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Is race an issue in sports coverage?
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
August 30, 2001
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A new study commissioned by a Twin Cities media watchdog group says black coaches who receive bad press are more likely to have their careers ruined than are white coaches. The report was released Wednesday night in St. Paul, during a media forum on whether race is a factor in sports reporting.

Researcher Richard Lapchick (left), director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, presents his study about sportswriting and race at a forum in St. Paul Wednesday night. Several local experts responded to his findings, including Macalester College history professor Mahmoud El Kati (right).
Listen to Lapchick's presentation.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The Minnesota News Council sponsored both the research and the public forum, which stemmed from specific complaints over the way Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green and former U of M men's basketball coach Clem Haskins have been portrayed by local print media. The study, "Reporting in Black and White: Coverage of Coaching Scandals in Minnesota," was conducted by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, located in Boston.

Researcher Richard Lapchick told the audience the study confirmed one of his long-held beliefs - that African Americans are often viewed by different standards, and are the victims of a less overt - but just as insidious - racism.

"What the media - or some of the media - is doing with our athletes, especially our African American athletes, is to reinforce stereotypes that too much of polite and politically correct white society still embrace, but no longer speak about," Lapchick said.

The study looked at news stories about Clem Haskins and Dennis Green. The authors reviewed 102 newspaper articles, but did not study radio or TV coverage. In 1996, Dennis Green received much negative publicity over a lawsuit and allegations of sexual harassment. In 1999, coverage about Haskins centered around his involvement in the academic cheating scandal in the men's basketball program. Haskins lost his job over the scandal and the U of M was sanctioned by the NCAA. The Pioneer Press later was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the cheating.

The study compared the Haskins and Green case studies with those of two other white Minnesota coaches, and seven other coaches outside of Minnesota, one of whom is black. The study found that while no racist language was used, regularly focusing negative attention on black coaches taints their future job opportunities. The study found that white coaches involved in scandals had no trouble finding new jobs.

Most of those at the meeting seemed to agree with the study's findings. Two media panels discussed the problem of press coverage in the larger context of Minnesota race relations. One panel looked at the problem, the other, possible solutions. Panelist Don Shelby, a WCCO-TV anchor, posed the question about what he sees as a particular problem for white reporters.

"Can you dislike a black coach? Can you dislike a black coach without running the risk of being called a racist? That scares me. You ought to be free to hate a coach no matter what color he is. But I think if a white guy hates a black coach, you're in trouble," Shelby said.

"Not necessarily," responded panelist Syl Jones, an African American writer. "If a white guy hates a black coach and calls him a gorilla, or calls him Da-Da Amin, Da Da Big Daddy, that's racist. I don't think there's anybody here who says you can't hate who you want to hate. But that really has nothing to do with how you report a story, does it? If you're a journalist, it shouldn't. You're talking about whether the man does a good job or not," Jones said.

Several audience members made comments and asked questions. KSTP-TV reporter Harris Faulkner raised the issue of the lack of racial diversity in Twin Cities newsrooms.

"Why are there no black reporters covering sports in Minneapolis and St. Paul? And at 5, 6, or 10, I don't really see that many other people who look like me," Faulkner said.

The importance of hiring and retaining people of color was discussed as one critical step in ensuring more balanced coverage of race and sports. University of Minnesota journalism professor Shelly Rodgers says readers - consumers of news - can also play an important role in changing how the news is covered.

"What can consumers do? It's very simple. Stop buying the newspapers, stop watching the TV news, and as subscription rates start to fall, as ratings start to fall, the news media will take note," said Rodgers.

Other suggestions offered at the forum included honest discussions about race, and more training for reporters so they avoid stereotyping and think more about how they frame a particular story. The media study and forum were funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.