Academic journal article Journalism History

Double Dribble: The Stereotypical Narrative of Magic and Bird

Academic journal article Journalism History

Double Dribble: The Stereotypical Narrative of Magic and Bird

Article excerpt

Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird's fabled rivalry began in the 1979 NCAA basketball championship, a contest that still stands as the highest-rated basketball game of all time. This rivalry featured East versus West, traditional versus modern and, more implicitly, black versus white. Johnson and Bird are now largely considered extremely similar players who, together, brought the National Basketball Association an increased and sustainable popularity during the 1980s. But while both Johnson and Bird are considered similar players now, it wasn't always this way. This study examines news media coverage of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird from the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. Researchers analyzed texts to assess whether journalists employed common stereotypes when describing the two athletes. The newspapers examined created an image of Johnson and Bird as classic stereotypical characters that represented what it was like to be black and white in America during this period.

"For the other America, it was Larry Bird.

For the African America, it was Magic Johnson"'

-Derrick Z. Jackson

Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird first shared the national spotlight on March 26, 1979, in Salt Lake City, Utah. The future basketball Hall of Famers competed against each other in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's championship game with Johnson's Michigan State team defeating Bird's Indiana State squad 75-64. The telecast proved to be the highest-rated basketball game of all time.2 This contest marked the beginning of more than a decade featuring the two stars engaging in sports' biggest rivalry.3 This rivalry has become the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and even a Broadway show. It pitted East versus West, traditional versus modern and, less explicitly but just as notably, black versus white.4

Johnson and Bird both joined the National Basketball Association in 1979, and for the majority of the next thirteen years, they remained the sport's two biggest stars.5 The two played on opposite ends of the country, with Johnson in Los Angeles and Bird in Boston. However, the national and local media seemed determined to discuss the two together; and, as time went by, the discourse became more overtly concerning race.6 Johnson, a black player from Michigan, and Bird, a white player from Indiana, morphed into "cultural warriors" and "race, more than ever, became an unavoidable part of the conversation."7

Sports have often been referred to as a positive force in the struggle for racial equality, a great equalizer that, even in times of overt racism and segregation, allowed for people of all kinds to compete on equal footing.8 In this post-segregation society, athletes may have achieved equality on the fields or courts of sport, but not off the fields or courts.9 A player's skin tone may not affect the outcome of a basketball game; however, numerous studies have shown skin tone can certainly affect how the sports media cover an athlete.10 Through a series of content analyses, scholars found that the sports media write and talk about players using stereotypes dependent on race." Research suggests that while the days of overt descriptions of racism may be over, a more subtle form of racism still exists when the media disseminate messages.12

Journalists have the power to set the agenda.13 While sometimes opinions and points are made by sources in stories, the sources and quotations or soundbites are determined by journalists.14 In the case of the sports media, scholars have shown that broadcasters and journalists alike describe athletes in a stereotypical manner and this then frames the discussion for the general public.15 In the case of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, journalists not only described both players using common racial stereotypes, but also chose to utilize sources that corroborated these characteristics.

For a generation of sports fans, Johnson and Bird embodied the cultural and athletic differences between black and white players. …

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