9. Sports and Race

By Beck, Daniel; Bosshart, Louis | Communication Research Trends, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

9. Sports and Race


Beck, Daniel, Bosshart, Louis, Communication Research Trends


In the United States people of color suffered from the very same shortcomings in comparison to white people as did women in comparison to men. They were underrepresented as sports reporters and they were also underrepresented as athletes. Most studies on racial relations in sports focus on African-American athletes, because media coverage of them is still more extensive than the very limited coverage of Native-American, Latino-American or Asian-American athletes. Up to the 1970s, African-American athletes hardly became a topic in the white mainstream press. Performances of black athletes were only covered when these athletes were exceptionally successful, like Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, or Wilma Rudolph. The extent of coverage increased when more and more black players entered the major league sports (basketball, football, and baseball), but the media presence of black athletes is still not at levels comparable to their white peers, and it is concentrated in particular sports, mainly basketball, track and field, and boxing. Black superstars being successful in former white "elite sports" today, like the tennis players Venus and Serena Williams or the golfer Tiger Woods, still seem to be exceptional, pointing out that social constraints limiting African-American participation in many sports may still exist today.

Black athletes were not only underrepresented, but also portrayed in a distorted way. While reporters and fans praised white athletes for their tactical skill, their strategy, and their intelligence, they celebrated black athletes for speed, power, leg power, and stamina. Blacks were mostly described as natural athletes: According to sports reporting, their performances were due to uncontrollable external forces, while performances of white athletes were due to controllable internal forces (Davis & Harris, 1998, p. 158). Alternative explanations for African-American athletic success were often neglected. Other media stereotypes painted African-American athletes as self-centered, selfish, and arrogant, whereas white athletes were described as hard-working team players. Some studies show that still in the 1990s, the media sometimes applied an even more negative stereotype: the depicting of male African-American athletes as uncontrolled, oversexed, or violent (Davis & Harris, 1998, pp. 160-164). On the other hand, stereotypes that appeal to many white Americans also exist: African-American athletes are often considered as hip and cool. Superstars like basketball player Michael Jordan are presented as accommodating and sometimes even as race-transcendent. But one can argue that such images only set particular athletes with a privileged status apart from other African-Americans (Davis & Harris, 1998, p. 165).

The media played the same role in the construction of those images as they did in the depiction of female athletes. There were fewer black sports reporters and journalists; the portrayal of black people was guided by old cliches. The bulk of research findings shows evidence of covert racism. …

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