We have spent weeks watching and listening to our nation and the world march in protest against what happened to George Floyd and the social injustices that have plagued our communities and specifically African-Americans.
Politicians, activists, athletes, educators, protesters, and counter protesters have been scrutinized, terrorized and jailed for their efforts and opinions on what is needed to bring about change.
The media with its cameras, microphones and on-air commentators have followed the different narratives and ramifications. Even our sports pages–normally shielded from political and social unrest–have been forced to join the discussion as they chronicle the actions and tweets from athletes, coaches and professional sports organizations, concerning #BlackLivesMatter.
The Red Sox, the Yankees, the Giants, the Knicks, Drew Brees, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have had their actions and words dissected for their level of sincerity and plausible action. Now it’s time for those asking the questions to be scrutinized, too.
Our sports departments at newspapers and major sports on-line websites around the country need to take this opportunity to check themselves and make a change. Editors and those in charge of hiring need to take a timeout and ask themselves whether they’re going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Right now, the lack of diversity–real diversity—in sports journalism is appalling and getting worse.
I say this after completing a 23-year run as a general sports columnist at the New York Post. I have been a sports writer for 37 years since earning a diploma at New Mexico State University. I have been the first black sports writer and the first black beat reporter at a few different stops along the way and had hoped our sports world would be covered by a more diverse media by now. By that I mean more women and more people of color and varied backgrounds.
Instead, today’s sports staffs on daily print and on-line are largely all white males, charged with dictating the news and coverage of athletes of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.
This is not about on-air television talent where the heavy presence of retired African-American athletes turned broadcasters offers a smokescreen of racial balance. True diversity goes beyond those you see on pregame shows. I’m talking about producers, columnists, beat writers and insiders, those that create the stories that are talked about on television and talk radio.
I can add to the chorus about how what happened to Floyd sickened me. I can speak to being barred from playing in a coaches golf outing at a country club in Tennessee because I was black and about how a group of policemen swarmed me and my Cuban-American friend in the car I was driving in New Jersey and ordered us out because we “matched the description” of someone who committed an armed robbery.
I also grew up knowing good cops and detectives, who were admired and respected for the way they protected and served. I also think restoring Police Athletic Leagues around the country is one step in the right direction.
Having more diversity in sports journalism is important, too. The fallacy of being impartial observers has allowed the sports media to bury its collective head to anything not involving a ball. That can’t happen anymore. Opinions matter, websites matter, those who write words and shape stories matter.
According to a 2016 ASNE Diversity Survey, the percentage of minorities in the overall workforce at daily print and on-line organizations was 17 percent, 5.3 percent of which were listed as black. It’s only gotten worse with fewer newspapers and fewer jobs.
Diversity in those who cover sports at its basic levels matters now more than ever because athletes male and female are no longer going to shut up and play. They’re going to be black, brown, and gay and utilize various platforms to be outspoken about what they see and feel. They’ve gone beyond talking about the next game and trusting the process. They won’t be kept in their place. Those who cover them will need to understand them, not just quote them.
The plea here is for publishers, sports editors, managing editors and those that hire and fire to do better; to look harder for diverse talent; and to care about what your staff looks like. Editors also need to challenge their writers to think beyond the final score and learn who they’re actually writing about. If not, then you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.
George Willis spent 23 years as a sports columnist at the New York Post after working previously at the New York Times, Newsday and The Memphis Commercial Appeal. He is the author of the “The Bite Fight: Tyson, Holyfield and the Night That Changed Boxing Forever,” and co-author of the NY Times Best Seller “Unnecessary Roughness: Inside the Trial and Final Days of Aaron Hernandez.”