seeking to disparage the African-American athlete first and ask the right questions later. The reputation and image of the African-American athlete is of the utmost importance because it has been misunderstood, misconstrued and mismanaged from Jack Johnson through LeBron James.