It turns out that isn’t anecdotal: in 2006, ESPN’s Scoop Jackson noted a research project conducted by the Associated Press Sports Editors that found that just four of the 305 newspapers it surveyed had a black sports editor. The same study, from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, found that whites make up 94 percent of sports editors, 89 percent of assistant sports editors, 88 percent of sports columnists, and 87 percent of sports reporters.
I already had theories about why that is, but to put them to the test I called Chip Cosby, a mentor, friend, and former colleague who was the one regular black beat writer covering the University of Kentucky athletic program at the same time I was. It turns out that Cosby’s view of the situation in sports writing isn’t all that different from Coates’ view of the situation in long-form journalism: it’s primarily about history, access, and economics.
The general lack of black sportswriters, Cosby said, has made it harder for young black writers to envision a future in sportswriting. “Go back to the old-school and there weren’t many black sportswriters,” he said. “I just don’t think many were aware of the opportunity. It’s something they didn’t know a lot about.”
The economics caused problems too for a demographic that is more likely to come from low-income backgrounds. Sportswriting isn’t a lucrative gig, at least not at first, and “unless you climb that ladder to the big-time, it just doesn’t pay a lot,” Cosby said in noting that the low pay often made sportswriting either unattractive or unrealistic for young blacks choosing a career path.
But that’s starting to change, thanks to more prominent roles for black reporters on television (think ESPN’s Steven A. Smith, Bomani Jones, Michael Wilbon, and J.A. Adande). “Sports journalism in general, it’s more high-profile now,” Cosby said. “A lot of young black males thought to get in sports, ‘I had to play.’ Now they’re saying to stay involved, I can be the next J.A. Adande or Steven A. Smith.”
And unlike long-form, where Coates pointed out that there are fewer jobs in an industry that has withered, the sports media is growing in new ways online, providing more potential paths for young black writers. Growth in online blogs, sports radio talk shows, and sports talk television have all opened doors to more writers, and made the aforementioned writers more visible to prospective young journalists. The web has also made it possible to skip the traditional routes into journalism, providing more access to writers who didn’t go to journalism school or haven’t done elite internships.
Coates wrote that magazines “have exclusion in their DNA,” and I’d guess that’s true, to an extent, of sports journalism too. But I also found it telling that the “new media” site he hoped would do better at giving black writers a chance is largely a sports site, because I’d also guess that sports journalism is an area that can break down the barriers facing black writers faster than other forms of journalism. There are, after all, a sizable number of black athletes going into the media, sports and otherwise, after their playing days are over (Michael Strahan is the most recent example), and that will, hopefully, increase the likelihood of young black athletes entering the writing world when their playing days end before they become Hall of Famers.
Race plays a prominent role in sports, and the lily-white nature of much of sports coverage rarely captures the nuance or importance of the portrayal of the black athlete — whether its Serena Williams’ celebratory dance, Gabby Douglas’ patriotism, the complicated relationships that often exist between black athletes and white executives, or the wide portrayal of so many black athletes as “thugs.” In few areas of society does race play such a prominent and obvious role, and that makes diversity in the voices that ask about, write about, and talk about those issues especially important.