Breaking barriers of race in sports media

I’ve been preaching the importance of elevating female sports reporters and broadcasters to the same level as men, but in order to have a fully well-rounded news room or studio, it’s equally as crucial that we see more racial diversity as well. Although women and people of color have made advancements in the sports journalism field in recent years, positions of power  such as editor positions  are still largely monopolized by white men. As recently as 2014, more than 90 percent of sports editors were white males. White men take up the most space in other positions too, as analysts and columnists.

For those reasons, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith‘s rise to prominence is incredibly impressive. Despite the odds, they have cemented their place as some of the top analysts and broadcasters in the business as a result of their hard work and unique talent. In 2013, they started Numbers Never Lie (later renamed His & Hers), a sports debate show that also included hints of social and political commentary. In early February, Hill and Smith moved to the 6 p.m. slot of SportsCenter. Instead of the traditional highlight-reel commentary that is common on the show, the duo has brought the familiar flair from His & Hers to the SportsCenter gig, incorporating in-depth analysis and pop culture discussions. Hill and Smith bring an unapologetically black style to the show without watering anything down or holding anything back. Their strong opinions allow them to infuse their personalities into sports commentary, making for a genuine, impactful show.

One reason that this type of diversity in sports media is so necessary is to reflect the diversity of the audiences. For example, this chart shows that African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic people spend more time watching the NBA on television than white people. With the primetime evening slot, Hill and Smith represent all viewers on the biggest platform.

In a recent podcast with Richard Deitsch, Smith and Hill spoke about potential criticism they may receive for their style of commentary, much of which focuses on racial issues.

“[The public] will watch a black person  or even two black people  host SportsCenter, but are people going to be turned off, and literally turn off SportsCenter when they see two black people advocating for Black Lives Matter?” Smith said. “That’s going to turn people off. That has turned people off. That’s never something that’s discouraged us from opining when necessary and appropriate…on matters of sports and society.”

He also mentioned the responsibility they feel to continue to highlight issues like race and gender on the show.

“We’d be going out of our way if we didn’t address some of these issues that have bubbled to the surface and dominated the sports conversation, be it matters of gender, domestic violence, sexual assault, you know, race, and the police force,” he said. “All of those different issues, we owe it to ourselves as individuals, we owe it to the audience, we owe it to society to continue to drive those conversations.”

Dan Le Batard, the Cuban-American host of Highly Questionable, is another success story of diversity in sports media. Because of his unique perspective, Le Batard can offer thoughtful commentary and harsh criticism, and often does so through the lens of race and politics (example 1 and example 2).

Similarly, the late Stuart Scott will forever be remembered as one of the trailblazers in bringing his own voice to sports broadcasting. These quotes from Steve Wulf’s moving piece on Scott speak to the impact he had:

“There were successful African-American sportscasters at the time,” says ESPN director of news Vince Doria, who oversaw the studio programming for ESPN2 back then. “But Stuart spoke a much different language … that appealed to a young demographic, particularly a young African-American demographic.”

“He was a trailblazer,” says ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, “not only because he was black — obviously black — but because of his style, his demeanor, his presentation. He did not shy away from the fact that he was a black man, and that allowed the rest of us who came along to just be ourselves.”

“Yes, he brought hip-hop into the conversation,” says Jay Harris, “but I would go further than that. He brought in the barber shop, the church, R&B, soul music. Soul, period.”

So many of the storylines in sports are centered around social issues because sports are a reflection of society. Elevating the voices of the marginalized to the highest platforms is crucial in addressing those issues and adequately representing the diversity of fans. With more non-white people in highly visible and prominent ranks like the examples I mentioned above, sports coverage will continue to become even more inclusive and meaningful – something that will benefit us all.

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