By: Mark Fitzgerald
Many athletes keep their distance from journalists; and being a black journalist doesn’t get you any closer to black athletes, according to panelists at Unity’ 94 sp.
CARLOS ROGERS, THE San Francisco Warriors first-round draft pick, has yet to play his first professional basketball game. Yet this rookie has already honed a withering cynicism about sportswriters.
“I’ve been burned just because of a scoop. I thought [college beat writers] were my friends, then they printed . . . . I was projected to be drafted anywhere from the second-round to freelance, that, you know, you don’t have the necessities” to be a top draft choice, Rogers said.
Now, he added, “They’ll say, ‘Carlos, you got a minute?’ My answer is ‘No, I don’t have a minute.’ “
Does it make any difference to Rogers, an African-American, if the sportswriter is black?
“To me, a sportswriter is a sportswriter and that’s all there is to it,” Rogers said. “You don’t know he is anything but a writer; you don’t even look at his face.”
Rogers’ comments, delivered at a National Association of Black Journalists session during the recent Unity ’94 conference, symbolize the distant relationship that is now typical between many black athletes and journalists.
Of course, reporters and athletes of all races have increasingly professional ? if not antagonistic ? relationships.
But there was a special irony in the timing of the NABJ panel: Just three days before the late Wendell Smith became the first black sportswriter inducted into the Writers Wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Smith, who wrote for the black-oriented Pittsburgh Courier, was a champion ? and friend ? to black athletes who played in the obscurity of Jim Crow leagues or managed to break through the color barrier of pro sports.
These days, however, most black journalists ? and black athletes as well ? are inclined to see those kinds of friendships as a danger.
Boston Globe national baseball columnist Larry Whiteside has seen the relationship change in his 35 years covering sports.
“Prior to the mid-1970s, before Watergate, there was a lot friendship between sports reporters and athletes,” he said. “Over the last 10 or 15 years . . . it’s become a more adversarial relationship.”
Whiteside, for one, thinks it is still possible for journalists and athletes to find some common ground.
“I honestly believe there is a time to put your [sportswriter’s] hat on and a time to take your hat off. You have to have situations where you are a sportswriter and situations where you are off duty,” Whiteside said.
But a more typical view came from Terence Moore, the sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
“Can you be a friend [with athletes]? I say no. If you want to be a journalist, a true journalist, and do your job, you cannot be friends with these guys, period,” Moore said.
Moore and other black sportswriters said they go out of their way to avoid compromising social situations.
“Whether you are talking of black reporters or white reporters, I really think it’s wrong to socialize with athletes unless you are there to try to get a story,” Moore said.
“My pastor,” he added, “has a saying about people who are sinning and wonder why they keep sinning: If you go into a barber shop, you can expect to get a haircut.”
A writer’s first loyalty must go to his readers, argued Robert Steele, the former sportswriter who heads the Poynter Institute’s ethics programs.
“I think one reason there is so much distrust of journalists ? whether political reporters or sports reporters ? is because [readers] feel we are on the home side too often, whether on the home side of the politicians or the home team. We have to say, who are we serving? Are we serving the public?” Steele said.
For one veteran journalist, however, the whole discussion about how close black sportswriters should come to their subjects is one that recalls a racist past era when African American journalists were not trusted to cover certain subjects.
“We have editors who don’t want to assign black reporters to civil rights controversies because they think they can’t be objective,” said Vernon Jarrett, who recently retired from the Chicago Sun-Times after many years as the dean of Chicago black columnists.
“You can love somebody, or some topic, and still be objective,” Jarrett said.
“Look, I was very close to [the late Chicago Mayor] Harold Washington. But I criticized him, too. I think we could be getting ourselves into a controversy here we may not want to get ourselves into.”
Indications are, however, that the distance between sportswriter and athlete is only likely to grow.
For one thing, the athletes themselves evince no particular desire for a warmer relationship.
Warriors draft pick Rogers, for instance, was asked whether he could ever see himself dating a sportswriter.
“I really feel it has limitations,” he said. “I can be hanging with her or whatever but if something comes up, I know she is a reporter. And whatever it takes to get the story, I believe [she] will do it. You really have to watch your Ps and Qs.
“Look, it comes down to this: I have a job to do ? and so does she.”