Date of this Version
© 2021 Gary Washburn: The Journey of the Black Sports Journalist: Past, Present and Future.
Graduate Studies Project. University of Nebraska-Lincoln
It took nearly 60 years for the mainstream audience to learn and digest the impact of the Black sports journalist on the American sports landscape.
In the Disney-movie “42,” detailing Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Robinson bonded with a journalist named Wendell Smith, who served as a guide, mentor and liaison for the baseball player during his travel journey with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Smith not only covered Robinson’s ground-breaking excursion into a sport that had proudly prohibited and disavowed Blacks from playing Major League Baseball, he became Robinson’s trusted colleague, gaining access to stories and insights that his white counterparts simply could not and in some cases, would not.
Smith’s presence was a subtle and overlooked aspect of the movie, but it was one of the first occasions where a Black sports journalist was acknowledged as impactful prior to the 1990s, when Black faces in press boxes became more commonplace.
In many facets, racism denigrated the impact of the Black sports journalist in their early years, as these pioneers were only allowed to work at African-American-based publications. Despite these barriers, writers such as Smith and Sam Lacy withstood racism and discrimination and formed important bonds with the athletes they covered to tell their stories.
A handful of Black journalists traveled abroad with Robinson and other Black athletes to get access and material for stories, and they detailed how these athletes were treated with more respect and regard in other countries than in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Smith and Lacy led a crusade of the Black sports journalist to make an impact on the American sports landscape with unique stories and insights.
Although Lacy (1999) acknowledged that he endured racism and discrimination from his white peers because they didn’t respect the humanness of the Black athletes they were essentially obligated to cover and they resented his presence in the press box, he did not allow those obstacles to deter him from doing exactly what those white reporters were doing: covering the American sports landscape and informing his audience about the games, the players and meticulous and sometimes painful integration of these sports.
Smith and Lacy, to many current Black sports journalists sports journalists overall, are considered the Jackie Robinson’s of their field because of the sacrifices they made to emerge as respected and elite storytellers and journalists. Recognition from the mostly white journalism organizations, newspapers and other media outlets came slow and sometimes not at all.
Despite his impact on the life of Robinson and his legendary and historical impact on American sport, Smith was not honored with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award (now the Baseball Writers Association of America Career Excellence Award) until 1993, 21 years after his death. Lacy, who wrote for the Baltimore Afro-American until he was 99, did not receive the Spink Award until he was 94, two years before his death. Spink Awards have generally been presented to living writers. Lacy was not inducted into the National Sports Media Hall of Fame until 2017, 14 years after his death.
While organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists honored these pioneers, they were never given their due appreciation, especially while they were alive. They were eventually accepted. Lacy became a power sports voice in the Baltimore area and Smith’s contributions were finally recognized in “42,” these men were under appreciated and overlooked.
But what they did do is set the groundwork for the emergence of the Black sports journalist on the American sports scene and the sports media is filled with impactful, brilliant and talented Black writers and reporters who have become some of the great storytellers of this and past generations.
The story of the Black sports journalist is not one that has been chronicled often. The evolution of Black men and women into what was once a white-only field has been slow and meticulous. But one only needs to watch ESPN, the preeminent sports network, for a few hours to see the plethora of Black faces.
This project will tell the story of these journalists, past and present, and argue that while there has been great progress made, barriers broken and integration improved, there remains a great deal of work to be done by mainly white-run establishments before true equality and diversity is achieved. This project will prove that hiring of Black journalists for prominent positions is improving but still not equivalent with those whites who are hired.
And there has also been a new and rather disturbing trend in sports media where former Black athletes have been hired for positions usually reserved for trained Black journalists, making the competition for jobs as hosts and analysts even more difficult for Black candidates. Some television networks have created what they believe is a successful formula for a sports discussion program, pairing a white woman host, white male journalist and Black male athlete. This has created even another more difficult barrier for the Black journalist, one that is prevalent and imposing even as we approach the year 2022.
This project will look at the stories of noted Black journalists, their journeys, what has kept them flourishing in the journalism business and what they believe is the future in sports media for the Black sports journalists. First, however, we will start from the beginning stages, when those such as Lacy and Smith were fighting simply for a seat in the press box.
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