- Kevin Blackistone
At its most basic, sports journalism is the collection, editing, interpretation, and dissemination of information, or news, through media about athletic competitions, athletes, and developments revolving around athletic events and their participants. At its most complex, sports journalism is a prism through which society sees itself by identifying the groups that comprise it, like African Americans, and framing and shaping a cultural narrative to understand itself.
Early History of Sports Journalism in the United States.
In 1733, forty-three years after the first newspaper was published in the colonies, the Boston Gazette reported a local boxing match between John Faulcomer and Bob Russel. It is believed to be the first sports report in a North American newspaper or magazine.
In 1819, American Farmer magazine debuted as the first medium dedicated to sports in the United States. Over the next fifteen years, six more magazines devoted to sports began publishing. All were owned and operated by white men—a theme that remains almost unchanged two centuries later—and tended to cover almost exclusively the most respected and organized sport at the time, horseracing, an import from England via Arabia.
Intersection of Sports Journalism and African Americans.
Among the tasks forced upon enslaved Africans in the colonies was the training of horses. Indeed, when Virginia passed a law in 1705 permitting landowners to list slaves as property, slaves who trained horses were among the first cataloged. The slaves who trained horses became the predominant riders who raced horses in the nineteenth century and, as such, they became the first African Americans identified as athletic competitors and covered by the embryonic sports media in the United States. Those African Americans were by and large the first written about by the media in the United States, beyond advertisements selling slaves that first appeared in 1704 in the Boston Gazette. Thus were laid the racial roots of sports journalism in the United States, which was, and continues to be, mostly white men interpreting the exploits of black athletes.
Among the earliest mentions by the media of an enslaved African athlete appeared in the Spirit of the Times, one of the most successful sports periodicals born between 1820 and1835. It reported in 1837 that an unidentified slave boy rode the winning horse in the New Orleans Jockey Club’s Jockey Purse, at the time the richest purse ($2,000) in the country, and was showered with “hatsful of dollars” for a masterful ride.
One of the first African American athletes identified as a star by the sports media was a former slave, Abe Hawkins, who rode to prominence in the years immediately following the Civil War. The New Orleans Times wrote of Hawkins after he won two major races in 1866: “He is probably the best rider on the continent, is a dwarf in size but well formed, and knows the ropes like a book!”
The Kentucky Derby became not just the most revered horserace in the United States when it started in 1875, but the most revered sporting event in the nineteenth century. Its inaugural run included fifteen horses, thirteen of which were mounted by black jockeys. In 1884, Isaac Murphy, the son of a slave, won the first of what would become a record three Derbies. The Kentucky Derby Jubilee wrote of Murphy then: “Buchanan, fractious at the post, was away poorly, but Isaac Murphy, his negro jockey, saved ground for three-quarters of a mile, and then Murphy called upon him for his best effort.”
The Social Aspect of Sports Journalism’s Coverage of African American Athletes.
In 1851, Spirit of the Times reported that Hawkins was expelled from the Metarie (La.) Jockey Club on a charge of throwing a race. It was an accusation that echoed suspicions from white citizens of enslaved Africans, and their progeny, as dishonest. It became one of many racial stereotypes in the white-owned and -operated sports media for years to come that either created or perpetuated unfounded ideas about African Americans, athletes and otherwise, in the public psyche.
The lens constructed by white sports media to view sports was built primarily to serve white audiences, not the black athletes so often the subjects of sports coverage. As such, white sports journalists often supported rather than challenged stereotypes steeped in beliefs of racial superiority. Most infamously, studies of sports broadcasts in the second half of the twentieth century have shown how the success of black athletes was credited to their perceived natural athletic ability, while the success of their white counterparts was tied to diligence and, most important, intelligence. The basketball star Michael Jordan was lauded for his athleticism; the white basketball star Larry Bird was lauded for making brilliant plays.
That same lens also more often treated black athletes in a pejorative manner than it did white athletes. Black athletes have been presented as more self-centered, arrogant, and mercenary. They are more often described with words and phraseology that infantilized them. For example, a 2009 study of differences in the coverage of black and white athletes who engaged in contract holdouts found that the black athlete was “emasculated” and that sports writers treated him “like a moody adolescent incapable of making significant decisions on his own.” The white athlete who held out escaped criticism and instead was said to be a victim of his employer’s “history of inept negotiating.” Black athletes have continued to be portrayed more as deviants, drug abusers, women-beaters, and menaces to society, or, in general, as “black men misbehaving” (Bishop, 57).
The most glaring early example of sports journalism’s racialization of African American athletes, and African Americans in general, was the coverage of boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson beat Tommy Burns, a white man, in Australia in 1908 to become the first African American heavyweight champion of the world and, as a result, as famous an African American as any. Historian and journalist Lerone Bennett viewed coverage of Johnson as “the first great media morality play” White-owned newspapers and magazines debased Johnson’s intelligence, as many white Americans at the time did of African Americans. They portrayed him in cartoonish, racially stereotypical imagery that was common in media descriptions of African Americans at the time. In the New York Herald, Johnson was described by the noted writer Jack London as the “true negro type . . . He is happy-go-lucky in temperament . . . easily amused . . . altogether absorbed in the present moment and therefore unmindful of the future.” San Francisco Examiner writer Alfred Lewis wrote:
Johnson is essentially African . . . he feels no deeper than the moment, sees no farther than his nose—which is flat and in the present. The same cheerful indifference to coming events have marked others of the race even while standing in the very shadow of the gallows. Their stolid unconcern baffled all who beheld it. They were to be hanged; they knew it. But having no fancy, no imagination—they could not anticipate.
White-owned periodicals also obsessed over Johnson’s perceived ingratitude to a white-controlled sporting business. Johnson paraded around the ring flashing his gold teeth, toyed with opponents, and frequented white establishments with white women on his arm, the ultimate national taboo. As the Beaumont, Texas Journal noted during Johnson’s reign: “The obnoxious stunts being featured by Jack Johnson are not only worthy of, but demand, an overgrown dose of ‘southern hospitality.’” “Southern hospitality” for African Americans during the early years of the last century was lynching.
Johnson thus became the first in a long line of African American athletes—Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Dwayne Thomas, O. J. Simpson, Albert Belle, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Allen Iverson, Venus and Serena Williams, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Manny Ramirez, Terrell Owens, Albert Haynesworth, LeBron James, and many others—villainized by white sports reporters and commentators. For example, after Tommie Smith and John Carlos peacefully protested for human rights at the 1968 Summer Olympics by raising black-gloved fists while on the medal stand during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, then sports columnist and now TV play-by-play announcer Brent Musberger denounced the pair in print as “black-skinned storm-troopers.”
The Integration of Sports Journalism.
The first newspaper published in the United States by African Americans was Freedom’s Journal in 1827. By the start of the Civil War, more than forty African American–owned newspapers were being published. The first African American newspaper to employ a full-time sports writer was the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905, when it hired Frank “Fay” Young in 1907. In 1914, thePittsburgh Courier, an African American–owned newspaper then seven years old, hired Ira Lewis as a sports reporter. Other African American–owned papers around the country followed suit.
African American newspapers and sports writers changed the narrative of the African American athlete in particular and sports in the United States in general. They celebrated rather than derided African American athletes, most notably black baseball players who started their own leagues after being barred from playing in the white-operated major leagues. African American sportswriters also engaged heavily in advocacy journalism, in particular by questioning the legitimacy of whites-only sports. “A man whose skin is white or red or yellow has been acceptable,” Sam Lacy, the first black member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and a Baseball Hall of Fame writer’s wing inductee, wrote in 1945 in the Baltimore Afro-American. “But a man whose character may be of the highest and whose ability may be Ruthian has been barred completely from the sport because he is colored.”
After Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers and became, in 1947, Major League Baseball’s first African American player since Moses Fleetwood Walker in the 1880s, the black press shifted its sports coverage to the major leagues. That same year, the Chicago Herald-American became the first white-owned newspaper to employ an African American sportswriter when it hired Wendell Smith from the Courier, where for many years previously he had written columns prodding the major leagues to integrate.
African American sports journalists, whether in the black press or at white-owned outlets, not surprisingly proved more in tune with the struggles of their sports-playing brethren. As Curt Flood waged legal challenges against baseball’s reserve clause in the 1960s, which earned him great enmity from white sportswriters, black sports writers like Bill Nunn Jr. at the Courier wrote: “Flood thus joins a growing list of black athletes who have placed principle above personal gain.”
Since Smith made history migrating to a white-owned and -operated sports page, many black-owned periodicals in the United States have died or shrunk and few remaining have the resources to cover sports as Young, Lacy and Smith once did. Meanwhile, thousands of other African American sportswriters, broadcasters, columnists, and editors have become employed by white-owned and -operated sports media, including print, radio, television, and digital, but they represent a small minority whose proportion and influence is shrinking with the advent of digital media.
The Irony of Sports Journalism and African Americans.
Sports was long thought to be the most meritocratic arena in American society, at least after all major sports were desegregated by the middle of the twentieth century. There are now not only African American players in most major sports, but coaches, executives, and some owners as well. Sports journalism, however, does not necessarily reflect the diversity to be found in the sports that it covers.
Annual surveys of racial hiring in sports conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida and released in the form of grades have awarded sports leagues no less than a B in recent years, but have awarded the media no better than a C. The study noted in 2011 that
at a time when people of color dominate the percentages of players in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and MLS, and in college football and basketball, these numbers in the media that cover them are so important. This is also true for college sports as well as in elite Olympic sports. . . . Most people in business agree that diversity is a business imperative. It is important to have voices from different backgrounds in the media, including the sports media. (Lapchick)
Against that backdrop, nearly 175 years after sports media started covering African American athletes, sports journalism is one of the worst offenders against the ideals of diversity in American society.
- Ashe, Arthur, Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. Rev. ed. New York: Amistad, 1993.
- Bennett, Lerone. “ Jack Johnson and the Great White Hope.”, Ebony (Sept. 1976).
- Bishop, Ronald. “It Hurts the Team Even More: Differences in Coverage by Sports Journalists of White and African-American Athletes Who Engage in Contract Holdouts,” Journal of Sports Media 55 (2009): 57.
- “Buchanan Wins!” http://www.kentuckyderby.com/history/year/1884
- Lapchick, Richard A. “Sports Media’s Diversity Lags Behind Leagues That It Covers.” http://m.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2011/05/16/Opinion/Richard-Lapchick-column.aspx
- “Ode to a Swift Nag.” Antebellum Turf Times, vol. 1, no. 2, January 6 1823. http://www.antebellumturftimes.com/2011/09/ode-to-a-swift-nag-day-four-new-orleans-jockey-club-spring-races-1837/
- Raney, Arthur, and Jennings Bryant, eds. Handbook of Sports and Media. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.
- Reisler, Jim. Black Writers/Black Baseball: An Anthology of Articles from Black Sportswriters Who Covered the Negro Leagues. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1994.
- Saunders, James Robert, and Monica Renae Saunders. Black Winning Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003.
- Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Vintage Books, 2006.