Black Male Athletes in the Court of Public Opinion

The New England Patriots visited the White House yesterday, sparking renewed conversation about at least six players who followed through on their vows to skip the visit, as many players have expressed deep disapproval of the president since the team’s Super Bowl win. More broadly, the demonstration is a reminder of the ways in which black male athletes are disproportionately scrutinized in their attempts to be political.

Many think that athletes, as a collective, should not take up political positions, or contribute to public discourse. But in the case of media suppression and criticism of black male athletes in particular, there seems a conscientious effort by the media to prevent these men from stepping out of the social order— and especially protesting it.

Historically, there has been a stark difference in media treatment of black and white athletes who exercise their respective rights to peacefully protest.

For example, Boston Celtics player Larry Bird skipped the team trip to the White House after they won the NBA championship in 1984, saying of Ronald Reagan, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to see me.” Similarly, goaltender Tim Thomas skipped the Boston Bruins’ visit to Obama’s White House in 2012, saying, “This was about a choice I had to make as an individual.”

In response, sports media was pretty mild-mannered. While many felt the actions of Bird and Thomas were brazen and rude respectively, the nation, as a whole, did not go up in arms as it has done following recent demonstrations by black athletes. In fact, the response of relative indifference wildly contrasts contemporary media backlash against black male athletes who have taken up positions about recent issues of systemic racism, police brutality and mass incarceration in America.

Many remember the intense outrage directed at San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick after he refused to stand during the national anthem. Kaepernick explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

In the weeks following Kaepernick’s demonstration, many other NFL players across the country followed his lead, kneeling during the anthem, raising fists and interlocking arms in a symbol of unity. The protest trickled down to amateur players, where high school and college sports teams also began kneeling and linking arms during the anthem, just as NFL players had been doing.

The media frenzy that ensued tore Kaepernick apart. Coverage of 49ers games were centered around Kaepernick. Cameras surrounded him and sports commentators obsessively asked, “what will he do next?” And, of course, Kaepernick was subject to media commentators in the coming weeks who argued his actions were an “insult” to Americans and U.S. law enforcement. Even Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick leave the country should he continue to refuse to stand for the anthem.

Similar outrage erupted over Lebron James’ and the Miami Heat’s decision to wear black hoodies following the murder of Trayvon Martin and the decision of the Los Angeles Lakers to wear shirts reading, “I Can’t Breathe” in response to the murder of Eric Garner.

But the media’s condemnation of these protests is nothing new. In fact, media oppression of politically active black male athletes is rooted in a history of their efforts to muzzle these athletes.

Though very few black athletes became famous by the early 20th century, boxer Jack Johnson was one who breached the sacred boundaries of acceptable behavior. These standards had been historically policed through racist media portrayals and later public outrage as fueled by media coverage in instances of protest.

Johnson was publicly shamed after defeating Tommy Burns in 1908, becoming the first black heavyweight champion. One boxing magazine called him “the vilest, most despicable creature that lives.”

In the coming years, civil rights-era activism would bleed into sports all the more. The most iconic of these examples would be the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, when U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the medal ceremony bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem, instantly becoming subjected to media scrutiny and public outrage.

And the pattern of media suppression and shaming of these voices has persisted.

Of course, over the years, many black male athletes have rejected the external pressure on them to politicize themselves. Figures such as Tiger Woods and O.J. Simpson maintained apolitical throughout their careers. In fact, Simpson actively avoided political involvement despite his great stature, and numerous times has defended his decision to do so.

But whether they choose to involve themselves or not, what matters is the actual media response when these men do or say something unexpected of them. And unfortunately, coverage of black male athletes is a microcosm of the broader ways that the media treats black men.

A study by Cynthia Frisby, associate professor of strategic communication in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, confirms that media portrayals of black male athletes align heavily with the ways in which news media has historically stereotyped black men.

After studying news articles about male athletes from online and print news sources, Frisby reveals daunting evidence about the ways in which black male athletes are disproportionately associated with violence, crime, and violations of sports rules as compared to their white male counterparts. And, of course, this bias plays out in coverage of the average black man as well.

About her findings, Frisby explains that “not only does negative media coverage serve to legitimize social power inequalities, but also it is likely to undermine black athletes’ achievements and contribute to the stereotype threat.”

Moreover, there seems an inextricable link between black athletes and corporate America that fuels media backlash against activism in sports. Sponsorships and corporate contracts with these men thrive on the marketability of black male athletes, and could be perceived as threatened when these athletes raise their voices beyond the expected social order.

While this bias exists for many reasons and manifested in various ways, it is ultimately likely that media scrutiny of black male athletes is deeply rooted in its inability to portray these men as anything more than bodies on a field.

By glorifying black bodies for their athleticism and stifling their actual voices, news media has the consequential ability to confine black men to football fields and basketball courts and simultaneously tell them that they have no place in the court of public opinion.

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