There's no easy path to diversity in the media

by Jason Whitlock, McClatchy newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sometimes I enjoy testing the limits of my right to speak freely. Today is one of those days.

Recently, Richard Lapchick, the brains behind the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, released his report on American newspapers' progress toward racial and gender diversification of the employees who produce sports sections. The Associated Press Sports Editors, a group that represents most of the country's daily newspapers, commissioned the study.

Basically, Lapchick scrutinized the group that gleefully and self-righteously blasts the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NCAA for failing to provide minority coaches and executives the opportunity to advance.

Well, according to Lapchick's study, our industry does as poor a job at diversifying as the sports leagues we criticize.

I won't bore you with all the numbers. But of more than 300 newspapers surveyed, 90 percent have white, male sports editors (head coach). There are just five black men (1.6 percent) leading a sports section. Of nearly 300 sports columnists (quarterback), 84 percent are white males and only 7 percent (22) are black males. White women and Latino males fare slightly better than black men in terms of being sports editors, and they fare slightly worse in terms of being sports columnists.

Lapchick's study has set off the predictable amount of simple-minded analysis that raw numbers often produce. Scoop Jackson, a black columnist at America's best and most influential online sports section (, filed a rant so juvenile and flawed on this topic that I nearly broke down in tears after reading it. His "column" perfectly exposed the problem within my industry and the sports industry when it comes to diversification.

There are no easy solutions when it comes to diversity, and the villains in America's struggle to diversify the sports world are nowhere near as obvious as the media would have you believe.

It cannot all be pinned on white racism. No way. And unless we, African Americans, move away from explaining and defining these topics totally through the prism of white racism, things will not change. Not because of white backlash. Because we will continue to fail to prepare our youth for the opportunities that are out there to be snapped up.

Case in point: Jackson stated in his "column" that he tells black high school and college students that they have a better chance of making it to the NBA than they do of becoming a sportswriter.

The stupidity of such a comment could be laughed off and attributed to the writer's desire to be viewed as a bigger star than LeBron James if I weren't aware that many black youths have swallowed the self-defeating myth that white racism will prevent them from experiencing mainstream career success.

There's a different way to view the disappointing statistics, an alternative conclusion to draw.

Have we, black Americans age 25 to 40, prepared ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities created for us by the previous generation and its civil-rights movement?

I ask that question not to dismiss white, institutional racism as a problem. I ask it because I believe a lack of preparedness on our part is institutional racism's unspoken, very powerful equal partner. It's a partner we don't like to talk about. We love running in crowded buildings and screaming racism, but we avoid asking ourselves the tough questions.

Let me put some meat on the bones.

When I was in college, I was the only black person working at the school newspaper. The editors at the Ball State Daily News asked me to help them recruit other black students to write for the paper. I tried. We tried. We begged. We failed to entice anyone.

I graduated college in 1990. It's the people of my graduation class who are now taking jobs as sports editors and sports columnists. You generally get those jobs between ages 35 and 40. How many black people began the process of preparing to be a sports columnist or sports editor 20 years ago?

During my five years at Ball State, I can remember one - me - as opposed to probably 30 white guys during the same time span. Based on the sports journalism students I meet at Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri, the problem is just as pronounced today as it was 20 years ago.

The same questions can be raised when we start talking about head football coaches. I talked with two white Division I head football coaches - one from a BCS conference, the other from a midmajor - about the difficulties of recruiting black assistant coaches. Yes, it's much easier now than it was 15 years ago, but it's the guys who signed up to be graduate assistants 15 years ago who are landing college head-coaching jobs today.

In comparison to the number of white assistant coaches, how many black would-be coaching candidates began the preparation process 15 years ago as a GA? If across the board only 5 percent of the qualified and willing candidates to become starving, nonstop-working grad assistants were black 15 years ago, what percentage of that 5 percent has demonstrated the ability to be a head coach today?

Skin color is a characteristic, not a qualification. Yes, there are numerous exceptions, but for the most part, races are won by the people who spend the most time preparing.

Both football coaches told me that they actively pursue black graduate assistants. They estimated that today 10 percent to 15 percent of the guys who apply to be grad assistants are black. I honestly think that estimate is high.

My first job out of college was at a newspaper in Bloomington, Ind. I earned $5 an hour and was paid for about 25 hours work a week regardless of how many hours I worked. I lived in a one-room efficiency with roaches and no phone. It was tough. I developed a backup plan if I failed as a sportswriter. Being an Indiana kid, I wanted to be a basketball coach. I figured I'd start as a volunteer basketball manager for Bobby Knight. I'd heard that many Indiana high school basketball coaches got their starts working as student managers for Knight. It was a terrific way to learn the game from America's best basketball mind.

On Wednesday, I called Knight's son, Pat, to confirm my belief that it was rare for black kids to work for Knight as a student manager.

"In all my dad's years of coaching, he's probably had three or four," Pat said. "And we're always looking."

Knight has probably had 200 student managers during his coaching career. And the overwhelming majority of them by a landslide have been white boys, kids motivated enough to put up with Knight's crap and learn the game from the best. Pat Knight told me it's a struggle for Knight to get black graduate assistants because most of the guys interested figure they can make more money coaching AAU ball.

You don't learn to coach in AAU. You learn how to peddle kids for money and jobs.

The issue of diversity in coaching and sportswriting is very complex. It's foolish to look at the raw, end-result numbers and conclude that racism is the only explanation and that jobs should just be handed to minorities in the name of diversity. You have to give jobs to the people who have demonstrated a passion for them. You measure passion by willingness to prepare.

If you give jobs to just anybody, soon America's newspapers will be filled with columns telling black kids they'd be better off pursuing a basketball career rather than a writing career.

Is there institutional racism within the newspaper sports industry? Of course. Buffoonish writers or totally assimilated writers are embraced. Newspaper management is at complete ease dealing with a black blue-chip, Northwestern Medill graduate (Mike Wilbon, the Tiger Woods of sportswriting), and white liberal managers love to bend down, appear hip and open-minded and work with unskilled, untrained, wild radicals.

Out of fear and insecurity, the system sometimes short-circuits and backfires when it's forced to work with a minority journalist who doesn't express the proper amount of gratitude, expresses too much self-confidence, too much passion for the business, too much competence and openly expresses his/her opinion on how things should be done.

Major problems.

Things can get real ugly, quick, and the minority employee can find himself labeled a malcontent and standing in the unemployment line six months later or stuck in a dead-end job. (To be fair, the same thing happens to white guys. The process is just slower, and it's far easier for them to land their next job and reinvent themselves as "team players.")

A significant number of talented minority sportswriters have been run out of the business at an early age simply for expressing themselves and their perspective. The industry that promotes free speech sometimes fights it ferociously behind the scenes.

The solution to diversity in the sports world is twofold: 1. Minorities need to single-mindedly prepare for the opportunities that are available, because the opportunities are available; 2. The power structure and decision makers need to accept that true diversity is difficult, and they need to do a better job of cultivating, retaining and supporting the talented and passionate minority journalists they employ.

Don't expect an overnight success story. Black people have refused to confront and combat the destructive elements of the hip-hop culture, which has undermined our youth's willingness to prepare for the freedom we enjoy today.

And the white power structure has two obstacles: 1. It has grown comfortable with having high-profile, token minority employees; 2. It's reluctant to deal with the inevitable and healthy conflict created by diverse people expressing opinions passionately.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey