Monday, March 23

More Than Black and White

Came across an interesting article a few days ago on The Root detailing the dearth of black writers in the nation’s newspaper and, more specifically, how the narrowing of the country’s papers is cutting especially harshly among African-Americans.

The PI’s (well, used to be the PI’s anyways) Gary Washburn was one of those mentioned in the story, and Mr. Washburn made the following point:

“Generally, the difference for an African American in this business is, we don’t get the hookup. We don’t get ‘I went to college with your uncle,’ … You just have to deal with the climate. You can’t complain … because it ain’t gonna change any time soon.”

It’s a pessimistic (or realistic, depending on one’s attitude) analysis, and it caused me to wonder, just how many of the beat writers covering the league today are black? (Ironically, when the Sonics left town, they removed three African-American beat writers from the league; Washburn, Percy Allen, and Jayda Evans).

I did a quick study of the 30 teams, and while it’s nearly impossible to pin down the specific writers for each team, I tried my best to come up with a comprehensive list. In case you’re wondering, here are the writers I included for the study:

Atlanta: Sekou Smith, Terence Moore
Boston: Peter May, Ian Rider, Marc Spears, Steve Bulpett, Mark Murphy
Charlotte: Rick Bonnell
Chicago: John Jackson, KC Johnson
Cleveland: Brian Windhorst
Dallas: David Moore, Eddie Sefko, Jan Hubbard
Denver: Benjamin Hochman
Detroit: Vince Ellis, Chris Mccosky
Golden State: Janny Hu
Houston: Jonathan Feigen
Indiana: Mike Wells, Jeff Rabjohns
LA: Ramona Shelburne, Kurt Streeter, Art Thompson III. Kevin Ding, Janis Carr, Mike Bresnahan, Helene Elliott
Memphis: Ronald Tillery
Miami: Sarah Rothschild, Michael Wallace, Ira Winderman
Milwaukee: Charles Gardner
Minnesota: Don Seeholzer, Jerry Szgoda
New Jersey: Dave D'allesando, Al Ianazzone: Julian Garcia
New Orleans: John Reid
New York: David Boroff, Frank Isola, Mitch Lawrence, Howard Beck
Orlando: Brian Schmitz
Philadelphia: Phil Jasner, David Aldridge, Stephen A Smith, Bernard Fernandez, Kate Fagan
Phoenix: Paul Coro
Portland: Jason Quick, Joe Freeman
Sacramento: Sam Amick
Oklahoma: Darnell Mayberry
San Antonio: Jeff McDonald
Toronto: Dave Feschuk, Jeff Blair, Lance Hornby
Utah: Tim Buckley, Steve Luhm, Ross Siler
Washington: Ivan Carter, Michael Lee, Joseph D'Hippolito

(Feel free to chime in with whichever omissions you feel I’ve made in the comments).

Omissions and oversights aside, let us assume for the sake of the discussion that it is a somewhat accurate listing of who is covering the NBA for newspapers these days (and, yes, I am aware that electronic media could have been included, but if it’s nearly impossible to compile a print media list, compiling an electronic one is like convincing Dennis Rodman to wear a chastity belt). With that assumption in mind, here is the racial breakdown of those 64 writers:

White: 46
Black: 14
Asian: 2
Latino: 2

Or, by percentages:

White: 72%
Black: 22%
Asian: 3%
Latino: 3%

Compared to the rest of the newspaper business, it’s an impressive tally (according to The Root, about 13% of writers at America’s papers are black, roughly equivalent to the population as a whole).

But consider this from another perspective: roughly 75% of the league is made up of black men, meaning the percentage of people covering the league – racially speaking, anyways – is a mirror image of those they cover. And, by mirror image, of course, I mean completely opposite.

A sidebar is perhaps necessary here. I am fully aware that this is a sensitive and complicated subject. Calling a person “black” or “white” in today’s society is not so simple as it was 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Our society grows more multi-hued every day, and, to be honest, this is an uncomfortable discussion to have. Thankfully, the point of this story is not to provide precise genealogical statistics of the NBA and those who cover it, but, rather, paint a broad picture.

Back to the point. If, as this analysis shows, the league is three-quarter black, and, if the men and women who cover them are three-quarter white, does that matter? (And, lest we forget, the folks writing blogs may be even whiter than those who write for the papers).

Obviously, we’d like to think it does not and, in many ways, I’m sure the majority of writers and players could care less.

But, honestly, a person’s heritage has to affect the way they write to some degree. Further, with the increasing proliferation of analysis pages from non-print media available to everyone (for free!), the job of a newspaper reporter has become more and more reliant upon their ability to acquire interesting quotes and anecdotes from players and coaches, and less reliant on providing analysis. I’m not saying beat reporters are incapable of providing insight – it’s just that they face much tighter time constraints than a blogger does.

Anyhow, I bring this up to make this point: If we take it as a given that a beat reporter’s primary way of proving his value to the basketball discussion is to provide insight into the inner activities of the team he (or she) covers, his (or her) ability to build relationships with the players involved is crucial.

And, to be frank, it’s not an earth-shattering revelation to point out that people are more likely to trust others of their own background. Obviously, given time, we’re all capable of building relationships with others of any cultural background, but in the mad rush of a post-game lockerroom, or in the frenetic sprint of an 82-game schedule, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that a black reporter may have a slight advantage over a white reporter in building a relationship with a roster made up of (predominantly) black athletes.

If you think all of this is moot and that beat reporters are as relevant to the future of basketball coverage as the price of printing ink, fair enough. I would argue, though: Where will the stories come from, then? Those memories we all have of our favorite players and teams, what percentage of them are built through what we read in the newspaper, in magazines, or on-line? Yes, statistical analysis has given us remarkable insights into the true building of a winning basketball team, and has enabled us to learn which statistics are overrated, underrated, or just plain irrelevant.

But being a basketball fan is more than pace factor and adjusted plus/minus, right? I’d like to think that the statistical aspect is but one slice of the pie, along with coverage from beat reporters, watching games in person, impersonating players when we were children, talking about your team with your friends, all of that … all of that goes into being a fan. Removing one of those slices shrinks the size of the pie, and, while this metaphor is beginning to give me mid-morning hunger pains, that can’t be good, can it?

I know, arguing that there should be a higher proportion of black beat writers is a dicey subject to tackle, in that figuring out how to change the percentages without resorting to affirmative action is near impossible. I guess, in the end, that I would hope the people doing the hiring – the editors – might give some consideration to what Gary Washburn said at the beginning, and that rather than hiring their cousins, or guys they golfed with at a conference in Scottsdale three years ago, they look at hiring someone who might be able to provide their readers someone who might provide stories they haven’t been hearing.

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