SMW Q&A: Dr. David J. Leonard on Race in the Sports Media


Sports Media Watch recently caught up with Washington State University professor David J. Leonard, author of the book “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness.” The primary topic of conversation is race in the sports media, including differences in coverage of Kobe Bryant and Duke Lacrosse, fighting in the NBA, and the gun debate.

SMW: Can you give some background on some of the research you?ve done over the years?

Leonard: In grad school, I didn?t do a lot of work around sport. It was always something that interests me, and at that point I didn?t even imagine writing about sport, teaching about sport, in critical, academic, analytical ways ? which is surprising, because one of my mentors at U-C Berkeley was Harry Edwards, who is one of the foremost scholars, activists and commentators on sport.

So when I came to Washington State, one of the first pieces I wrote was about Kobe Bryant and the initial rape charge and the media response that took place. That was kind of a bridging of my work on race, and my work on media, and my interest and passion for sport ? even though it?s a piece that isn?t so much about sports. Sport is a backdrop for these broader issues that took place. That was one of the first pieces I wrote, and then that just set my mind and work in motion where I would look for moments to enter into these broader conversations about race, gender, sport in some of my work.

I?ve done a lot on the NBA, but I?ve also done a significant amount of work on sports video games. So there?s different areas where I see an opportunity to look for and look at these broader issues within a sporting context.

SMW: The Kobe Bryant piece — ?The Next MJ or the Next OJ? — is interesting to contrast with the reaction to Duke Lacrosse. With Duke Lacrosse, you made the point that basically there was a rush to presume them innocent. That?s something you so rarely see in sports, and obviously that ended up being justifiable, but it?s just something you hardly ever see. When you’re talking about sports, people are very hesitant to view race as an issue, and when you talk about sports media, people are especially hesitant to do that. Is it just race, the differences in media coverage between Duke Lacrosse and Kobe Bryant, two cases that were very similar?

Leonard: I do think with Kobe and his case, there wasn?t just this presumption of guilt, and the language that was used, and the framing of the stories, but his case was used as a moment to talk about these purported broader problems in sports, in the NBA. So it was often packaged within these other cases, many of which involved African American NBA players who were also never ultimately charged, or the cases were dropped. And that seemed to not be central to the discussion, that arrest equals guilt and guilt equals problem.

Whereas with Duke, there was a rush to find their innocence, and again as you said, that was ultimately proven to be the case. But we have cases all the time where it takes 25 years and things like the Innocence Project — where there isn?t national attention, where there isn?t national media — to prove that innocence. So there seemed to be a legal effort, but also a media effort. A comparison might be to recent coverage with the shooting in Newtown or the shooting in Aurora, where the media has gone to great lengths to humanize, to explain, in these instances. So we see this array of efforts where Whites in public discourse, within media, are presumed innocent ? and again, not just in a legal sense, but in a life sense, in a cultural sense, in a social sense.

With Duke, you also saw very few articles that sought to look at the culture of Lacrosse, and look at broader issues of college students in terms of parties and drinking. ESPN did a full expose on the University of Oregon and other schools in terms of marijuana use, as if football and Oregon were somehow not representative of a broader issue on college campuses. When you look at drug use among football [players], it?s one of the lowest among student athletes and lacrosse is the highest. The question is, what instances lead us to talk about macro problems, to talk about larger cultures/communities.

SMW: With Lacrosse, there have been other major controversies as well, such as the situation with Yeardley Love at Virginia. These are situations that if they happened in basketball or football would have been just massive.

With Duke Lacrosse, I should point out ? and I?m sure a lot of people would point out ? that there wasn?t a rush to judgment that we normally see with these types of issues, but there was still a rush to judgment. We all recall Nancy Grace really just pushed the Duke Lacrosse story to the point that she didn?t even show up on the air when that all fell apart.

Leonard: And you raise an important point. Oftentimes when we look at issues, we want to see binary differences. Clearly with Duke Lacrosse, we saw a myriad of issues in terms of the media response to athletes, to how alleged crimes play out in sports media. It?s not simply, ?when involving Black athletes compared to White athletes, we get a stark difference? ? it?s much messier. We also have to look beyond ?is one a headline and one not a headline? to the types of language that?s used, even where reporters go. There was a study that was done comparing media response to rape cases and in one instance involving an affluent, very famous White male, the reporters would do their satellite shots from the person?s house. Whereas the other point of comparison, the African American male athlete, the cutaways, the live shots were always at the courthouse. These are important things to think about. How does that frame the discussion? Oftentimes we don?t look at the complexity and the messiness and the contradictions because we want it to be clear and we want it to be obvious.

SMW: Earlier you addressed something that brought up to me the issue of the fights we see in sports, and how media coverage differs. If you look back at the way the NBA was treated over the course of the 2000s for the brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons and then the fight between the Knicks and the Nuggets, compared to the way the NHL was treated over the same period, these issues become — when you?re talking about African American athletes — an indictment of the culture. And we didn?t see that at all in the National Hockey League ? well maybe perhaps a little bit after the Todd Bertuzzi incident ? but we saw that a lot in the NBA. A lot of what you talk about in ?After Artest? is how with the Pacers/Pistons fight and the Knicks/Nuggets fight, the reaction was very rarely about what actually happened. It was more about what the players listened to in terms of music, the way they dress, the hip-hop culture, and very rarely the actual incident itself.

Leonard: Yes, and I think your point is really important in terms of the juxtaposition. Even if the conversation about hockey ultimately gets into the culture of hockey, the conversation is never about the ?Whiteness? of hockey, and what effects it has on the culture of hockey. Whereas with the NBA, there is an implicit ? if not explicit ? linkage that’s made between the racial demographics of the NBA, the purported questions about what?s wrong with the NBA, and then the broader theories and arguments that have been put forth from social scientists, from commentators. So there?s a very different effort to bridge between the sports world and these broader conversations when we look at the NBA.

Beyond hockey, how much conversation has the violence of NASCAR elicited? And I?m not just talking about the fights that seem, from a distance, pretty commonplace between drivers and crews after the fact, after the race. But the normalization of running your car into someone else. Carmelo Anthony goes to a bus and that?s like a national story. And yes, there?s national coverage often when NASCAR drivers fight, but there seems to be a national enjoyment of that. It?s sold as what?s making the sport more appealing. Whereas the heated conflicts that sometimes result in fights are seen as what?s wrong with the NBA. So they?re framed in very distinct ways.

SMW: With the Carmelo incident that just recently happened, it?s not the way it would have been covered seven years ago. If Carmelo Anthony had waited outside of the arena for Kevin Garnett in 2006, that would have been a huge controversy. You would have seen a lot more of the ?this guy?s a thug, that guy?s a thug? mentality. I saw on ?Pardon the Interruption? the other day, [Tony] Kornheiser was making a bit of a big deal out of it. But then on ?SportsCenter,? they were hyping up the next time the Knicks and Celtics would meet. So it?s a little less terrible than it used to be.

Still, you certainly see that connotation of danger, this idea that ?Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett, if they get together, something bad is going to happen.? And yet when Clint Bowyer runs ? and it?s just amazing footage of Clint Bowyer sprinting after Jeff Gordon ? it?s enjoyable, it?s funny. I don?t think anyone was worried that anything bad was going to happen. There?s not that concern that Clint Bowyer might have a gun on him and try to shoot somebody.

Leonard: Or how it might spill over, because I think that?s always the kind of frame that we get, is the broader implication.

SMW: You mentioned that at times race is made explicit in the coverage that we see. I know that by doing this interview and talking about race, I?m probably going to get some comments that are saying ?well, this is ridiculous.? I did a post about NHL violence and the way it?s covered versus NBA violence, didn?t mention race at all, and one of the comments was about how the article was ?the type of race-baiting that has become the scourge of sports journalism.? People view talking about race in sports as raising the supposed ?race card.? And yet when you look back at 2004, 2005 in the NBA, it wasn?t the academic left wing that was bringing up race in regard to the NBA. The people who were bringing it up were the people who were criticizing the players.

You can look at Dave Kindred, who is held in high regard. He wrote in an article after the brawl between the Pacers and Pistons that said the Pacers had ?reinforced the stereotype of street thuggery attached to young black men.? I think to myself, who?s doing the reinforcing? Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, when they go into the stands, they?re not reinforcing anything. They?re just being idiots. Dave Kindred most certainly was engaging in that stereotype. The connotation that Kindred gave in that article is that going into the stands to beat up a fan is somehow a black thing, which would be news to Mike Milbury.

Leonard: I think you hit one of the core themes of ?After Artest,? maybe two. One is that it seems that in the post-brawl context, the brawl itself gave the sports media cover to write things that they may not have written two weeks before. And not that those things weren?t being said, but there was an explicitness that you didn?t see before. To put the onus on the players ? that it was the players? fault that fans saw players as stereotypes, it was the players? fault that corporate sponsors saw criminals, saw gangsters ? that is one of the critiques that I try to lay out in the book. That the NBA?s response was basically to say, ?Players, you need to convince those with these prejudices and these stereotypes that they?re wrong. So change your dress. We?ll implement something like NBA Cares. We?ll do all of these things to convince people that their stereotypes are wrong.?

Of course, in doing that, it reinforces the stereotypes as a whole. Because it?s just basically saying, ?Hey, the stereotypes you have about young Black males are not true for these players.? This wasn?t new ? David Stern in 1984 described the NBA as a place where “sponsors were flocking out of the NBA because it was perceived as a bunch of high-salaried, drug-sniffing Black guys.” A Boston Globe reporter told Stern around the same time that nobody wants to watch ten Black guys in short pants running up and down the court. From 1984 til the Palace brawl, the NBA tried to navigate and negotiate that racial reality, with Magic and Bird, with the way in which the NBA and its broader partners cultivated a Jordan image. The Palace brawl put cracks in that effort, and it brought race back into the center, and so the response from the league and the media is the effort to create an illusion of a post-racial reality. And of course the transformation came from the players, rather than from the way we talk about race, the structure of the league, or fan perceptions.

SMW: I?ve always noticed that the greatest critics of African American pro-athletes when there are incidents are African American sportswriters. And they are critical in a way that a lot of White sportswriters aren?t. After the brawl, Shaun Powell wrote something that was crazy to me — that hip-hop had cultivated ?angry black males? who were not able to understand how to be ?professional and dignified.? That quote was unbelievable to me, and something that if a White sportswriter had written it ? the double-standard being what it is ? that person would have been, if not ridden out on the rails, certainly crucified by at least a few people out there. And yet because Shaun Powell is African American, he?s able to say that and it?s not a problem. Just looking at a person like Jason Whitlock alone, Michael Wilbon, Bryan Burwell ? these are columnists who over the years have been far more critical of African Americans than their colleagues who are White. Is that a fair criticism, do you think?

Leonard: There?s a couple of things. One, I think there were plenty of articles that I looked at in the aftermath of the brawl — whether they be on the brawl, or the dress code, or the age debate — that were from White writers that were highly critical, I would say highly problematic. If you look at even someone like Phil Jackson?s comments about clothing and calling it ?prison garb,? there?s all sorts of racial talk, implicit language that?s emanating through all of these articles and the conversations. I would say that you?re pointing to a dynamic in terms of generation as well, class, and what in African American studies we talk about as the ?politics of respectability’. And how, throughout history, there?s been this push for a politics of respectability, whether it be in terms of clothing or in terms of art, a politics that challenges these stereotypes of White America. So I think sometimes that is evident in the writings of someone like Jason Whitlock, but we also see in Jason Whitlock articles that are very explicit about addressing race.

I also think the broader question is, in an industry that is overwhelmingly White and male, what sort of opportunities are afforded? Who are those opportunities afforded to, and who isn?t afforded? A brilliant columnist like Michael Tillery, whose work is amazing and is critical, and he looks at race and he looks at sports from a myriad of angles, his platform is very different from someone like Shaun Powell. What does that say about the industry as a whole? But the work that I?ve done in terms of ?After Artest? found columns and articles that I would say were equally trafficking ? and often moreso ? in these particular frames that I don?t think were necessarily fair.

SMW: The point that I would make, and you mentioned this before, the statistic is pretty jarring about how many African Americans there are in the sports media. Very rarely do sportswriters turn the critique inward in any real way, but I believe that we?re talking about at least 80% White male domination in the sportswriting industry [actual statistics: White men made up 77% of sports columnists and reporters in 2010, with Black men ranking second at 10% and 6%, respectively. No other demographic exceeded 5%.].

The few African Americans out there, a lot of them are these higher-profile individuals — the bigger names like Wilbon, like Whitlock. You don?t necessarily see other African American writers who counter this need to fall in line with these racial stereotypes. And you made a very good point about the generational aspect of it. I think that?s a huge part to play ? maybe not as big as race, but it?s right there. Because a lot of these guys are from a completely different generation, and they want to perhaps distance themselves from a generation that they view as, like you said, not respectable.

Leonard: I think it plays out in a particular history where that becomes part of racial uplift. The sense of power and progress will come in challenging these stereotypes. Clearly, again, the onus isn?t on ? in this case ? White America, to reevaluate and challenge ourselves, to look at the fallacies in these stereotypes. To me, that gets erased from the conversation. When we look back at Charles Barkley?s response to the dress code, and he came out in support of it, one of the reasons he articulated for it was that it sends a message to African American youth that when they go in for a job interview, there?s a professional way of dressing. That there?s already disadvantages because of prejudice and therefore you have to challenge those in terms of clothing. And I get that. But at the same time, we need to challenge that, if a White youth walks in wearing jeans that are sagging, that won?t convey the same thing to that potential employer. So we need to be cognizant and not say ?it?s all about changing the clothes,? as opposed to changing the assumptions that are attached to those clothes that are really wrapped up in racial stereotypes.

SMW: The NBA has really come a long way over the past few years. A lot of the image issues have dissipated. They?re dormant, they?re still there — as we saw with Gilbert Arenas, it only takes one thing before you have people in Forbes talking about how the league is full of thugs. But for the most part, the image issues, the general dislike has dissipated. We?ve seen the ratings shoot up dramatically over the past few years, to the point where the league is now definitively a better national TV draw than Major League Baseball. One, why do you think that happened? Was it the dress code? Did these things work, even if they?re still problematic? And two, how can the league keep it going? Will it take continuing to kowtow to these stereotypes, or are we heading to a point where the stereotypes will dissipate over time?

Leonard: We see ebbs and flows. During the NBA lockout, some of these ideas bubbled up; much of the media coverage in the lockout questioned [the players?]intelligence. And there?s particular language and history there that should give people pause. Obviously, LeBron?s decision led to a particular reaction that I think was very much wrapped up within this larger history.

I do think the NBA and its efforts to, as I say in the book, discipline and punish those players who don?t fulfill the expectations ? whether it be in terms of Carmelo waiting to have a conversation with Kevin Garnett at the bus or being explicitly political ? they?re all efforts to create an NBA player who, for the most part, looks and acts the same way. There?s not a lot of room for individuality. That in many ways, they?re being pushed to be cast as this singular player.

I do think the NBA has gone to great lengths to close that racial door, but it?s just right behind the door. It?s there and the effort from the league is to de-racialize. The league has gone to great lengths to put the racial question behind closed doors, but I don?t think that transforms anything. I don?t think it transforms the league, and it certainly doesn?t transform society at large.

SMW: Basically, the problem is still there, it?s just that the league is doing everything it can to avoid it being a problem. Which leaves it in a very vulnerable position. Like I said, it only takes one thing. The NBA has had a remarkable run here; they?ve had literally two brawls of note in a decade. In Major League Baseball, you have two brawls a month in the heat of the summer. For the NBA, their entire success ? the NBA?s entire ability to appeal to people ? is predicated on all 400 of their players maintaining the highest levels of self-control over the course of their entire careers, and in a lot of cases, in the course of their careers after they leave the league.

Leonard: It?s entirely predicated on them not expressing emotion. In some ways, being human in the sense that ? we keep coming back to Carmelo ? we can say that wasn?t the best reaction, but how many people might not react that way? He was angry. He?s a person. How many people in their workplace don?t get angry, on the pickup basketball court, in all sorts of contexts? Players can?t be human, can?t get emotional, can?t get angry. The whole response to Metta World Peace?s elbow to James Harden was along those lines. As if him making a mistake, him getting angry, him overreacting — if you want to interpret it that way — was unacceptable, as opposed to, ?Hey, he might have overreacted. Okay. People do that, people do that all the time. That?s life. Life is overreaction.’ I don?t necessarily think NBA players, and I don?t think Black athletes are provided freedom to make mistakes that White athletes are allowed to make.

SMW: One more issue I wanted to touch on ? and this is an issue that?s almost pointless considering the state of the debate over the past 20 years ? the gun issue. Less than two weeks before the horrendous situation in Newtown, there was the Jovan Belcher tragedy and then the controversy afterward. I find it interesting the way gun control differs in terms of the conversation in the public at large and the way its talked about in sports. In the public at large, you won?t find anyone outside of the most left-wing publication you can imagine ? and I?m not sure you?re going to find anyone period ? who?s going to suggest that mere gun ownership is a problem. When people talk about sports, ?70% of NBA players own guns? is supposed to be a damning statistic.

It?s interesting to me that, in the public at large, gun ownership is just a given, it?s a right. But in sports, it?s a problem. If you own a gun, that means you must be up to no good. I know that certainly, the right wing wouldn?t stand for that if that were the situation in the public at large, and I think a lot of liberals wouldn?t stand for it either. I want to get your opinion on why gun ownership is so negative in sports, just by itself, and yet so unassailable in the public at large. Where is that disconnect?

Leonard: I think you answered it yourself. The larger issues of guns, when they?re associated with race, play out in this context. So I don?t necessarily think there?s questions and, as you say, demonization of sports or athletes and guns, but those sports that are overwhelmingly African American. It plays out into these larger discourses of race and criminalization. We don?t see the exposes of gun ownership in the NHL or Major League Baseball. When you have instances like Gilbert Arenas, I didn?t hear a lot of Second Amendment arguments being made. We didn?t hear that. We don?t hear the same narratives, and I think it?s very much wrapped up in race.

It?s very much wrapped up in the notion of who needs to be defended, who needs a gun to defend themselves and who doesn?t. Who is scary when one has a gun. These are all wrapped up in racial stereotypes that play out in really profound ways in the sports world, but that?s also a window into those broader conversations about race, about guns, about violence, about whose life is seen as more valuable. We compare the differential national spotlight on the horrific tragedy in Newtown with the horrific tragedies that are happening in a place like Chicago. I think we see very different national discussions, and I think looking at the differential responses to the gun control in the NBA or the NFL versus other sports or society at large helps us understand those broader issues.

SMW: The perfect case, even moreso than Gilbert Arenas, is Plaxico Burress. He went to jail for two years for accidentally shooting himself. You would think that would have been a massive controversy. Can you imagine if Ted Nugent accidentally shot himself in New York and Bloomberg put him in jail for two years?

Leonard: Also how it was framed, that it wasn?t just Plaxico Burress. It became a moment for a referendum on today?s athlete, a moment to talk about ?what?s wrong? with today?s athlete. So it becomes this stand-in for these broader conversations that are just wrapped up in racial stereotypes.

  • Andrea Cavalli

    Awesome interview, nice job, Paulsen