Book Review - Sports Journalism A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology
In “Sports Journalism: A History of Glory, Fame, and Technology,” Washburn explores the way sports journalists have revealed insights about social conditions. Among many insights, racism and sexism are two aspects that have shaped sports journalism. The world of both sports and journalism tracks the developments made throughout history that have gradually opened up opportunities for both African Americans and women to take part in the realm of sports journalism.
Racism among journalists began in the 1930s, with some white journalists openly racist in their coverage of Black athletes. Other journalists ignored addressing race issues as a whole, which reflected a racially divided country. Black newspapers highlighted their sports heroes to gain more equality, as African American journalists struggled against oppression and segregation.
One event that highlighted the controversy of race within sports and how it was covered was the fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson. Burns refused to box Johnson simply because he disliked African Americans.
The author explains the significance of the fight, as it was representative of race relations at the time. America was a segregated society and Black people were treated like second-class citizens. If Johnson beat Burns and became the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, it would signify some degree of equality for the Black population.
In journalism, it spoke volumes about the lack of diverse coverage as there was little Black press that wrote about the fight. Many white papers such as the Reno Nevada State Journal used the event as an opportunity to speak on the “hope of the white race.” Since the early 1800s, the term “white hope” had never been associated with boxing or anything racial. “White hope” was referring to the search for a white boxer to defeat Johnson. Thus, sports and sportswriters reflected the social conditions of racism, as it pushed narratives primary from the standpoint of white America.
With the lack of diversity within sports journalism, many white journalists displayed biases against Black athletes. In 1914, the Chicago Defender “accused some sportswriters on white dailies of writing ‘harangues’, which showed their ‘personal race-prejudices.’” These prejudices continued through the 1930s with the Journal of Health and Physical Education noting a “number of recent comments in the press” attributed Blacks’ success in various sports to specific characteristics based on their race.
For example, in the Deep South newspaper’s 1936 Olympic coverage, eight of the 26 papers had no stories about Black athletes, and the others had minimal coverage. Not only were there minimal photographs of Black athletes, but many Black athletes were also “consistently depicted . . . as foolish, child- like, lazy, unintelligent, and dangerous.”
These actions led to the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ adoption of the first national code of ethics in 1923. These codes “were germane to sportswriters…to avoid partisanship and to be impartial. Even with this adoption, white sportswriters would show support in major leagues’ segregation by rarely writing about it. The campaign to end segregation in baseball became one of the most important stories involving racial equality in the 1930s and 1940s.
Racial inequality was prevalent as “Black sportswriters were barred from press boxes, dugouts, and locker rooms at big league ballparks, and they were barred from working for mainstream newspapers, where they would have been paid more and their articles would have been seen by more readers.” Most Black sportswriters spent their careers telling stories ignored by the public and struggled to even obtain jobs for understaffed, underfunded weeklies that had very little exposure in comparison to metropolitan dailies.
With a majority of Black voices left out of the picture, there were dominant stereotypes still present in white sports coverage. The issuance of the Hutchins Commission Report, A Free and Responsible Press, came a month before the major league season began in 1947. The report called upon the press to give a “‘representative picture of constituent groups in society’ and to avoid stereotyping.”
With the heightened attention of Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut in 1947, the white press largely wrote about Robinson as just another athlete, ignoring the racial importance of the event. Columns written about Robinson portrayed a season that did not accurately depict the racial conflict of the time period.
Not only does history show sports writing fitting the mold of the white perspective, it also served to fit the mold of the male viewer, for women were not initially welcomed in that profession.
In the 1970s, not all NHL, NBA, and MLB teams had locker rooms open to women sportswriters. While “press credentials gave male journalists access to locker rooms to interview players and coaches before and after games, women were denied the same access and forced to wait outside.”
This discrimination of the sexes changed on Sep 25. 1978, when federal judge, Constance Baker Motley, ruled that all reporters, both male and female should have equal access to athletes. By the mid-1980s professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey required their locker rooms to be open to female sportswriters.
Though this court ruling was impactful for women across America, there were still issues women in the field had to face such as sexual harassment. With women given access to enter locker rooms, not only were they often given disrespectful remarks, they also were “accused of being voyeurs who wanted to gawk at naked athletes.”
With public disrespect shown towards female sportswriters, it was believed by some critics that “Women in the locker rooms should not be the issue…Rather, the finger ought to be pointed at the infantile and repugnant behavior of some ball- players and their inability to adjust to changing times, when gender equality should be assumed.”
To further combat instances of sexism, ESPN was a leader in change as “they established a reputation for providing opportunities for women to work in sports broadcast journalism that had long been limited to them in newspapers, television, and radio.” In 1983, Gayle Gardner became the first female sports anchor to regularly appear on ESPN with her position on SportsCenter.
As the world of sports mirrored the changing scene of race relations and gender equality, sports journalists in the 21st century acknowledged the need to create discussions on topics beyond what occurred on the court or field. In the beginnings of sports journalism, writers remained reluctant to mention race and politics unless they were quoting athletes. Up until recently, journalists have “recognized that sports should not be restricted to the sports sections and saw that sports—for better or worse—reflected the world in which we lived.”
With progress from past to present times of sports journalism, there is now a space welcome for not only African Americans, but females as well. Lauren Jones is an African American sports journalist and current Los Angeles Lakers beat reporter. When reflecting on the changes within sports coverage over the decades, she says, “Having black perspectives are key in covering sports where leagues are predominantly Black, such as the NBA. Not simply just to highlight their voices, but to do so in an accurate manner.”
Though she strives to uplift Black voices within sports, she personally knows the struggle of being a woman in a male dominated field. Her experience echoes the hurdles that female sports journalists have faced since the 1970s. “My advice to other women in the industry is to always focus on building yourself up and finding your confidence because this is an industry that brings a lot of criticism, internet trolls, and people looking to discredit you,” she said. “A strong sense of self and tough skin is necessary to survive in the male-dominated sports industry.”
With her passion and commitment to sports journalism, Lauren Jones remains determined to uphold values of integrity to voice important social issues beyond the realm of sport. Though history reflected a time where sports journalism avoided controversial, political topics, Jones consciously acts to change this narrative. “I work diligently to carefully craft questions to elicit genuine answers and to delve into issues that the public wants to know while trying to find the common threads that humanize people,” she said. “As a sports journalist, it is our job to show individuals are more than just athletes within a world bigger than just the game.”