Black Athletes: Media Demonization or Higher Standards

Dr. Richard Lapchick said a more diversified media workforce could lead to more positive portrayals of African Americans and minorities from news organizations.
Former San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds has been widely scrutinized for alleged steroids use./PRNewswire

By Dennis J. Freeman

The image of the Black athlete can usually be perceived as one monolithic view by the national media, and more or less, it is usually painted from the same paint brush. Usually that brush stroke is different to that of their white peers.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick spent nearly two years in prison for running a dogfighting operation and is darn near ostracized.

Meanwhile, Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets called out on a second alleged sexual assault charge and walks back to normalcy.

Without a lot of media fanfare, Big Ben is suspended from playing for four games and has quietly gone about his business to move on with his life as he tried to lead the Steelers towards a possible Super Bowl.
For years, baseball’s all-time home run king Barry Bonds has been vilified and scorned by the media as a “cheat” with allegations that he used steroids (which has not been proven). Yet, baseball’s darlings-Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte admits to using steroids and both men receives a virtual pass of wrongdoing and are welcomed back with open arms by the media.

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps is caught in a picture that’s plastered all over the Internet smoking marijuana but suffers very little repercussions for his actions. Ditto for San Francisco Giants pitching ace Tim Lincecum, who was virtually hailed as a city hero after being cited for marijuana possession.
The double-standard treatment of the black athlete by mainstream media is sometimes done with vicious, unforgiving and relentless fervor.

Just ask Vick, who is once again turning the NFL into his own personal playground with his electrifying play.
Vick is trying to erase that ugly chapter of his life. But the haters won’t let him forget. Vick can never forget what he done because the media constantly-sometimes boldly, sometimes subtly-remind him that what he did was almost an unforgivable sin for hanging and brutally killing dogs.

Vick is in his second season as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, and is about a year and a half removed from serving time. After so many appearances on national television this season, the media continues to inject viewers Vick’s crime. Never mind that Vick, then a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons, forfeited a reported 10-year, $130 million contract and paid his debt to society with an 18-month stint behind bars.

None of that matters. What matters to a certain sector of the media is to construct an image of Vick as a heinous, cruel villain.

Funny, you don’t hear any media member saying anymore that he or she is going out to pursue justice in the name of putting an end illegal dog fighting. Where is the outrage now? I don’t see People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society yelling at the top of their lungs anymore about this issue. Dog fighting didn’t stop when Vick went to prison. The media just treated it like it did.

A lot of times the media coverage of athletes comes down to race. Former USC and NFL great O.J Simpson is a perfect example of this. Simpson is a lighting rod for race relations in this country. His criminal and civil trial bordered on a near racial uprising between blacks and whites as the media played up the race card to its highest level.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, released a report on how the hiring methods of media organizations can play a part in the way news is presented. The institute released a study of more than 300 Associated Press newspapers several years ago. The study gives insight to racial disparity, which could also play a part in how news is disseminated to the general public, said Dr. Richard Lapchick.

Dr. Richard Lapchick said a more diversified media workforce could lead to more positive portrayals of African Americans and minorities from news organizations.

The results of that study indicated that those publications merely practiced lip-service when it came to practicing diversity. The report found that nearly 95% of sports editors were white. White men represented 90 % of all sports editor positions at those publications. According to the report, whites also made up 87% of all assistant sports editor jobs, 88% of all reporters employed and nearly 90% of sports columnists.

The portrayal of athletes, black and white, and the way articles are written about them, could have something to do with the person covering them, suggested Lapchick.

“It is important to have voices from different backgrounds in the media,” Lapchick said in a statement relating to the release of the report. “We clearly do not have a group that reflects America’s workforce. And in the world of sports, they are covering a disproportionate number of athletes in basketball, football and baseball who are African American or Latino…Having that additional perspective might lead writers to ask questions or look at angles that might shed light on the particular situation of an African American, Latino or female coach or athlete.”

In 2007, USA Today published a story on the cover of its sports page that best illustrates the negative portrayal of black athletes. The publication plastered the mug photos of 41 NFL players in an article discussing the league’s discipline of its gridiron employees. Thirty-nine of those players were black.

The USA Today article drew the ire of Lapchick, author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, which studies diversity employment practices of professional sports leagues and collegiate sports, has long been a fighter for equality in the world of athletics. Even though the article was written by a well-respected African American journalist, Lapchick nonetheless thought the photos and the accompanied story was a derogatory slant of black athletes.

“I was really angry with USA Today for doing that,” Lapchick said in an interview. “What’s the point of putting 50 pictures on a page? There’s no point. When have you ever seen 50 pictures on a page? And when you have them by a story that was so negative-you automatically put an African American face on the entire story…to me that is just bad journalism. I think USA Today is a great paper, and it’s the best, in terms of race and gender, but that was outrageous.”

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1132 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.

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