Monday’s Meditation: The Vilification of the Black Athlete

Seattle Seahhawks defensive back Richard Sherman has taken a lot of heat leading up to the Super Bowl. photo credit: Joint Base Lewis McChord via photopin cc
Seattle Seahhawks defensive back Richard Sherman (25) has taken a lot of heat leading up to the Super Bowl. photo credit: Joint Base Lewis McChord via photopin cc

Richard Sherman reminds us that as much we want to think things have changed in America when it comes to race, this country still has a long way to go.

America hasn’t changed much from its wicked and racist ways of racial intolerance. The case of Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks All-Pro defensive back illustrates this point fully.

Sherman is vilified as a moron, thug, and much worse just because he talks smack immediately after making the play of the postseason to take his team-the Seattle Seahawks-to the Super Bowl.

Sherman didn’t kill anyone. He broke no law. All he did was convey football bravado to a television sideline reporter right after Seattle’s 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

And for that, Sherman is called the n-word-some people’s ultimate race card pullout when all else fails. C’mon people, Sherman plays football for a living.

The Sherman episode reminds us yet again is that America hasn’t really come as far as it would like up to believe when it comes to race. When was the last time a white athlete was called a thug? Sherman received more negative attention and more notoriety for just running his mouth than former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has gotten for allegedly killing his friend.

Texas A & M quarterback Johnny Manziel gets applauded by the suck up media for his rude and classless behavior on and off the field, while Sherman is besieged with unfounded criticism by haters and race-baiters.

This speaks to a bigger issue.

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 mainstream media has when they’re stroking a very broad portrait of the black athlete. USA Today’s 2007 front page of its sports section is a perfect example of this.

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, 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. “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.”

Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run off of pitcher Al Downing. Aaron and Downing at the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner gala in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman/
Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run off of pitcher Al Downing. Aaron and Downing at the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner gala in Los Angeles. Aaron had to endure a lot of racial taunts to get where he wanted to. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman/

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 flipped the script on the media a couple of years ago.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which Lapchick oversees at the University of Central Florida, released a report on the hiring methods of more than 300 Associated Press newspapers.

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 who is 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.”

Lapchick went to say that adding people of color and women to the rolls representing 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.”

To look at the biased reporting of a prominent black athlete can be further examined in the media’s jury, verdict and conviction of baseball’s all-time home run king Barry Bonds. 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 has spent millions of dollars seeking a conviction against Bonds, yet he has never tested positive to using steroids. Bonds, who surpassed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list, is the only potential Hall of Fame black athlete in baseball to be linked to performing enhancing drugs.

He has been basically blacklisted out of baseball, while New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers have both been given passes-by both the media and the public-after being caught cheating.

Rodriguez admitted this year to using steroids earlier this decade. Ramirez got popped with a 50-game suspension this season for using a women’s fertility drug, which is often associated with masking steroids use.

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.

photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc
photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

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 of Hampton Roads.

He’s also a longtime mentor to Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons superstar quarterback.

Because of his involvement in a 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.

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, which landed the Pro Bowl quarterback nearly two years of prison time, by federal authorities has not changed his relationship with Johnson. But it has certainly changed the way the media view Vick.

The star doesn’t glow as brightly as it once did for Vick, who latched on with the Philadelphia Eagles after his release from prison.

Even though he has made tremendous strides in resurrecting his NFL career, including being named as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year following the 2010 season, there are still a lot of people who are bent on incapacitating the rest of Vick’s professional football life. New York Times columnist Juliet Macur, who wrote a blistering piece on Vick to remind owners not to give him another opportunity to place elsewhere, is one of those people.

Though he denounces what the football star did, 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.

“I’m shocked that this happened,” Johnson said in a phone interview before Vick plead guilty to the federal dogfighting charges last year. “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.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original content)

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