Black Sports Editors: One Black List That Shouldn’t Be Short

By Allan Wolper
Updated: November 12, 2005

NEW YORK — They are a minority with a miniscule membership — the black sports editors at America’s 1,456 daily newspapers. And the journalists who want to join that tiny club remain victims of a mindset that once kept African-Americans from becoming quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Don Hudson, who tracks black sports editors at daily newspapers for The National Association of Black Journalists, can identify only five of them. “The list is about as accurate as you can find in the newspaper industry,” said Hudson, managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. “It’s been so small for so long. It’s so sad.”

The joke among black sports journalists is their number is so small that they all wind up being interviewed for the same jobs. These editors talk of how the lack of black faces in their sports sections skewers coverage of players raised in economic wastelands, especially in professional football and basketball where black athletes dominate.

Once this would have been a column about a lack of diversity. Now it is about more than that. It is about the integrity of the newspaper industry itself.

“Any time there is a closed hiring process, you have an ethical problem,” said Richard E. Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “The situation is similar to the time when there weren’t any black quarterbacks. There was a perception that blacks couldn’t lead or that white players wouldn’t follow them. In the case of sports editors, there is an impression that they can’t manage people.”

Keith Woods, dean of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, sees the paucity of black editors as a reflection of sports life. “White editors are often like the coaches they cover,” said Woods, an African American who covered sports for 10 years. “They have an ‘old boy’ network and they take care of their friends.”

But that kind of corporate misbehavior keeps readers from getting an accurate portrayal of the men and women who set the tone for so much of the cultural landscape. Which is one reason that black sports editors see their jobs, in part, as educators for white journalists who write lazy articles about African-American family life.

“A couple of years ago our stories of black athletes emphasized how they made it even though they came from fatherless homes,” said Larry Starks, sports editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Why? It’s an easy angle to take. The lives of black athletes are more complicated than that.”

Still, black sports editors, no matter what their age, want to see the color of their skin as secondary to their role at newspapers. “I am a journalist who is black, not a black journalist, ” said Jon Stewart, sports editor of The Courier in Houma, La. “But I am sensitive to racial issues.”

Lack of racial sensitivity can send a wrong message to readers. Lee Ivory, publisher and executive editor of USA Today’s Sports Weekly, said he cured his white editors of using the first names of black athletes in their headlines. “I stopped it,” Ivory said. “It showed a lack of respect. They weren’t doing it with white players.”

Ivory theorizes that some black writers who might make good editors keep their editorial ambitions to themselves because they are happy to be doing what white writers have taken for granted for years: “Covering big games, Super Bowls, World Series.”

Dwayne Bray, the sports editor of The Dallas Morning News and chair of the Associated Press Sports Editors ethics committee, said he becomes depressed when he walks into a sportswriters convention and is confronted by a wall of white faces. “It’s appalling,” he said. “We are talking about less than 2% of the sports journalists are black. And we all know each other. I don’t think it’s getting any better.”

One reason is that newspapers are using their diversity dollars to recruit Hispanics, who can communicate with the increasing number of baseball stars who don’t speak English. “We are not satisfied with the translators the teams use,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the recently named sports editor of The Washington Post.

And this new emphasis will only add to the frustration of black sportswriters who want to become editors.

“People leave when they don’t get promoted,” Leon Carter, sports editor of New York’s Daily News, told me. “I got hired because I earned the right to be the sports editor. But having said that, a newspaper does its best job when it reflects the community it covers.