Media Fuels Negative Perception of Black Athletes

A new study from the University of Missouri released this week suggests that Black athletes are treated differently than their White counterparts in the media, a fact that comes as no surprise to many whose lives and livelihoods revolve around sports.

In an examination of 155 news articles, MU associate professor of strategic communication Dr. Cynthia Frisby found that not only were more stories written about White athletes overall than their Black counterparts, but those Black athletes were overrepresented in crime stories and domestic violence stories and, overall, “53 percent of the stories involving black athletes had a negative tone, while only 27 percent of stories about white athletes were negative.”

“This study provides quantitative evidence of disparities in how media cover and stereotype Black male athletes,” Frisby said. “This serves as an important exploratory study that sets the framework for extensive future investigations into the way media portray and cover athletes from different ethnic backgrounds.”

But, for many, the study’s outcomes come as no surprise.

“Sports media is a White male affair,” said Dr. Frederick Gooding Jr., an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the Northern Arizona University whose work has focused largely on critical race theory in Media, Movies & Mainstream Sports.

Key to understanding this concept is studying the power structure under which media organizations are structured.

According to recent data, only 7.6 percent of Associated Press sports editors are Black, meaning that, even if media organizations make a push to hire Black talent, the people in control often do not look like the athletes they cover.

(For the record, a 2006 study by The Institute on Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that not a significant enough push is made to hire Black talent. In that report, the data showed Whites made up 94 percent of sports editors, 89 percent of assistant sports editors, 88 percent of sports columnists, and 87 percent of sports reporters at the time.)

“What we have to be mindful of is that, while the product we all love,” the games and the players that play them “is majority-minority, those around them are primarily White,” Gooding told an audience at last week’s NCORE summit in Washington, D.C.

“You cannot separate the racism from the capitalism,” said Charles Modiano, founder of Privilege, Oppression and Power in Sport, an organization dedicated to exposing biases and promoting equity in sports media coverage.

As such, Gooding said there are six recurring “sportotypes”—recurring sports figure profiles that may appear harmless on an individual basis, but nonetheless contribute to a message of marginalization of the Black athlete—that show up in sports coverage: Most Black athletes are portrayed as either the “model citizen,” the “diva,” the “menace to society,” the “buck,” the “intellectually suspect” and the “comic relief characters.” Few, he argued, are covered exclusively on their skill or ability.

But why does this happen, even after those who study media trends point it out? Gooding argues it is about maintaining an appropriate balance of power.

“When African-Americans were no longer enslaved, there was a lot of consternation … about their place in society,” said Gooding. “So, oftentimes, you might find Black media to be very critical of Black athletes.”

Perpetuating the stereotypes in the media keeps them engrained in the mind of the public and helps maintain the balance, experts say.

Dr. Temple Northup, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Houston, recently studied the influence of news coverage on an individual’s unconscious attitudes toward social groups.

“Based on the findings from the study in the U.S., long-term exposure to local television news, wherein African-Americans are depicted frequently and stereotypically as criminals, predicted increased negative implicit attitudes toward African-Americans,” said Northup. “Viewers who watched more local television news demonstrated more unconscious negative attitudes toward African-Americans.”

In short, “regular exposure to stereotypical news coverage creates negative implicit attitudes,” said Northup.

“There should be no shock about how the media portrays Black athletes in comparison to White athletes,” said Dr. Robert A. Bennett III, whose work at the Todd A. Bell National Resource Center on the African-American male at The Ohio State University includes mentorship of student-athletes on campus.

“Taking athletics out of the equation, simply look at how the media portrays Blacks and Whites. Black Baltimore protesters were categorized as thugs when protesting the death of Freddie Gray. Yet, with the recent shootout where nine were killed in Waco, Texas, between rival biker gangs, where many of the overwhelming members were White, no such terminology was ever used and it was reported these guys had hundreds of weapons stashed,” said Bennett. “It should not be surprising because historically it has been natural practice to paint the activities of Blacks in a negative light.”

More than a game

For many Black youth, sports are promoted as “a way out,” a ticket to a better life, a way to ascend the socioeconomic ladder and “make it.”

“For some cats, ball is life,” Gooding said. “We often overlook [the fact that] while ball is life [for many of the guys playing the game], it’s just a game, it’s just entertainment” to many of those who consume the product and those who write about it.

That disconnect between understanding that, for the athletes, the games are their livelihood, their survival mechanism—versus being simply entertainment for the consumers and writers—is another key.

“True cultural sensitivity requires the eradication of racial and ethnic stereotyping; thus, journalists and reporters must reflect on how their own unfounded beliefs about race differences in sports likely contribute to the stereotyping of Black athletes as engaged in more criminal activity and innately physically gifted yet lacking in intelligence and strong work ethics,” Frisby said. “Not only does negative media coverage serve to legitimize social power inequalities, but also it is likely to undermine Black athletes’ achievements and contribute to stereotype threat.”

Another issue is failing to see the athletes as humans, rather than as commodities.

“Why are you rooting for this person when they can run fast and jump high? When they can’t do that, why don’t you care about them,” Modiano asked.

“When it comes to people of color, and Black males [particularly], they often have a smaller margin of error and a greater margin of punishment” in the media, said Gooding.

And this does not just extend to off-field or criminal antics. “Please don’t let them make two bad plays in a row, or you’re out,” he said.