Miami Heat’s LeBron James speaks with Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant during a game on January 19, 2012. The media’s stereotypical portrayals of race have obscured reality in sports.
I’m no longer sure that seeing is believing.
As a former newspaper journalist, I’m disheartened to say that what you now see in the media isn’t always an objective reality. Even when an article or broadcast reports the truth, the accompanying pictures and images can sometimes impress upon readers or viewers another set of facts that may be at odds with the story.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, for example, delights in detailing how he used the gross distortion of media imagery of black men in sports to win a bar bet with the folks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or VFW, post in his hometown of Piedmont, West Virginia.
In an essay written for Sports Illustrated, Gates, an authority on African American literature and culture, told his drinking buddies that there were approximately 35 million black people living in the United States. He then wagered $5 to anyone who could tell him how many African Americans make a living playing professional sports in the United States.
The group of sports-loving men smiled, knowing they had a sucker in their midst. Everyone at the VFW post knew that blacks dominate some of the most popular sports in America. All they had to do was turn on their televisions, right?
Gates, a great raconteur, tells the story:
“Ten million!” yelled one intrepid soul, too far into his cups.
“No way … more like 500,000,” said another.
“You mean all professional sports,” someone interjected, “including golf and tennis, but not counting the brothers from Puerto Rico?” Everyone laughed.
“Fifty thousand, minimum,” was another guess.
At the end of the day, nobody won the money—all of the men grossly exaggerated their numbers. As Gates reported in Sports Illustrated, the facts about black athletes in America at the time his article was published were stunningly low:
- There were 1,200 black professional athletes in all U.S. sports.
- There were 12 times more black lawyers than black athletes.
- There were 20 times more black dentists than black athletes.
- There were 15 times more black doctors than black athletes.
Arkansas Gazette sportswriter Jon Entine surveyed all professional sports teams in 2008 and figured that while 13 percent of the nation’s population is black, 80 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association and 67 percent of the players in the National Football Association are black. Or, to put it another way, Entine calculated that the odds of a black teenager in America becoming a professional athlete are 4,000-to-1.
Such hard-to-believe facts contradict what so many Americans imagine they know based on what they see on TV. After all, this is a sports-crazed nation, and what sports fan doesn’t watch ESPN—and especially its popular “SportsCenter” program—where black people are overrepresented as athletes and announcers? The sports media industry doesn’t have to say explicitly that black athletes dominate sports. They just show an endless highlight reel of slam dunks and touchdown runs, and the pictures speak for themselves.
But a picture can—and often does—lie.
Which brings me to the cover art of last week’s Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Illustrating a story about the rebounding U.S. housing market, the Bloomberg editors chose inexplicably to run a cartoonish drawing of people with overt racial and ethnic features apparently swimming in a cash-filled house.
The cover drew almost immediate—and all negative—reactions. My colleague at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg, described the cover as “awful as art” and quoted media critic Ryan Chittum’s description of the cover in the Columbia Journalism Review as “awful as journalism.”
Of course, a Bloomberg Businessweek editor soon apologized. “Our cover illustration last week got strong reactions, which we regret,” Josh Tyrangiel, the magazine’s editor, wrote in a statement sent to several news outlets. “Our intention was not to incite or offend. If we had to do it over again, we’d do it differently.”
But that’s not good enough. As Rosenberg argues, the magazine’s editors and publishers need to come clean, not issue a mealy mouthed apology. “If you want to walk a line and publish edgy covers, you have a particular obligation to think about where the line is,” she writes. “And if you want forgiveness, you need to actually look at yourself and your practices in a systemic way.”
The NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Center for Responsible Lending have taken up the charge as well, demanding a full explanation and apology for the offensive cover. In an email sent to NAACP supporters, Dedrick Muhammad, senior director of the NAACP Economic Department, condemned the magazine:
The insulting part of this cover isn’t just the derogatory and cartoonish depiction of racial and ethnic minorities, but rather the insinuation that homeowners—coincidentally all people of color—are somehow greatly profiting today as the housing sector slowly recovers … We know where the fault really lies: unscrupulous banks and predatory lenders who exploited our most vulnerable citizens with reckless abandon. It is these institutions who have had a “Great American Rebound” as the article itself notes.
But that’s not what the image shows. Whether in professional sports or big business, stereotypical images steep into the collective consciences of those who view them and mistakenly believe they’ve seen the entire truthful picture.