George Solomon on African American Scribes
The sports gallery in the National Museum of African American History and Culture reflects more than 100 years of achievements, including overcoming enormous struggles by athletes and members of the sports media.
Eloquent words from journalists Michael Wilbon, Kevin Blackistone, Jemele Hill, J.A. Adande and Howard Bryant — all ESPNers — add greatly to the appeal of the new, magnificent Washington, D.C. building.
I also was moved by recognition of the late sportswriters Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith for their dedicated efforts in pushing for Major League Baseball to integrate its game. That occurred, of course, in 1945, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and eventually promoted him to the majors in 1947.
But Robinson, Lacy and Smith — as well as the editors of crusading newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American and Pittsburgh Courier, likely would not be satisfied with the current state of African American sportswriters in this country.
“A lot of good (African American) journalists are doing other things besides working for newspapers,” said Garry Howard, a former sports editor now director of corporate initiatives for the American City Business Journals.
“For the past 20 years newspapers have been so busy trying to stop the bleeding, the need for diversity of staff isn’t that important anymore. Newspapers were a great place to learn the business.”
According to a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review,” the most recent gender report card which evaluates the sports desks of over 100 newspapers and websites, found that 92 percent of sports editors, 84 percent of columnists and 85 percent of the reporters were white.” The piece also noted males held more than 85 percent of the jobs in each of these positions.
The same CJR article highlighted the fact that in the 2016 edition of the book,” Best American Sports Writing,” of the 30 articles chosen for the book, no African American writer was included. CJR asked the book’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt executive editor, Susan Canavan, for an explanation. Her response was the “best’ journalism had been chosen and a lack of diversity was “sort of a larger portrait of the industry and who’s doing the writing.”
“Take away ESPN. The numbers are pretty poor,” observed Greg Lee, NBA.com’s top editor and a veteran of stints at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “The commitment to develop young talent isn’t as strong now as it once was.”
While the launch of ESPN’s “The Undefeated” last year – mixing sports, race and culture, has been a watershed achievement — other signs are less promising. Such as, according to a column on Dec. 17 by New York Times public editor, Liz Spayd, “no African Americans are among its 21 (sports) reporters (on The Times), yet blacks are plentiful among the teams they cover and the audience they serve.”
Spayd reported that Mark Thompson, The Times CEO, told a group of top leaders of the newspaper last spring that managers could face “dismissal if they failed to diversify their staffs.”
The Times, which over the years has had excellent African American sportswriters, recently lost its veteran (more than 25 years) columnist Bill Rhoden to retirement. Rhoden’s “retirement” lasted about four weeks; he now writes for “The Undefeated.”
“Diversity is supremely important and something we struggle with every day,” Times Sports Editor Jason Stallman said in an email when asked for comment.
“It takes time to develop and cultivate talent,” NBA.com’s Lee said. “And commitment.”
Meanwhile, some newspapers, including my former employer, The Washington Post, continue trying to do just that. The Post has on its reporting staff African Americans Candace Buckner (Wizards), Mike Jones (Redskins), Master Tesfatsion (Redskins) and Ava Wallace (colleges), as well as columnists Jerry Brewer and Kevin Blackistone.
And, the Sports Journalism Institute’s Sandra Rosenbush and Leon Carter continue turning out talented minority and women sports journalists for internships and full-time jobs every year. You just have to answer their telephone calls.
Sports Journalism lost one of its finest columnists and sports editors ever with the passing, Jan. 19, of the Miami Herald’s Edwin Pope at the age of 88. Pope was an exceptional writer, smart and tough, when necessary. With a twinkle in his eye, no one used the needle better than Edwin Pope.
When he was running the sports department at the Miami Herald and yours truly was his campus correspondent at the University of Florida in 1962, a note from Pope said: “While we don’t expect your coverage from Gainesville to match Hemmingway’s reporting and writing from Spain in the day, maybe you could do a little more reporting and work on the writing…It might help.”
Words I saved and used myself more than a few times.