Skip to main content

Team Colors Don’t Run in Reporting Squad

The racial chasm between professional athletes and the people who write about them feels like a historical anomaly. Yet it isn't.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

According to studies released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, 79 percent of the players in the NBA, 40 percent in major league baseball and 67 percent in the NFL are minorities. But another report prepared by TIDES found that the racial constitution of the nation’s newspaper sports departments is shockingly different: Only 6 percent of sports editors, 11 percent of assistant sports editors, 12 percent of sports columnists and 13 percent of sports reporters are minorities.

TIDES founder and director Richard Lapchick emphasized that this racial disparity is not confined to the newspaper industry but is societywide. “It’s a function of American history,” he said, “and maybe people not knowing how to bring about change, not knowing where to look.”

“I find the situation frustrating,” said Marty Kaiser, a former sportswriter who is vice president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Somehow we’ve got to do a better job of inspiring young minorities to go to work for newspapers,” he said, “and that’s not just a sports department problem.”

He’s right about that. ASNE’s own April 2008 figures show that minority journalists working at the nation’s newspapers make up only 13.5 percent of editorial departments, a figure slightly up from last year when the total was 13.4 percent. And, Kaiser noted, this slightly elevated figure may simply be a function of the battered state of the industry — as older journalists are laid off or take buyouts, younger reporters and editors, some of them beneficiaries of diversity programs, remain.

Census data from 2006 show that more than one-third of the American population can now be classified as “minority” (black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.), which makes newsroom statistics even more sobering. And in the sports world, where overwhelmingly white sports departments have to deal with majority-minority sports teams, cultural misunderstandings are a real possibility.

“You might miss asking the right questions, getting some athletes to trust you, and they might not be as forthcoming,” Lapchick said. “Your background might not let you see what might be possible for a man or woman of color. For example, if you see a baseball player you don’t like, you might not be able to figure out it’s something other than his game that’s not allowing him to respond to you.”

“There are cultural issues that can cause problems,” Kaiser added. “Some of it has to do with differences in money and background. Years ago, I can remember sportswriters telling me they gave players rides home from games. Nowadays, you have to be kidding. And when I started, athletes needed newspapers more for publicity; they don’t need them now.”

Both Lapchick and Kaiser emphasize that the reporter-athlete racial disparity does not necessarily shake out in terms of biased or downright bigoted coverage. But there can be unintentional insensitivity.

Lapchick mentions a USA Today cover story on the relationship between NFL players and law enforcement, in which the mugshots of 41 players arrested in 2006 — 39 of them black — were printed. The implication, according to some critics, was that African-American football players constitute a criminal underclass. On the other end of the spectrum, Kaiser feels the fact his paper has a Spanish-speaking beat writer covering baseball makes it a lot easier to report and write about Latin ballplayers, who constitute nearly one-third of all major leaguers.

So what’s to be done? The easy answer is, of course, to hire more minority reporters, or, as Lapchick said, “Editors sometimes need to make a judgment call that ‘I’m not going to hire this position until I find someone who fits what I need,’ in terms of their educational experience and cultural background. For the rest of the time, make sure your interview process is inclusive; then hire the best person.”

But, according to Kaiser, the solution to the problem is more difficult than it appears, because sports departments have very little turnover in general. “You get a beat, and if you’re good at it,” he said, “you don’t get the turnover. Newspapers don’t want to move people out of the sports department to other parts of the paper. You get tagged as a sports guy.”

And then there’s this: With the ongoing contraction of the newspaper business, there will be fewer jobs to fill, so the sports department racial divide may be with us for a long time to come.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Add our news to your site.