A funny thing happened just now. I was holding a piece of writing I did this morning to avoid stepping on Mike Kurylo’s excellent post about the Liberty and Isiah Thomas, and I stumbled across a great interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring. During the interview, Herring was asked about diversity in sports writing, and had this to say:
There aren’t nearly enough women covering the NBA; especially if you look past the ones who serve as sideline reporters. It feels like there are more people of color who write about the NBA than in other sports, and perhaps that’s because it’s overwhelmingly black compared to the other leagues.
I don’t know how much it impacts the way the league itself is covered. What I’m more curious about, sometimes, is how, if at all, it impacts the way players communicate with reporters. I’ll never forget interviewing Jim Brown and seeing him do a double-take when I told him what outlet I was representing, and that I wanted to ask him a few questions for my story. He later told me he was proud to see a young, black man in my position, because it was something he rarely, if ever, saw — especially when he actually played the sport.
It’s obviously not nearly that rare now, but I do think being in my 20s and black has helped me relate with some of the players. One time in the locker room, Iman Shumpert was looking at each of the reporters, playfully ribbing us one-by-one for the way we were dressed. He got to me, and decided to make fun of my sweater. Carmelo stepped in before Shump could really say anything, telling him, “Nah, Chris is cool — he’s with us.”
In light of this excellent interview, I decided to throw my post up. Make sure you read Mike’s Liberty post as well. Here goes….
The Knicks beat is one of the most high profile arenas in sports journalism. The people who cover the Knicks for the major media outlets often appear on national broadcasts and find their work cited in newspapers and on websites around the country. If you frequent the social media neighborhood of the New York Knicks, you might come across a rather passionate collection of opinions about the quality of the work produced in this exclusive little circle. To be sure, people have their favorites. Some writers are known for their accuracy and reliability. Some are known for their temperaments. Others are seen, alternatively, as trolls or shills. I’ve certainly been a critic of the general climate surrounding the Knicks beat. When I sat down to wrap my head around the field of writers and pundits covering the Knicks, I discovered a curious thing. It’s a thing that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, and your reaction will likely be….”Mmm hmmmm. That’s true. Shrug.” Still, it merits some consideration in “print.”
The Knicks are covered almost exclusively by white men.
I told you that you wouldn’t be surprised. To see it spelled out is an interesting exercise, so let’s take a stroll through the Knicks beat, shall we? Before I do this, I’d like to note that I’m dealing with the primary characters assigned to covering the Knicks. When I show you the names, most of them will be the top names in Knicks coverage, some might be part-time on the Knicks beat, and I may be leaving out other minor players to be sure. We’re dealing in broad strokes at the top level.
New York Daily News – Frank Isola, Steven Bondy, Mike Lupica, Mitch Lawrence
New York Post – Marc Berman, Mike Vaccaro
New York Times – Harvey Araton, Scott Cacciola, Filip Bondy
New York Newsday – Al Iannazzone
Wall Street Journal – Chris Herring
CBS Sports – Ken Berger, John Schmeelk
ESPN New York – Ian Begley
There are probably a few other outlets worth collecting, and there are probably writers who belong on the list, while others may not. This is a snapshot, and Knicks fans will recognize most or all of those names. With the exception of Chris Herring at the Wall Street Journal, every other person on the list is white and male. In my very quick search, I discovered that Brian Lewis, who is African-American, covers the Nets for the Post. Laura Albanese, a white woman, covers the Nets for Newsday. At the New York Post, George Willis occasionally dabbles in basketball, but is mainly a fights columnist. Branching out beyond the Knicks, and beyond the NBA, the field becomes more diverse, if only barely.
Why is this significant? There are any number of reasons, but the most significant from my point of view is that in 2015 76.7% of NBA players were people of color. Only one of the people on the above list is a person of color. If you’re not sold on the whiteness of the Knicks beat….or the maleness….let’s expand this treatment to the talk radio circuit. The two main sports talk stations in the New York City area are WFAN and ESPN Radio. Here’s their work day roster:
WFAN – Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton, Evan Roberts, Joe Beningo, Mike Francesa
ESPN – Mike Golic, Mike Greenberg, Dan LeBatard, Alan Hahn, Rick DiPietro, Michael Kay, Don LaGreca
Of course, these people don’t limit themselves to Knicks talk, but sports talk radio is the most concentrated form of sustained, local sports coverage available. Social media are driven by the sports writers and their peers on the radio. The papers set up the narrative, the radio broadcasts it constantly to an enormous audience, and the general public negotiates it all online. All of these characters, again, are white men. Dan LeBatard is a New Jersey born Cuban-American based in Miami, and his show is syndicated in the morning. He’s not so much an ESPN NY guy as a nationally syndicated radio personality for ESPN. The heart of the NY sports media, particularly covering the Knicks is painfully uniform in its white-maleness.
74.4% of NBA players identify as African-American. The sport’s culture is rich with an incredibly diverse range of African-American experiences, but the media covering it are all outsiders. The story being told to the public about the NBA comes from a small circle of people who have not lived any version of the African-American experience. It doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a good job, in many cases. It doesn’t mean that the story of the NBA is only an African-American story, or that one must be African-American to cover the game. It does mean that three quarters of the voices in the sport are filtered through a small, white minority.
To be fair, the same issue persists in the blogging community. It’s important for us to be self-aware when we’re turning this lens outward. White men also dominate the many excellent Knicks blogs you may read. It’s an issue.
The reason I decided to bring this up today is that pesky little story about social media I brought up at the start. You may get the sense that people aren’t in love with the coverage they receive from the Knicks beat. It’s a story that probably repeats itself across the country, to be honest. For a very long time, mass media sources were the only sources of information about the world of sports. Love them or hate them, the characters bringing you the latest in the world of sports were the only characters in the game, and fans didn’t have access to them. Today, information comes from many places. The quality of the information hasn’t caught up to the quantity of information, and it never will, but a funny thing has happened along the way. Some new characters have walked on stage from outside the mass media arena. Small pockets of talented people have begun to participate in the arena in an increasingly high profile way. Most of these people don’t have the same level of access to the teams, players, and agents as the mass media professionals, but they bring a much needed ingredient to the mix – perspective.
The longer you run in the same circles, the more a dominant logic begins to invisibly take hold. This is true in any close community of people. That dominant logic begins to weave itself into the DNA of the community and give shape to everything that goes on within its boundaries. This is true of organizations. It’s true of writing fraternities of the sort we see in this example. Outsiders bring new perspectives, which challenge the established order. Some of the media establishment look down their noses at amateur outsiders, treating the entire population with the same derisive brush. There are a wide range of outside perspectives, from the rowdy loud mouths on Twitter to the thoughtful “fan bloggers” who build reputations among the greater fan base. This is all a very good thing, from my point of view. A diverse range of voices and perspectives is a positive thing. It’s the American way, frankly. When I speak of challenging the narratives in the mass media coverage of sports, I’m only scratching the surface. It’s one (important) thing to open discourse about the meaning of sporting events and the day-to-day operation of sports organizations. It’s another thing to challenge those narratives by taking a critical approach to the voices of the people providing the challenge.
Basketball, as a part of American culture, is infused with the lived experiences of the Black men and women playing the sport. Leaving out Black voices in the high profile coverage of the game is a sin in a long line of American sins related to race. The mass media institutions have done a much better job in recent years of including former players as their high profile voices on the air. Inside the NBA is one of the most interesting and joyful media experiences in the basketball business precisely because Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and others take the lead in the discourse about the game. They’re not always right and they often say silly, off-the-cuff things, but their voices carry something of the game’s meaning from the people who actually embody “Ball is Life.” New York City is one of our nation’s foremost centers of African-American cultural history. Basketball has lived and breathed at the center of that culture for generations and generations, and yet the beat is snow white. I’m not certain exactly how change will shake out, but this piece is a simple plea for awareness and an open consideration of the subject. We all need a little more Clyde Frazier in our lives.