Does the media have a duty to make sure that everyone is fairly represented in sports? It’s a cornerstone of the American Dream, that we should all have an equal opportunity to make something of our lives, and for that to work in practice, it needs to be visible. We know that kids try harder when they have role models who they can relate to. Where sport is concerned, this doesn’t just give them a chance of becoming star athletes themselves – it also improves their confidence, social skills, and health. The way that the media achieves diverse representation is complicated, however. It depends in part on editorial decisions, but it also depends on who is researching, writing, and delivering the news. The story of improved diversity in sports has its roots in diversity in sports journalism.
A short history of US sports journalism
While sports journalism as a whole can be traced right back to antiquity, its history in the US is rather more complicated and uneven, reflecting the way that the country developed. Reporting on organized sports events goes right back to the late 18th century. It was the rise of the so-called ‘penny papers’ in the 1850s that really saw sports journalism take off, as editors used sports stories for filler and quickly realized that the public was excited by them.
The development of wireless, television, and then the internet each precipitated a further boom in sports journalism, with each medium retaining some audience share even after a new one came along. The growth in sports coverage saw sports reporting turn into a specialty, with a handful of sports columnists becoming celebrities in their own right, and the rise of high-profile sports commentators and presenters followed. In due course, there would be opportunities for dedicated, trained journalists and for charismatic sporting stars looking for a second career after aging out of their first one.
Changing the agenda: racial diversity in US sport
In the early days of US sports coverage, teams were racially segregated. Black boxers began to attract attention as early as the middle of the 19th century, but as the sport was illegal – it was considered too violent to be allowed and was lacking most of the safety protocols involved today – it took some time before anybody could report on it seriously. When they did, it was still considered to be a minority interest. As white people took up boxing, they dominated the headlines, and it wasn’t until Mohammad Ali came along that this changed, as he made too big of an impression to be ignored. Ali’s success inspired a growth in interest in sports of all kinds within the African-American population, as he had proven that it was possible to break through at the highest level. Ali paved the way for many other Black athletes to become legends in their own sports.
Three decades before Ali’s success, the most famous athlete in the world was, briefly, an African American. Jesse Owens had already set world records when he traveled to Berlin to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games where, right in front of Adolf Hitler, he won one gold medal after another, irrefutably destroying the Nazi idea that white people would always triumph over members of other races. While he abandoned his athletic career shortly afterward, he was recognized during his lifetime as one of the most famous and greatest athletes in track-and-field history.
Other sports opened up slowly over time. By the time Jackie Robinson was accepted into Major League Baseball in 1947, he had already built up enough of a following to guarantee excitement among sports writers and received a fair amount of positive press. High jumper Alice Coachman was widely celebrated when she became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track, the following year.
The rise of Black sports journalists
Reading the above, you may notice an assumption that it was white people’s views that really counted in the press. That’s because, during the early stages of the progress of Black athletes, Black journalists were only permitted to write for segregated publications. These publications faced a constant struggle to keep going because they were bought mostly by people in poverty and their advertisers were also operating on much lower incomes than those using the white press. It was very hard for journalists to make a name for themselves – or even a proper living – in that environment. Then, in 1947, something special happened. A young journalist called Wendell Smith met and offered to mentor Jackie Robinson, who was still struggling to get the treatment that he deserved from parts of the press. The two men became firm friends and as Robinson’s star rose, Smith got scoop after scoop.
Today’s newsrooms offer a much fairer deal as far as African Americans are concerned, but there is still a significant distance to travel. Despite laws aimed at clamping down on it, bias still exists in the hiring process and the real movers and shakers in the networks are almost exclusively white. Some Black journalists feel that the price of inclusion is having to adopt the culture of white journalism and sacrifice their own voices. There is also concern about the ease with which sports stars are able to slip into high-profile broadcast roles and thereby, in effect, deny young Black people the opportunity to access training, as networks prioritize established fame over journalistic skill.
Missing voices: Native people, sports journalism and the mascot controversy
While African-American and Asian American journalists have made significant progress in sports journalism in recent years, one group has found it more challenging, and that’s Native Americans. Despite the success of Sam Lacy and individuals such as Jim Thorpe of the Sac and Fox Nation, Johnny Bench of the Choctaw, and Abby Roque of the Wahnapitae First Nation, Native people have traditionally had low visibility in sport. As a result, young people may see less of a reason to give sport a try. Traditional Native sports such as tobogganing and canoeing have never received the kind of high-profile coverage that might have enabled significant fan followings to develop across the country.
Adding to the factors that deter many Native people from getting involved with sports is the issue of Native mascots. The appropriation of Native American imagery (often used out of context), the caricaturing of Native people, and the use of offensive language that recalls the genocide of Native people are serious issues that the wider public largely fails to understand. This is due in large part to the absence of Native people in the media, not only as interviewees but also more importantly as journalists and presenters. NDN Sports has recently been praised for trying to make a difference in this area, with award-winning writers Tyler Jones of the Choctaw and Charlie Perry of the Potawatomi working their way up the ranks, but there is still a long way to go to achieve proper representation.
The games we play: what gets attention?
Inevitably, editors must make decisions about which sporting events to cover, and if we’re serious about improving diversity, they can’t be led solely by public demand. It’s also worth thinking critically about which sports are represented by organizers in big international events such as the Olympic Games. This is not an innate issue with sport itself: in skateboarding, surfing, table tennis, and many types of martial arts and gymnastics, being smaller is a positive advantage.
Perhaps the most egregious example of editors favoring one set of sports over others is the deal given to women’s sports. Indeed, it was only in 2022 that the US women’s soccer team achieved something like equal pay, after a lengthy legal battle. Much of the argument against them receiving it came down to the notion that the public was less interested in watching female athletes than male ones – something that doesn’t really make much sense in a sport where the women’s team significantly outperforms the men’s one on the international stage. Ironically, the women won over the public to their side partly through a sustained media campaign that involved a lot of work with journalists who wanted to see change. Where progress is concerned, sports players and journalists tend to achieve it by working together.
Women in sports journalism
Given the low priority traditionally given to women’s sports, it should come as no surprise that female sports journalists have always encountered challenges. The journey toward equal representation was complicated by the fact that female sports reporters often faced harassment. Also, there can still be instances of discrimination in hiring and promotions, though women fare significantly better in the modern age. The problem is particularly acute in sports radio, where not one woman made it into the list of the top 100 personalities in 2021.
Women now outnumber men as graduates in journalism but are significantly more likely to leave the profession early in their subsequent careers, and sports reporting can be a particularly tough area. Monday Night Football alum Lisa Guerrero has spoken out about the bullying that she faced as a young reporter, and the problem is even more acute for women of color, with CNN’s Cari Champion saying that early in her career at ESPN SportsCenter, she was told that she should be grateful for having a job there at all. Despite this, however, determined women can make it to the top, and are working through organizations such as the Association for Women in Sports Media to help those who are following in their footsteps. Critically, more women are breaking through into corporate positions where they have more control over hiring practices and workplace culture.
The body politic: trans and intersex people in sport and sports coverage
One of the consequences of developing separate categories for women in sports has been the need to think carefully about where men’s advantages lie and what that means for people whose bodies may not fit neatly into one of two categories. Intersex people, whose bodies naturally blend some of the typical characteristics of men and women, can find themselves in a difficult position. Trans women may lose a great deal of muscle mass after taking hormone treatment for a prolonged period, but there is an argument that they retain advantages in some sports because of the way that their skeletons have formed if they have undergone a masculinizing puberty – and yet some trans men, such as Olympic triathlete Chris Mosier, succeed in men’s sports even after going through feminizing puberty.
This is a complicated area, with potential advantages varying from one sport to another, and writing on it properly requires a degree of scientific literacy that not every sports journalist possesses. It also requires sensitivity, as highly politicized debates around the issue can affect young people who just want to be able to enjoy sport like their friends do. More fundamentally, it raises questions about why we consider some biological differences, such as hormone levels or bone density, to be critical in determining fairness, but others, such as height or arm length, to be insignificant. What’s notable is that there are still very few trans voices in sports journalism – M.A. Voepel and Sydney Bauer being among the only big names – and no openly intersex ones.
No less a success: disabled people in sports and sports coverage
How do you persuade people that you are capable of reporting on sports when you are perceived as fundamentally incapable of playing them? Although the Paralympic Games have been around since 1948, the battle for proper recognition of disabled people’s sporting achievements is still going on today, with very little attention paid to them in most parts of the media.
The rise of online courses in journalism has made it easier for a lot of disabled people to qualify and seek out professional roles before having to deal with the often considerably higher-than-average costs of things such as relocation. Studying for a sports journalism degree online at St. Bonaventure University makes it possible to develop key skills such as interviewing and podcasting in an environment that is supportive of difference and encourages the development of cultural competence, which will enhance your ability to connect with people who are different from you, no matter who you are. You’ll also be supported to attend sporting events and even sit on the press row, where you can learn from direct observation of established professionals.
During the program, you’ll be taught how to discuss the nuances of race and ethnicity, gender, and the role of the journalist in a diverse sports media environment. You’ll also learn how to follow the best practices of journalism excellence and ethics and apply these standards when working in new forms of media. St. Bonaventure University’s faculty members hold high-level positions at organizations such as ESPN, the New York Post, and USA Today.
Building toward a more inclusive future
Sport is often described as showing us the best of what our country has to offer. It can also show us the worst – but most importantly, it’s a microcosm of society at large. As society changes and gradually becomes more inclusive, sport is doing likewise. Sports journalists are among the beneficiaries of this and are also one of the driving forces helping it to happen. By working in this area, you could help to make the whole country a more accepting, friendlier, and fairer place.