Spike Lee always has been an avid sports fan. Growing up in New York, he eagerly flipped past the front pages each morning, searching out the elegant musings of Red Smith or another abrasive rant from Dick Young.
But Lee wondered why a bunch of white guys were charged with shaping the viewpoints of people such as himself, an impressionable black kid eager for a balanced debate on such burning issues as: Who was the better player, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?
Mantle was white, Mays black.
“I would read stuff from people telling me Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays,” Lee remembered. “I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Noooo way.’ They would say, ‘Well, what if Mickey didn’t get hurt when he ran into that drain thing and tore his knee up?’ Yeah, well what about Willie Mays losing a year and a half to the Army?”
After Lee grew up to become one of the country’s most acclaimed directors, he noticed the increasing disparity between those who played the games and those who wrote about them. More and more athletes of color were starring on the court and between the goal posts, but the press box remained largely the domain of white males.
It’s a playing field that Lee hopes to level through a new sports journalism program at his alma mater, historically black Morehouse College near downtown Atlanta. He’s raised some $1 million to get it going, and insists this isn’t some trivial matter in the greater cause of diversity.
From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, black athletes often have steered America to a more accepting view of race.
“I’ve always had this argument with people – I would say shortsighted individuals – who underplay the importance of sports,” said Lee, who often can be found courtside at New York Knicks games and is an avid baseball and soccer fan. “Many of the social gains this country has gone through took place in sports before they took place with the rest of the public.”
But Lee and others still are waiting for a revolution to take place in the very industry that reports on the games, casts judgments from the locker room and largely shapes how the average fan views a Barry Bonds or Michael Vick.
A study released last summer at the request of the Associated Press Sports Editors found dismal figures for the industry. Blacks held only 6.2 percent of the sports writing jobs. Out of more than 300 newspapers surveyed, just five had a black sports editor.
“We never really look at ourselves,” said William Rhoden, a black columnist for The New York Times. “But a lot of athletes are beginning to look. They are starting to say, ‘What kind of prism are you filtering me through?’ That’s not to say that people in our industry are bad people. But it’s really a form of apartheid – a modern-day journalistic apartheid that is just unacceptable.”
Lee hopes the new sports journalism program at Morehouse will make a difference. It won’t happen overnight, of course, with the initial goal of getting students into the job pipeline through internships, then growing the curriculum into a minor within four years. It likely will be at least twice as long before the program can think of becoming a full-fledged major.
Still, it’s a start. And considering only a handful of other schools even offer sports journalism, Lee is looking to make a major impact.
“My goal is to have people come out of this program who can write anywhere. Not just sports,” he said.
On this day, Lee has come to Atlanta to introduce the new director of the program, longtime sports journalist Ron Thomas, and moderate a seminar on the state of the black athlete.
Dressed in a striped rugby shirt with the logo for his “40 Acres and a Mule” production company and the mantra “Defend Brooklyn,” the outspoken director holds court in the lobby of a downtown hotel, harping on a white-dominated media that he believes always has slanted its coverage against minorities.
Early on, Lee pulls out a photocopied article, a USA Today cover story from last month in which the newspaper ran row after row of mugshot-style photos to illustrate a story on how the NFL planned to crack down on wayward players.
All but two of the faces in those photos were black, including Tennessee’s Adam “Pacman” Jones (suspended for a year by the league for numerous run-ins with police) and Chicago’s Tank Johnson (sentenced to four months in jail for violating probation).
But Lee was struck when he saw the picture of a friend, linebacker Dhani Jones, who was arrested more than a year ago when he allegedly refused to stop dancing outside a South Beach nightclub.
“I’m not going to make excuses for the Pacmans of the world, Tank Johnson and those guys,” said Lee, whose films include “Do The Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”
“I just think, historically, the black athlete has been demonized. If we can get our graduates into these positions with newspapers, magazines and television stations … hopefully we’ll get a more balanced view.”
Lee is seeking up-and-comers such as 20-year-old Fabian Cook, a junior who covers track and field for the Morehouse student newspaper. He’s planning a career in sports management and only wishes the journalism program had started sooner.
“My first thought when I saw it was: ‘If they had that on the application when I came to Morehouse, it sure would have been my major,”‘ Cook said. “I would be honored to be a black journalist. There’s not a lot of them.”
Terence Moore would know. A columnist for more than two decades at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he still feels like an outsider when covering events such as Southeastern Conference football games.
“One of the best-kept secrets in sports is how you have all these African-Americans playing sports, but so few African-Americans covering sports,” he said. “I’m generally one of the few – and many times, the only – African-American in the press box. That has got to have a huge impact on how the news is presented.”
Moore points to a recently released survey that found blacks are far more eager than whites for Bonds to break Hank Aaron’s career home run record.
Even though Bonds and Aaron both are black, and Bonds is linked to baseball’s long-running steroids scandal, Moore believes black fans are expressing their outrage at one-sided coverage of the whole affair.
Last year, Hall of Famer-to-be Roger Clemens was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. He denied it, and the whole issue quietly faded away. Last week, the 44-year-old pitcher made a celebrated return to the New York Yankees, agreeing to a $28 million contract.
Clemens, of course, is white.
“People are missing the reason that 74 percent of blacks want Bonds to break the record,” Moore said. “When white athletes are in trouble or on the verge of being in trouble, the media goes way further in giving them a break than black athletes. That’s very, very apparent.”
Thomas, the Morehouse program’s new director, hopes his teaching will deliver a takedown to some of the racial stereotypes that still creep into newspapers or onto the internet.
He singles out a prevailing attitude that black athletes naturally are gifted but lacking mentally, while whites are not as talented but get by with brains and hard work. It was perpetuated most recently in the NFL draft, when quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn were among the top prospects.
Russell is black. Quinn is white. Even though Russell was the No. 1 overall pick, many of the so-called draft experts questioned how he would adapt to the mental rigors of a pro-style offense. There were no such reservations about Quinn, whose lack of physical skills supposedly were the reason he slipped to late in the first round.
“It’s unfair to the black athlete, who has put so much work into achieving the excellence he has achieved,” Thomas said. “On the other hand, it’s unfair to the white athletes, who also must have terrific talent or they couldn’t compete on the playing field.”
Etan Thomas, who plays for the Washington Wizards in the predominantly black NBA, said there’s plenty of unspoken distrust between those on the court and the largely white media.
“You can tell in their articles, the things they’re saying, how they interpret certain situations, that they just don’t understand us,” the black center said. “But it’s hard.”
He remembers visiting a camp that brings together Israeli and Palestinian children, and how he struggled to comprehend the fears, prejudices and hatreds on both sides.
“I can’t understand that, and it would be almost ridiculous to think I could,” the Wizards player said. “You can read about it, talk to people, but you’re not fully going to understand it if you didn’t experience it growing up.”
Lee also is looking to overcome some of the resistance in his own community. He wants to see more young blacks aspiring to cover the games, not just play them.
“Not everybody can hit the gene pool, DNA lottery,” said Lee, who didn’t hit it himself. “Only a couple of people, very special people, are going to make it to the pro level. But you can still have a career in sports and not play.”