Color coded: racial descriptors in television coverage of intercollegiate sports.

Author:Rada, James A.

African American athletes, once excluded from participating in professional and intercollegiate sports because of institutionalized discrimination, now participate in many sports at a rate that equals or greatly exceeds their representation in the population. This is especially true in the case of intercollegiate and professional football and basketball (Center for the Study of Sport in Society, 2001).

At the same time that African American participation in professional and collegiate sports was growing, so too was television's (overage of sports. Thanks to the development of satellite technology and cable television, and the growing popularity and marketability of sports, televised sports coverage has proliferated. McCarthy and Jones (1997) noted that the marriage of sports and television has produced one of the more mutually beneficial relationships in the marketplace. Sports coverage has delivered a larger viewing audience to the networks, and the sporting entities have used that coverage to increase their visibility and revenue.

However, at the intersection of these "growth spurts" lies a potential dilemma. Throughout the history of television, African Americans and the African American community have been underrepresented in, and often entirely excluded from, television coverage. When African Americans have appeared, they have often been pigeonholed into demeaning, stereotype-ridden portrayals showing them as bestial, brutish, buffoonish, comical, criminal, dependent on government entitlements or support, ignorant, lazy, menacing, oversexed, and prone to out-of wedlock births (see Bogle, 1994, 2001; Dates & Barlow, 1990; Davis & Harris, 1998; Dixon & Linz, 2000; Entman & Rojecki, 2001; Lule, 1995; MacDonald, 1992; Romer, Jamieson, & de Coteau, 1998; Staples & Jones, 1985; United States Commission for the Study of Civil Rights, 1977; United States Riot Commission Report, 1968).

It is these two contradictory, yet overlapping phenomena that prompted this research project. Specifically, the investigation explored whether the equality that African Americans have gained on the field or court is undermined by television coverage that perpetuates racial bias.

Sports, Television, and Race

The competitive component of sports, especially when viewed in the context of its unscripted action and unknown outcome, creates a fertile field for investigation. As Birrell (1989) noted:

Sport provides a particularly public display of relations of dominance and subordination.... The point of sport is to display publicly the processes of challenge and struggle between two sides alleged to begin in equal terms but determined to produce and sustain relations of dominance vis-a-vis one another. Moreover, sport as a meritocracy based on skill quietly reaffirms our national common sense; individuals who work hard and possess the right stuff will always prevail. Turned on its head, this lesson becomes even more insidious: those who are at the top must have risen to the top through fair means and thus deserve their position. In contrast, those not at the top do not possess the requisite talent for such privilege. Even the runner up is a loser. In addition to their competitive nature, sports possess another aspect that makes it worthy of study. By their nature, sports provide objective measures to evaluate the performance of a player and/or a team. Statistics such as win loss percentage, shooting percentage, and baiting average provide a baseline by which observers can establish a commonly held interpretation of success and failure.

The investigation of sports gains added value when television coverage is factored into the equation. McCarthy and Jones (1997) argued that television has proven to be the perfect medium for covering sports. As the action moves from the field or court via television, the combination of the visual and the aural elements of coverage fulfills many emotional needs of audience members. In addition to these emotional elements, televised sports coverage also carries a personalized, dramatized immediacy that provides the opportunity to create ideological reproductions (Whannel, 2000). These reproductions might not the themselves be reflections of the world at large. Instead, they might be versions constructed by those responsible for producing the coverage. It is at this point where race, the third element of the equation, comes into play.

As Hoberman (1997) noted, sportscasters serve as the unofficial representative of the predominantly White power structure of sports. As such, they have the opportunity to "frame issues and interpret behavior immediately to enormous audiences" (p. 38). Staples and Jones (1985) took Hoberman's assertion one step further by saying that when announcers frame issues and behaviors, they do so in accordance with race-based misperceptions. Birrell (1989) concurred, noting that sports' message of domination and subordination often breaks down along lines of race, class, and gender.

The combination of a predominantly White reporting and announcing corps and an often overwhelmingly large number of African American athletes, coupled with the live, unscripted nature of televised coverage, (an create an environment that is ripe for the reproduction of racialized representations. The literature on stereotype activation and expression has shown that when a person is primed with the presence of the object of stereotypical beliefs, and placed in a situation that creates high anxiety and a need to respond quickly, those stereotypical beliefs rise to the surface and are readily expressed (Devine, 1989, 2001; Kawakami & Dovidio, 2001; Lambert et al., 2003; Lowery, Hardin, & Sinclair, 2001).

In live coverage of sporting events, announcers are placed in just such an environment. Having events unfold before them at a breakneck pace puts announcers under enormous pressure to generate commentary to fill the time and keep the program moving. Such pressure might cause announcers to utter stereotypical beliefs that, in a less frantic environment, might be more controlled.

The question of bias in sports coverage is neither new nor limited to race. To date, several research endeavors have uncovered bias across race, gender, and ethnicity (Davis & Harris, 1998; Duncan & Messner, 1998; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Jackson, 1989; Kane & Lenskyj; 1998; Lule, 1995; McCarthy & Jones, 1997; Rada, 1996; Rainville & McCormick, 1977; Sabo, Jansen, Tate, Duncan, & Leggett, 1996; Tuggle, 1997; Tuggle & Owen, 1999; Whannel, 2000). The presence of bias has not been limited by venue either. Research has found bias across a wide range of sporting endeavors ranging from professional and intercollegiate sports in the United States to international events such as the Olympics. Research has also demonstrated that bias can take many forms, from what is heard (the spoken commentary of the on-air talent) to what is seen (the production practices of those covering the games).

This study focused on previous research investigating racial bias found in announcers' commentary (luring the televised coverage of professional football and intercollegiate men's basketball in the United States. One form of racial bias that researchers have consistently uncovered is the "brawn versus brains" descriptions directed toward the players (Davis & Harris, 1998; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Jackson, 1989; McCarthy & Jones, 1997; Rada, 1996; Rainville & McCormick, 1977). On the surface, complimenting an athlete for his athletic ability and physical attributes would seem to be a positive reflection on that person; however, bias reveals itself when such commentary is viewed through the prism of race. Researchers have found that announcers are more likely to confine their descriptions, and praise, of African American athletes to statements regarding their athletic abilities and physical attributes.

The assumed physicality of African Americans has its roots in the antebellum-era stereotype of the Black Buck, or Brute--an image that is still present in modern-day portrayals of African Americans (Bogle, 1994; Lule, 1995). When that image carries over to the athletic arena, two more elements are added to the portrayal: the natural athleticism and the animal-like physical attributes of African American athletes (Davis & Harris, 1998; McCarthy & Jones, 1997; Rada, 1996; Rainville & McCormick, 1977). Portraying African Americans as naturally athletic or endowed with God-given athleticism exacerbates the stereotype by creating the impression of a lazy athlete, one who does not have to work at his craft (McCarthy & Jones, 1997).

Along with the overt associations that come with describing African American athletes in animal terms, such descriptions also create the impression that they are closer to nature and, thus, further away from civilization (Hargreaves, 1986). These stereotype-ridden expressions came to the fore in 1989 when Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, then an on-air personality with CBS Sports, openly expressed the belief that the success of African American athletes was the result of selective and effective breeding on the part of slaveowners (Almond, 1989; Wilbon, 1988).

The problem becomes magnified when compared with the portrayal of White athletes. Announcers seem to have ceded the physical element of athletic competition to African American athletes. When announcers do refer to the White athletes' physical accomplishments and/or attributes, they often highlight two factors: the players' intellectual and cognitive prowess, and a strong, blue collar-like work ethic (Davis & Harris, 1998; McCarthy & Jones, 1997; Rada, 1996; Rainville & McCormick, 1977).

Another form of racial bias has been shown to exist through descriptions that create a more overtly negative image of African Americans, especially when announcers endeavor to describe other aspects of a player, such as intellect and character (Davis & Harris, 1998; Rada, 1996; Rainville &amp...

To continue reading