The Evolution of Race and Sports Media

Sports are political. Anyone who says otherwise has ignored the history and circumstances around the evolution of both sports and culture. The portrayals of sports and race in modern media allows a glimpse into a different society. These media representations can either perpetuate or challenge dominant norms. Gatekeepers within the media allow for the perpetuation or challenging of these norms. The media and journalism itself can be seen as a sort of general gatekeeper because information is power and the media chooses how to portray said information.

Portrayals in pop culture attempt but can never quite become an exact replica. The movie 42 is a great way to remember how baseball changed America and the struggle that Jackie Robinson went through. It cannot, however, replicate the feelings that average Americans had at the integration of baseball. The movie allows the viewer to sit on the outside looking into this society, whereas the people who were actually there were a part of the narrative and no scope of looking back can cover the feelings of being within a narrative. According to my interview with Ronnie Rabinovitz, Jackie Robinson’s pen pal, the movie 42 had to keep it PG-13, but the abuse Robinson received was “100% worse than that”. Opposing teams would spike him, throw baseballs at his head and of course there were the numerous death threats made against him and his family. By keeping the movie PG-13, the narrative and the history can reach more people and thus educate more on these issues. At the same time, by keeping the movie PG-13, this creates a gentler narrative and tells people who view it now that the problems were not that severe. This could lead to an excuse of harsh treatment of citizens now because “it could be worse”.

42 Official Trailer

Accordingly, the 42 did stay true to Jackie Robinson’s character, emphasizing the importance of grace under pressure. At the same time, this puts all the effort of equality building on the minority figure; i.e., African Americans are the ones who have to fix racism. The film showed his hotheadedness with the Freedom Rider before Freedom Rides scene, where Jackie gets court martialed for refusing to move seats on an army bus. In this, it also showed his staunchness to stick to beliefs. Rabinovitz says that Robinson would give him advice; one of these lessons was that “you must stand by your principles even at the possible loss of prestige”. The film also showed his generosity and compassion. According to Rabinovitz, Robinson would sign every single autograph even if it took hours; once he sent the bus with the baseball team ahead of him so they wouldn’t have to wait for him. In this, the movie underemphasized all the bad things but correctly emphasized important characteristics such as compassion and belief in oneself.

One thing 42 did not really cover was the press and portrayal of Jackie Robinson. When Robinson first broke into the MLB, it was 1947. According to Rabinovitz, in the white newspapers this story wasn’t front page news but 3rd or 5th page. This wasn’t a major story and yet race relations and equality was resting on Robinson’s shoulders. Rabinovotz called this a “very lonely existence” and said that Robinson “fought on but he couldn’t fight back”. Years later when Robinson could speak out, people would call him “uppity”, a racialized term for black people who do not fit neatly into their racialized role.

There is the question of whether or not it is necessary for people to be a part of their narrative (for example, black people in charge of newspapers to cover black experiences and existence). This story of Robinson helps illustrate the importance of this. When Robinson broke the color line in 1947, this should have been big news, whether people were for it or against it. Instead it wasn’t front page news. When the people in charge of disseminating information say that something isn’t important, the people receiving said information come to believe that it is not important.

The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, especially illustrate the sentiment that minorities must be a part of their narrative. In 1946, the New York Times instituted new policies against racial tagging unless out of necessity. In a time before desegregation, this white newspaper challenged racial norms and began humanizing black Americans. For minorities to utilize gatekeepers is also essential normative change and protecting their narratives. The mother of Emmett Till, a young black man brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman, decided to have an open casket funeral so that all could see what happened, because otherwise she feared no one would believe how bad it was and they would cease to care. In journalism and reporting, seeing is believing. Roberts and Klibanoff show how The Gazette, a white newspaper, could actually challenge the structural racism with fearless journalists backed by an equally fearless owner. For minorities, access to these types of gatekeepers is crucial to getting their messages heard across wider and maybe even more important audiences.

The Race Beat identifies reporters in general as gatekeepers to equality and calls reporters “sympathetic referees”. The ability of reporters to present to the general populace every day and the inequalities within it gives power to the people to rise up against oppression. Sometimes reporters at a protests were the ones being targeted and attacked so that they wouldn’t be able to report on what was happening. Similarly, Dr. King is quoted with “If you create enough tension, you attract attention to your cause” indicating and relying on the importance of journalists. Reporters as gatekeepers have a special role then, and more power than people realize. Roberts and Klibanoff tell of the KKK agreeing to avoid beating and pushing reporters out of an event to avoid bad press the next day. When reporters are present, there is safety provided by these gatekeepers who can choose what people see and read.

Contemporary reporters also risk their safety to do their job.

Amy Bass, in Not the Triumph but the Struggle: 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, shows how sports provide both a literal and metaphorical level playing field. Perhaps this is why people like to claim that sports are not political and that there is no room for politics in sports. Sports literally provides a platform upon which people may make political statements. In 1968, two African American Olympic athletes (John Carlos and Tommie Smith) were on the 1st and 2nd place pedestals after their events and choose not to sing the national anthem. Besides that, they lowered their heads and raised their fists (in black gloves) as a sign of black power and solidarity. This directly contradicted the nationalistic heritage of American sports and threatened the power dynamic within both the sporting and politics realms. There is an assumption that athletes have a responsibility to their country, thus making sports inherently political. This also emphasizes the importance that the oppressed must correct the actions of the oppressors rather than wholly changing the make-up of society.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the Olympic Pedestal

This is seen now with the advent of Colin Kaepernick. The field is meant to be an even playing field where everyone gets their chance to shine or dominate. The field also acts as a platform for state and commercial interests. The military is honored at every game and there’s advertisements everywhere, even sometimes on the players themselves. When Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, people chastised him saying to find a country whose flag he can respect and that sports aren’t meant to be political and so the athletes need to keep to themselves. As this paper has demonstrated, sports have never been apolitical and it was never meant to be. The Olympics provide ground for friendly competition among states to see who is the best and during the Cold War was seen as an actual battleground between the Soviets and the United States.

Race within sports and sports media requires the minorities to have some influence of their narrative within culture. Without this power from the gatekeepers, injustice will reign and again become normalized. Sports are not meant to be apolitical and for gatekeepers and representatives to act like it is is an injustice itself. This only serves to perpetuate the norms those in power appreciate without giving true representation or credence to the players and the sports themselves.

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Darby Matt

Darby Matt

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share