Posted November 15, 2007
When I broach the subject of race with my college freshmen in their introduction to composition class, I often do so through the medium of sports. What does it mean, I ask, that NBA players are now required to wear suits and ties when they sit on the bench? And why is it that, when African-American youth Genarlow Wilson was released from prison after serving two years for having consensual oral sex with another teenager, it was ESPN that offered the most extensive, in-depth article in the mainstream press?
Organized sports is one of the few venues in our country where the public can see both visible expressions of racism and public critiques of it. In particular, ESPN’s commentators, opinion writers, and sports analysts have become crucial in building public debate around issues of institutional racism. This is not to say that all such discussion is politically savvy. A recent study about racial disparities in the number of fouls called on NBA players, for instance, elicited widespread anger among sportscasters, many of whom refused to deal with the details of the study. Nonetheless, even in this case the topic earned extensive airplay and debate, which is more than we can say about discussions of race in the mainstream news media. On the nightly news, even specials that do focus on racial issues, such as recent pieces on the Jena Six, offer no room for discussion, and cable news networks tend to privilege brash figures who align themselves with one of the two parties and specialize in sound bytes rather than discussion or analysis.
By contrast, ESPN features a fairly diverse cast of writers and sportscasters on its website and its television network, and these journalists are willing to tackle politically charged racial issues in frank discussions or opinion pieces. Several years ago, the institution of a rule preventing NBA teams from drafting players directly from high school elicited a torrent of discussion on ESPN about whether or not this was a decision that would disproportionately harm poorer prospects, most of whom were people of color. Similarly, the recent arrest of Michael Vick for his role in dog-fighting prompted columnist Howard Bryant to write a piece for the ESPN website that positioned the racial divide over Vick’s case in the complicated context of institutional racism and class privilege. Bryant both censured Vick for his behavior and highlighted the racist responses of many white viewers and readers to the case. Although his piece might not have changed the minds of these white readers, Bryant certainly sparked discussion. Six weeks after the piece’s publication, it has received nearly 2,800 comments on the ESPN website.
ESPN, then, appears to be bringing race politics successfully into a mainstream venue devoted to entertainment. Although its readers and viewers may be predominantly male, they come from a variety of race and class backgrounds, and their commentaries range from racist rants to sophisticated political analyses. This is an important development for several reasons. It makes the presence of racism visible to those white readers who believe they live in a “post-racist” era, it encourages fans to see organized sports as a business with political implications, and it asks readers to discuss and defend their own views on race politics. Discussions on race and politics, especially in ostensibly “entertainment” venues, can prepare participants for further political analyses. They can begin to see politics as less intimidating and more interesting if they begin examining it in comfortable and entertaining ways.
In part, I think ESPN writers and sportscasters have been able to introduce race (and, to a lesser extent) class analyses into their work because sports is often seen as an apolitical venue. On CNN or MSNBC, talk show hosts are expected to present and defend partisan political opinions, while ESPN journalists are expected simply to provide entertaining and engaging discussions of sports news. They don’t present their ideas as political opinions but as educated positions on the state of the NBA, the NFL or Major League baseball. What looks like entertainment slips quietly into race politics.
Clearly, ESPN is not simply a haven for anti-racist politics. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to pay attention to and support such discussions in mainstream entertainment venues. Many people feel frustrated, bored, or confused by discussions of international politics or domestic policy, and organized sports is an accessible way to understand and see the concrete effects of institutional racism. Understanding the problems of requiring black players to comply with white norms of dress might not lead white viewers to change their overall political behavior, but it is a start. As not only the field of play but the sports news room become increasingly diverse, organized sports can offer fresh discussions of race in American culture that begin in the sports world and extend outward. Genarlow Wilson and the Jena Six, for instance, initially drew sports commentators because both Wilson and the Jena Six’s Mychal Bell were standout athletes. But by covering these cases with in-depth personal stories, ESPN extended its brand of participatory, analytical coverage into a political public forum.