A race double-standard: Demonizing the black athlete

The media has selective memory on news it wants to report. The fact that Peyton Manning has been able to enjoy a Hall of Fame career and ride off into the sunset without the blemish of being tagged with sexual assault allegations pinned against him, illustrates this fact.

This is not about something that happened 20 years ago, and is old news. This is about equality in news gathering and reporting. When it comes to transgressions of the past, Manning has received the whiteout treatment from the media.

Bill Cosby is probably somewhere wishing on a star he could have Manning’s cache. Being white, male and privileged can buy you a lot of things, including being romanticized by the media the way Manning has been treated.

When it comes to the media, objectivity becomes a mater of subjectivity. We all see things differently through the premise of our respective lens. Unfortunately, that prism is held with caution and loathing as it relates to the black athlete in some cases. Ray McDonald, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray Lewis, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston, Barry Bonds and Michael Vick, can all relate to this experience.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston shrugs off the Seminoles' 59-20 defeat to Oregon in the 2015 Rose Bowl. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
Former Florida State and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston shrugs off the Seminoles’ 59-20 defeat to Oregon in the 2015 Rose Bowl. Winston has been hounded by the media regarding allegations of sexual assault against an ex-FSU student, but was not convicted or charged with committing any crime. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

On the hand, the double-standard of race, in a lot of people’s minds, plays a major part in white athletes being glossed over for their indiscretions. How is that during Super Bowl 50 week, not one time did we hear the utterance of Manning’s name and alleged sexual assault?

Yet, the media found it convenience to remind us the whole time about Cam Newton, the NFL’s MVP, buying a stolen laptop while he was in college. The difference, whether some people want to see it this way or not, is in black and white.

The whole nonsense surrounding Newton after his abrupt walkout from his press conference after his Carolina Panthers team lost to Manning’s Denver Broncos, felt like a referendum in sportsmanship against the star quarterback, whereas Manning received a pass after walking off the field and not shaking hands with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in XLIV.

Of course, there is a double-standard. That discrepancy lies in who is actually writing and reporting these stories that are presented to us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be hearing about Vick’s dogfighting days, while Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger escape media scrutiny about his two alleged sexual assault cases that were slammed against him since he has been in the NFL.

Ray Rice has been virtually ostercized out of the league and fervently condemned by the media because of his domestic violence incident involving his wife, while Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel gets to prance about the general public after allegedly knocking the snot out of his girlfriend. Find me a case where a black guy goes upside his woman’s head and bust her eardrum and he’s still walking the streets with a job in today’s NFL.

The media has exercised a double standard when it comes to its coverage of star white athletes and black athletes. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
The media has exercised a double standard when it comes to its coverage of star white athletes and black athletes. Peyton Manning is a perceived example of this. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

Only in Johnny’s world. And don’t get me started about New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and his wild ways, including giving an open lap dance on a television host.  Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper was ripped apart for being part of a boat party, while Gronkowski gets a pass. 

The damming news about what did or did not occur in regards to Manning and his alleged sexual assault case that was brought on by Dr. Jamie Naughright, a former athletic trainer at the University of Tennessee, says a lot more about the media and the “Amnesia Game” it plays with the general public.

How did the University of Tennessee escape media repudiation in regards to this case and others?

On the other side, 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. This is a habit the mainstream media has when they’re stroking a very broad portrait of the black athlete. In 2007, USA Today released an article that best illustrates this point.

This type of bias reporting by the media is exemplified in a cover story that showed up in the sports section of USA Today. The publication plastered the photos of 41 NFL players in an article discussing the league’s discipline problems. Of those 41 mug shots that appeared in the April 10, 2007 edition of USA Today, 39 players identified were black.

The USA Today article drew the ire of Dr. Richard 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 (Jarrett Bell), 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 a phone interview shortly after the release of that article. “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.”

Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) has seen his world turn upside down after his domestic violence incident. Photo Credit: J. Gaede
Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) has seen his world turn upside down after his domestic violence incident. Photo Credit: J. Gaede

Lapchick, considered to be a leading expert in regards to race issues in the sports world, understands the racial polarization divide that the media can create. After years of monitoring athletics department and personnel departments of pro sports teams, Lapchick has flipped the script on the media, concluding with a study that examines who is controlling the narratives when it comes on the presentation of these athletes.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which Lapchick oversees at the University of Central Florida, has come up with the Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card, which looks at the diversity hiring practices of more than 300 Associated Press newspapers. Since 2006, when Lapchick first launched this report, there has been very little improvement.

“It has now been eight years since the publication of the 2006 report,” Lapchick said in the 2014 APSE executive summary report. “While there was some change in the five key positions we examined for race, there continued to be a failing grade for gender in all five categories. I applaud the APSE for it transparency and its determination to get better. Nonetheless, it remains important to have voices from different backgrounds in the media.”

The results of that study indicated that those publications merely practiced lip-service when it came to practicing diversity. The report found that nearly 91.5 percent of all sports editors were white. White men represented 83.9 percent of all sports editor positions at those publications, according to the 2014 study.

According to the report, whites also made up 90.2 percent of all assistant sports editor jobs, 85 percent of all reporters employed and nearly 83.5 percent of sports columnists. African American men and women saw their hold on sports editor positions decreased from 5.7 percent in 2012 to 4.5 percent in 2014. One of the notable absences in this report was the exclusion of Asian women. The APSE states that no Asian woman held down a sports editor job.

The portrayal of athletes, black and white, and the way articles are written about them, could have something to do with the person who is covering them, suggested Lapchick. It is no wonder that APSE newspapers and websites received a combined grade of “D” in racial and gender hiring from Lapchick’s study. It got a flat out “F” in gender hiring.

“My primary recommendation to the APSE remains that it adopts a Ralph Wiley Rule, named after the late African-American writer,” Lapchick said. “The Wiley Rule would be like the Rooney Rule in the NFL and would call for a diverse pool of candidates including people of color and women for each opening of these key positions. According to John Cherwa, many of the individual newspapers have adopted such a rule.”

Lapchick said a more diversified the media can add a different perspective in stories being told about athletes.

“On the high school and college levels, more than 40 percent of the student-athletes are girls and women,” Lapchick said. “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 addition to the writing of the stories, the assigning of the stories by a sports editor might take a different angle in coverage if there was a team more representative of our athletes and coaches making those decisions.”

Michael Vick has never really recovered from the media beating he has received from the media since being convicted of dogfighting. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com
Michael Vick has never really recovered from the media beating he has received from the media since being convicted of dogfighting. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

To look at the biasness of reporting of a prominent black athlete can be further examined in the media’s jury trial and conviction of baseball’s all-time home run king. Barry Bonds has been vilified, ostracized and demonized in most of the nation’s top media publication because of alleged accusations that he used performing enhancing drugs to improve his already impressive body of work in major league baseball history.

The government spent millions of dollars seeking a conviction against Bonds. It never materialized. Bonds, who surpassed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list, never tested positive for steroids during his career.

Bonds has been basically blacklisted out of baseball until recently, while New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez seem to have been given the green light of forgiveness after being caught cheating. Rodriguez finally came clean and admitted to using steroids earlier this decade.

Some people, like James “Pooh” Johnson, would argue that the media tend to look through a different lens when it comes to reporting on stories about black athletes. Johnson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Hampton Roads in Newport News, Virginia, knows a thing or two about the media and its coverage of high-profile athletes.

Johnson is a longtime and close friend to Major League Baseball Hall of Fame player Willie Mays, godfather to Barry Bonds. Johnson. He is a staple in Michael Vick’s hometown, and has mentored NFL and NBA stars such as Vick, Allen Iverson and Aaron Brooks, as they came through the Boys and Girl club. He’s also a longtime mentor to Vick.

Because of his involvement in the dogfighting operation, Vick threw away a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Falcons. And in many ways, his golden glow with the public and the media, even though he came back and resurrected his career.

Johnson has had a relationship with Vick since he was in elementary school. Their bond is close. Vick even dedicates a chapter in Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington’s bestselling book, “A Hand to Guide Me” to Johnson.

The dogfighting conviction brought against Vick by federal authorities has not changed his relationship with Johnson. But it has certainly changed the way the media view Vick.

Though he denounced what the football star did at the time, Johnson feels Vick has been unfairly portrayed by the media as some low-life scum of the earth-a person who doesn’t deserve a second chance to mend his mistakes. When Vick signed a one-year deal with the Steelers for the 2015 NFL season, there was still an outcry about him joining the team.

“I’m shocked that this happened,” Johnson said in a phone interview before Vick plead guilty to the federal dogfighting charges that landed him in prison for nearly two years. “That’s not the Michael Vick that I know. By people coming out now and portraying him like a monster…That’s just not the same dude I know. He’s done some good things in the community, and will probably continue to do some good things.  [But] they’ve already charged him, tried him and executed him in the media.

“I’m trying to be the devil’s advocate, but here’s what I am saying, ‘Are the black athletes the only ones that are getting caught in these clubs or get caught in these shootings or whatever?’” Johnson asks. “We know they’re (black athletes) not going to be treated equal because of who they are.”

This article has been updated from an original post that Dennis J. Freeman authored 

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1083 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.