Today is in no way the golden age of African-American participation in athletics because of negative stereotypes in the media and dwindling numbers of athletes, said Harry Edwards, sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Legal scholar Arthur Miller moderated a discussion Thursday at the LBJ Auditorium, where athletes, professors and sports reporters gathered to discuss the relationship between sports, media and race.
African-American participation in most sports — except football and basketball — has been on a steady decline since 1973, Edwards said. This year, 8 percent of major league baseball players are African-American, compared to 23 percent in 1973, he said. The Dodgers only had one African-American on the roster last season, the same amount as they had when Jackie Robinson was playing in 1947.
Dwindling numbers and the media’s portrayal of black athletes as lacking sportsmanship have contributed to the phasing out of African-Americans in athletics today, he said.
“Black athletes are either a clown or a criminal, there’s nobody in between,” he said. “There is no white Ochocinco. The reality is, I’m less concerned about T.O. and Ochocinco than I am about the media that projects and portrays them, and the fact that so many people in society want to see these things.”
But African-American athletes have never truly controlled the problematic image, which has been shaped largely by the white team owners, sponsors and media, Edwards said.
Out of 300 U.S. newspapers, African-Americans made up only 6.2 percent of sports writers, and only five out of 300 sports editors were black, according to a June 2006 study by the University of Central Florida.
As today’s sports have become less about talent and more about business, the public and sponsors are favoring showmanship, said radio-television-film professor Craig Watkins.
“We don’t like to think of it this way, but sports are also theater and performance,” he said. “When we see something as being less civil or less sportsmanlike than it should be, we need to recognize that the camera is on, the lights are on, they’re going into prime time and they’re going into character.”
Former WNBA player Fran Harris said professional football players such as Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco are rewarded with reality shows and media exposure mostly for their bombastic personalities.
“If you’re civil towards each other and there’s no showmanship, you don’t get the reality show,” she said. “Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. Those are the rewards and perks of being an athlete today.”
Journalism sophomore Hannah Shea said the idea of any race or nationality being excluded from sports in America is appalling.
“If you appreciate sports, you have to appreciate everyone who’s involved and who shows their skill,” she said. “Right now, I think there is a big racial divide.”