The Experience of Media and Race in the National Football League – An Existential Phenomenological Study

Submitted by David D. Biber 1*, Jocelyn A. Fisher2*, Daniel R. Czech3*, Rebecca Zakrajsek4*, Noah Gentner5*, Trey Burdette6*, Jonathan Metzler7*, Kimberly Coleman8*, Willie Burden9*, & Terrence A. Jordan II10*

1* David D. Biber, Georgia State University, Department of Kinesiology and Health, Atlanta, GA 30303

ABSTRACT

With over 67% of the current NFL population of African American descent (Lapchick, Costa, Sherrod, & Anjorin, 2012), there is a disparity between sport reporters, with 79% of the radio and television announcers being White and 7% being Black (Lapchick, &, Sherrod, 2011). This study examined the interactions between African American NFL players and veteran NFL reporters from a phenomenological perspective. While using one open-ended question for each population, the data were transcribed and analyzed, and main themes were identified. The players revealed themes of: (1) the players’ view of how media coverage affects the NFL players, (2) the players’ perceptions of media personnel, and (3) the athletes’ perception of black quarterbacks. The analysis of the veteran sport reporters’ interviews exposed three major themes: (1) perceptions of how the media covers the NFL, (2) interrelationships with NFL players, and (3) playing quarterback in the NFL.

Keywords: NFL, Media, Race, radio, television announcers. NFL reporters

INTRODUCTION

Approximately 67.3% of National Football League (NFL) players are African American (Lapchick, Costa, Sherrod, & Anjorin, 2012). How African American athletes are viewed by society is often contingent upon the media coverage they receive. Mass media, specifically sports media, has the potential to reach large audiences through multiple mediums, thus influencing the public’s view of racial sterotypes (Desmarais & Bruce, 2010). Davis and Harris (1998) asserted that “the association between athletics and African American success is not surprising, given that sports is just about the only type of mainstream (non-fictional) media coverage in which one can see images of many successful African Americans” (p. 166).

The sports media can provoke many generalizations about the black athlete. The sports media consists of overwhelmingly white men (Lapchick & Sherrod, 2011). One image that the media conjures of the Black athlete is of brute strength, violence, and low mental ability, while the White athlete is more intellectually advanced (Carrington, 2010). Coakley, Hallinan, and McDonald (2011) suggest that physical prowess, particularly in sports such as football and basketball, has become a distinguishing characteristic of African American athletes. Moreover, Black athletes are frequently stereotyped as being self-centered, arrogant, and selfish, but with innate athletic abilities, whereas White athletes are seen as hard workers, team players, and leaders (Denham, Billings, & Halone, 2002; Girdwood, 2010). Boyle and Haynes (2009) suggest that how the sports media report race and ethnicity has the ability to shape people’s view of racism.

According to the 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card for the NFL, 79% of the radio and television announcers were White, and 8% were Black (Lapchick & Sherrod, 2011). Although there has been a decrease in the number of White radio and television announcers from 2003, there is still a disparity between White and Black analysts (Lapchick & Sherrod, 2011). Longtime sport journalist Ron Thomas asserts that increasing the number of Black journalists covering sports with a large percentage of Black athletes may lead to more positive depictions of those athletes (Seymour, 2007).

Although sports may be objective, the sports media still has a need to relay interesting information to the public as a form of entertainment (Zackal, 2006). Coakley et al. (2011) suggest that sport news coverage is similar to any other news coverage as it involves drama and violence with the added element of analysis and commentary. Viewers of the sport news may not understand the notion that the images and stories we see and hear have been edited to enhance the dramatics and accentuate racial ideologies and logics in our society (Coakley et al., 2011). However, the public has to recognize that these stories are not representative of what generally happens in the sports community, but are merely an aspect of some matter that athletes may possibly face (Coakley et al., 2011). The media covers the sports that African Americans dominate and, to some degree, controls how individuals base their opinions of athletes.

Previous research (Billings, 2003, 2004; Eagleman, 2009; Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005) has analyzed media coverage of sports, finding racial differences in the depiction of Black and White athletes. Billings (2004) discussed the former media theory arguing that media outlets may not always tell viewers what to think, but can persuade viewers how to think. It is often said that sports media present ideas about race and sports without challenging them (Farrington, Kilvington, & Price, 2012). However, it has also been stated that sports can unite groups, cultures, and the world via the media (Boyle & Haynes, 2009). Sports media also has the ability to persuade, give advice, and provide reasoning for individuals’ own personal convictions (Hove, 2008). These ideas have the potential to mold the perception of race, both minorities and majorities, in sport.

A second explanation for why there are discrepancies in the way the media depicts athletes is the self-categorization theory. The self-categorization theory believes that social categorization influences people’s perceptions of others and the formation of self-identity (Boehling, 2007). With this knowledge, self-identity with one’s ethnic group may show implications for reporters and commentators as they may use different descriptors and show unknown racial biases when speaking about an athlete of a different ethnicity. The same can be said for the viewers as they may make different assumptions about the portrayals due to their perceived “in-group” status with their own ethnicity (Billings, 2004).

There has been significant quantitative research conducted that examines race, media, and sport (Billings, 2004; Bruce, 2004; Coakley et al., 2011; Eagleman, 2009; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Lapchick, & Sherrod, 2011; Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005). This study used a phenomenological approach to understand African American athletes’ and media personnel’s experiences of race with the media in sport.

METHODS

Participants

The participants consisted of five African American NFL players, with at least three years’ experience, and six sport reporters with at least five years’ experience. The number of participants was based on saturation, or the point at which no new meaning or insight could be gained from adding another participant. The NFL players included two tight ends, one linebacker, one cornerback, and one safety. Pseudonyms were used to protect the identities of the athletes.  The veteran sport reporters were all men, three were Caucasian while the other three were African American.

Procedure

Participationwas completely voluntary throughout this study. Participants were allowed to discontinue the interview at any point in time. The interviews were conducted at a southeastern university in the United States. The interviewer was experienced and trained in qualitative phenomenology by the head faculty member. Interviews were held in a quiet, private location to ensure confidentiality, or over the phone. The African American NFL participants were prompted with the following open-ended question: “When you think about a specific time being portrayed by the media, what comes to mind?” Additionally, the veteran sport reporters were prompted with the following open-ended question: “When you think about a specific time portraying an African American NFL player, what comes to mind?” Follow-up or probing questions were then asked for further clarifications of the athletes, and media professionals, experiences with the media (Patton, 2002). The participants’ experiences were historical in nature, in that they were expressing their past lived experiences.

 

 

Data Analysis

The phenomenological approaches that were used for analyzing the data are modified from Czech et al. (2004) and Patton (2002). The three step analysis was conducted by the lead researcher and included: (1) Approaching the interviews, which involved interview transcription and obtaining a grasp of the interview, (2) Focusing the data, which involved the elimination of irrelevant, repetitive, or overlapping data and verifying this elimination, and (3) Releasing meanings, which included forming categories,identifying themes, anddescribing the themes. Releasing meanings was conducted by the lead researcher, by the committee members who are experts in qualitative research, and reviewed by the participants. Triangulation of the data included peer review, expert review, and member checking to ensure validity and reliability of the themes.

RESULTS

 

African American NFL Player Results

Upon examining the eleven transcripts both individually and comparatively, the following three themes were revealed to describe the structure of race and the media from the African American NFL players’ perspective: (1) the players’ view of how media coverage affects the NFL players, (2) the players’ perceptions of media personnel, and (3) the athletes’ perception of Black quarterbacks.

Theme #1: How media coverage affects the African American NFL Player.

The first theme that emerged from the data describes how all types of media coverage affected the participants of this study. The athletes described the effects of the media as being helpful at times, although the negativity of the coverage can also affect them. Although there are negative representations of athletes by the media, athletes need the media during their careers. The athletes’ description of the media coverage was a consistent theme heard throughout most of the interviews. There were two subthemes within this domain: (1) positive or helpful media coverage, and (2) negative media.

Positive or Helpful Media Coverage.

In regards to media coverage being positive or helpful, most athletes expressed that they utilize the media to gain more positive exposure in regards to fan recognition, or speaking about subjects they find most important. One participant discussed how the media aided in a professional goal:

“You need em [the media] because they dictate, in a sick way, how people see you. They portray you. In some instances, they can dictate whether or not you make the Pro Bowl. They dictate how your contract is. They dictate how much money you make.” (Participant “Thomas”)

 

Other participants discussed how they utilized the media in order to speak about subjects they find important.

“I mean, the way I see it, had it not been for God and for where I stand in a spiritual basis, I wouldn’t be where I am. And so every opportunity I get to portray that in the media, I want them to know that that’s going to come out of my mouth. I want them to understand that if they do an interview with me, that’s going to be something that I’m going to allow them to understand.” (Participant “Bobby”)

“… it’s a necessary evil. You know, it’s something that’s always going to be there as far as that job is concerned. It’s something that in my situation, and a lot of guys that I play with, we use it to our advantage. You know…we get our message out there where we are doing something in the community, what we want them to portray.”

(Participant “Sanchez”)

 

Negative Media.

This subtheme emerged from many of the athletes’ descriptions on how media coverage can be offensive, or how harsh criticisms that are at times disrespectful, false, or propagandistic. The reports are soundbites, often illustrating biases in coverage. This results in a lack of trust between Black athletes and the media.

One of the participants added that he believes the media needs to be more respectful at times:

“I wish the media would just be a little bit more respectful and be a bit more open-minded to the fact that you’re dealing with people. Yes we got helmets on and people idolize us but, you know, at the end of the day, these dudes got families. And you talk bad about a person, like that wife, she hears that, you know. That kid or that daughter or that son, they go to school, ‘Your dad sucks.’”  (Participant “Ted”)

 

One of the major issues the athletes conveyed was the bias that can be seen in media coverage of African American NFL players:

“I would definitely say that if there’s a white player and a black player going up against each other and they’re both good, the white dude is going to get more hype. He’s gonna get more publicity. I’ll DEFINITELY say that.” (Participant “Ted”)

“I’m going to tell you one that really, really surprised me, and the media has its chosen goldenboys, Tom Brady being one of them. Tom Brady is a father out of wedlock. Same thing with Matt Leinart…but these are two goldenboys, big time quarterbacks, and nobody really struck the moral chord, if you will and said, ‘this is wrong or they should know better’.” (Participant “Boogie”)

The lack of trust that has developed is illustrated in the following quote:

“… I can’t be open and honest and talk about how I really feel because I’m afraid of the way they’re going to portray something. I mean, you have to watch every single word you say. And they’ll try to get you.” (Participant “Bobby”)

Another aspect of the media some of the participants associated with negativity is when some portrayals of the African American NFL players are false or untrue:

“There may say things about players or teammates of mine even other players on other teams, are just untrue, you know…I can’t tell you, I can’t even count how many times I’ve read an article or seen a story that I know for a hundred percent is false, is wrong, is not accurate.” (Participant “Ted”)

Theme #2: The Players’ Perceptions of Media Personnel.

The second theme to emerge from the examination of the transcripts was the African American NFL players’ impressions towards the make-up of media personnel. Two subthemes emerged from the data, (1) the “white media” and (2) personnel who never played the sport.

The “White Media”.

The majority of the players spoke about the percentage of White reporters to the percentage of Black players. The bulk of the NFL media is made up of White men, reporting on a sport that is predominantly Black. Some of the concerns of the African American NFL players on that ratio are described in the following quote:

“When you think about the media, who do you think about?  Do you think about, or when you think about people who portray the media, you think about white male, probably 35-45 years old, right?  So that’s about 90% of the people who is [sic] covering the NFL, probably 70% African American league is covered by 90% of white male who is 45. It’s the people who are reporting the news. If you can identify with the player in some light, which most of them are white males writing on white guys…” (Participant “Sanchez”)

Personnel Who Never Played the Sport.

 

The second subtheme is the notion that much of the media never played the sport which they are covering. The following quote illustrates the frustration of on NFL player:

“The other thing that really is annoying, and media figures that have never done what you’ve done and they’re trying to report on it. These guys in the locker room, men and women. They’ve never stepped foot on a football field in their life. How are you going to tell me, this that and the other how I’m playing. Who’s good and who’s not. You’ve never stepped foot on a football field.” (Participant “Thomas”)

Theme #3: Black Quarterbacks.

The final theme for the experience of race and the media from the African American NFL players’ perspective details what they perceive to be the pressures associated with Black quarterbacks. Specifically, their perception is that Black quarterbacks may have it “harder” than their White counterparts. The participants explained that Black quarterbacks are often stereotyped and throughout history have found it harder to be accepted at the quarterback position:

“But they had racial breakdowns by positions. One of the positions that’s on the field that’s predominately white is quarterback. They’re the leader of the team, and this that and the other. So, the black quarterbacks…they’re running quarterbacks. They can’t throw. Their mechanics are whatever. You know what I’m saying, and definitely…in that position, the odds are stacked against you. You come into the college as a black quarterback. They’re looking to put you at receiver, corner, everything else. And that’s just the nature of the beast.” (Participant “Thomas”)

Veteran Sport Reporter Results

The analysis of the veteran sport reporters’ interviews exposed three major themes: (1) perceptions of how the media covers the NFL, (2) interrelationships with NFL players, and (3) playing quarterback in the NFL. These three themes create the structure of the experience of race and the media for these veteran sport reporters.

Theme #1: Perceptions of How the Media Covers the NFL.

The first theme that emerged describes media coverage from the veteran sport reporters’ perspective. For the theme of how the media covers the NFL, the subthemes included (a) evolution of the media, (b) creating stories, (c) misperceptions of media portrayals, and (d) stereotypes.

Evolution of the media.

Most of the sport reporters described differences between present day media versus the past such as how race is portrayed between the younger generation and the older individuals in the media.

“And I think you have a divide between older media members and younger media members. I’m a younger media…And when you have the older guys who have been doing this for 30, 40 years. 30, 40 years ago, race played a major role in the locker room…I’m not speaking for all older media members, because I know some that are not like this, but I think the older media members certainly do see race more than the younger media members.” (Media Participant #4)

Creating Stories.

This subtheme emerged from many sport reporters’ descriptions of the importance of “getting the story.” Some of the participants spoke about the competition the papers experience, thus needing to “juice up” some of the stories in order to sell papers or gain ratings:

“Some of them might be doing things in order to sell papers in order to just have something to talk about. Sometimes that will generate some negative comments, or sometimes that will generate more coverage toward one person than the other.” (Media Participant #1)

Misperceptions of media portrayals.

All the veteran sport reporters in this study expressed that when they portray African American NFL players, “it’s not always about race,” and they personally portray the athletes fairly:

“I don’t show favoritism to black, white, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian because there are so many athletes in our country from so many different nations, and so many different ethnic backgrounds. I like talking about the sport in general and what they need to do to better themselves, and what they’re getting out of the sport. I don’t look at color. I think that’s the wrong thing to do.” (Media Participant #1)

However, despite the feelings that they are fair in their coverage, many of the veteran sport reporters acknowledged there are discrepancies in the amount of negative coverage African American NFL players receive, as seen in the following quotes:

“But in general, there’s no way you can deny that black athletes aren’t treated differently.” (Media Participant #2)

“I think part of it is the fact that it’s always going to be unfair. And you know, we could take our pity party. But it was always unfair. It’s always been unfair. That doesn’t mean it’s not unconquerable. But it’s always been unfair. Us, as blacks, we always are going to have to be one step above just to be even.” (Media Participant #3)

The final subtheme that emerged was the racial stereotypes in the media coverage of African American NFL players. Participants give examples of different stereotypes that can be seen in commentating:

“But he’ll say things to me like if Donovan McNabb goes back to pass and instead of passing, he runs for 15 yards, people will say, that was a great athletic play. Or, boy, is that an athletic player. Whereas if Jeff Garcia does the same thing, people will say, what a gritty competitor. You know?  Or what a heady play. Nobody was open, so he made the smart play. If McNabb does it, it’s an athletic play. If Jeff Garcia does it, it’s the smart play.” (Media Participant #6)

Theme #2: Interrelationships with NFL players.

This theme emerged from the veteran sport reporters’ descriptions of the relationships between the media and the African American NFL players they portray. There were two subthemes that surfaced. They were (a) the impact of the media’s relationships with the African American NFL player, and (b) the athlete’s role in the media portrayals. The participants discussed the perceptions of the athletes’ dealings with and treatment of media professionals. In addition, the sport reporters spoke about their professional relationship with the athletes and what they find is the best way to interact with the African American NFL players. Lastly, the athletes determine their role in the story by putting themselves in negative situations.

The impact of the media’s relationships with the African American NFL players.

Many of the sport reporter participants spoke about the athletes’ relationships with the media. Some reporters explained that when athletes do not embrace the media, they are often portrayed in a negative way which is outlined in the following quote about a prominent African American NFL Player:

“Art Monk being left out of the Hall of Fame inductions for 8 years or some odd years, was a crime. It was a crime. It was something that people here would just so, up in arms about. And the reason, and a lot of reason that we feel or a lot of people feel that it took so long for Art to get into the Hall of Fame, is because Art was not really one to embrace the media. And not in a bad or, he just did his job. Which is a foreign concept to a lot of professional athletes now. But he did his job. And because he wasn’t flashy, and he wasn’t in the press, whatever. He just did his job, caught passes, and ended up being the record holder at the time. All these other flamboyant receivers came after him, and they got into the hall of fame. The media can really, really run with bad press, and it could end up having a bad boy image, you could end up being good. You could end up being, sensationalized.” (Media Participant #3)

The majority of the sport reporters discussed the importance of a professional relationship with the African American NFL player, although the type of relationship each sport reporter spoke about is different. One of the participants considers the best and most ethical relationship for a sport reporter to have with the athlete should be kept strictly professional:

“And there’s one thing too that’s got to be distinguished. There are some people in our business who go too far. And there are famous black journalists who have tried to become buddy, buddy with these athletes. Which is journalistically unethical. It’s a professional relationship. Because I’m paid to do a job. I’m not paid to be friend with these guys. Because if you try to be friends with these guys, you can’t do your job. Because sometimes you’ve got to write some tough things about them. I point that out to say that unfortunately, and again I’m just calling a spade a spade. We have a lot of so-called black journalists who cross the line and become pals with these guys, and cover up for these guys. And so that’s a whole different story there.” (Media Participant #2)

In contrast, other sport reporters believe being friends with African American NFL players allows for a better professional relationship:

“I would say that being 29 years old, and being regularly in the locker room of the Philadelphia Eagles, I probably get along better with, on average, the black players… But I think when, on a personal level, I think that the, when I’m in the locker room, I get along better with the black players. There’s more to talk about. I think there’s more personality, there, frankly…and I think on a level outside the locker room, of continued relationships, I would say I have numbers wise better relationships with black players, and feel more comfortable than I do at times the white player.” (Media Participant #4)

The athletes’ role in the media portrayals.

The majority of the veteran sport reporters explained that it is up to the African American NFL player to be responsible for their personal actions. If the athletes keep themselves out of bad situations, critical media coverage may be less apparent. One participant reiterated the fact that when these athletes become part of the NFL, they have to be cognizant to the fact they are now public figures:

“If you’re going to play in the league, if you’re going to play on that stage, and you’re going to reap the benefits of that kind of thing, the celebrity, the money, all the things that come with it, then you have to take the other things that come with it. Which is the world’s going to be looking over your shoulder 24/7. And you make a mistake, and all of a sudden, it’s on the front page of the paper, that’s the other part of it. And you have to live with that. The minute you put on an NFL uniform, you’re putting that on with it. What happens next is really up to you. You can either take it and turn it into something real negative, or you can turn it into something real positive…your life has become a public record.”

(Media Participant #6)

Theme #3: Playing Quarterback in the NFL.

Every veteran sport reporter participant spoke about the pressures associated with being a quarterback in the NFL, especially an African American quarterback. Many of the participants spoke about prominent African American quarterback Doug Williams and the strides he had to make in order to gain the respect of other players, fans, coaches, and the media:

“I remember covering the Super Bowl in, I want to say 1988, and the Washington Redskins were playing the Denver Broncos. And what made that so significant, it was the first Super Bowl that a black quarterback started…And Doug Williams just had a record day against the Denver Broncos that day. Now what made that significant was the quarterback for the Denver Broncos was John Elway, who was sort of like the great white hope. So now you’ve got this, the first black quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl against the great white hope, John Elway. And the Denver Broncos were heavily favored in that Super Bowl. Not only did they lose, the Broncos, but they were destroyed by a black quarterback. And that was a huge moment. Because prior to that, there was always this, sort of thing in the air that black could not play quarterback. So now you’ve got a guy who’s not only playing quarterback, but starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, and destroying the other team. That was a real huge moment. That’s one of the first things I think about when it comes to black African American players in the NFL. That a reporter asked Doug Williams how long had he been a black quarterback?  And that’s sort of a famous line. And Doug Williams just kind of brushed it off by saying he had been black all of his life.” (Media Participant #2)

Many participants spoke about the difficulties African American quarterbacks experienced in the earlier years of the NFL when dealing with the stereotypes black athletes had to face as outlined by the following participant:

“There was a time in the 50s and the 60s where if you were an African American

quarterback in college, that you didn’t have a chance to play in the NFL or even really compete in the NFL. I mean, if you were an African American in college, even a good one, you kind of had two choices really. You could either go to the NFL and change positions, try to make your running back or receiver or defensive back. Or, if you wanted, if you were really insistent on being a quarterback, you kind of had to go to Canada to play in the Canadian football league… So a lot of players at that time chose to go to Canada. And those that came to the NFL were generally told, okay, you’re now a defensive back. Or you’re now a receiver. They didn’t really get a chance to compete.” (Media Participant #6)

DISCUSSION

 

The current study explored the experiences of race and the media in the NFL from an existential phenomenological approach. Because this study examined both the African American NFL players’ experiences, as well as the veteran sport reporters’ perspectives, many common themes emerged from the participants’ transcripts. The researchers wanted to compare and contrast the results for the African American NFL players and veteran sport reporters; therefore, cross-themes are outlined throughout this discussion. The cross themes were grouped together so detailed comparisons of those themes and subthemes could be provided throughout this section where appropriate.

How media coverage affects the African American NFL Player (NFL Theme)

How the media covers the NFL (Media Theme)

According to Coakley et al. (2011), the media provides information about events and people, happenings in the world, and entertainment. The media has a large impact on the success of professional sports in part by the popularity it gains by the large attention mass media provides as well as the large amount of money the media puts into sports (Eitzen & Sage, 2009). One consequence of the media is its influence on perceptions. The theme of media coverage affecting the African American NFL player was common throughout the participant interviews of both the NFL players and veteran sport reporters. A common subtheme for the athletes and media professionals included “positive” feelings towards the media.

The NFL and sport reporter participants of this study detailed aspects of how the media is a positive entity to the realm of professional football. Both sets of participants spoke about African American NFL players being able to utilize the media in order to gain positive exposure, and not all aspects of the media are negative. One athlete detailed his experience of utilizing the media to express his passion for Christianity and how his religion is the one most important facet of his life (Participant “Bobby”). One of the veteran sport reporters (Media Participant 5) believes the athletes need the media as much as the media needs them. These statements support Coakley’s thesis that sports and the media have a two-way relationship (Coakley et al., 2011). Much notice has been given to the media’s influence on sport, but less attention has been given to the media being influenced by sport (Coakley et al., 2011).

The subtheme of “negative” media coverage emerged from the NFL player transcripts. Interestingly, the veteran sport reporters described subthemes that were consistent with those of the African American NFL players when speaking about negative aspects of media coverage: (a) misperceptions of media portrayals, (b) how media portrayals are done, (c) racial biases in coverage, and (d) stereotypes. An extensive comparison is necessary to better understand both experiences of the populations.

It can be argued that a combination of a predominantly black sport with a predominantly white professional media creates an environment that promotes racial representations is inevitable (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005). Research suggests that expectancy, such as media expectations, can influence an individual’s performance in sport media coverage. This mostly entails a correlation between race and ability that affects athletic performance (Hill et al., 2009; Wenner, 1998). Previous research has analyzed media coverage of sports finding racial differences in the portrayals of black athletes in the form of racial stereotypes (Billings, 2004; 2003; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005; Wenner, 1998) One of the most common stereotypes of Black athletes is that they possess natural athletic ability whereas the White athlete is thought to be smarter (Carrington, 2010; Denham, Billings, & Halone, 2002; Girdwood, 2010).

According to Stone, Perry, and Darley (1997), because African Americans dominate the widely televised sports, the established but often unspoken stereotypes of African American athletic ascendancy have filtered into American society.  One NFL participant suggested that media portrayals are slanted because the media is “almost trying to uphold the stereotypes that black athletes already have” (Participant “Thomas”).  Many African American athletes are thought to be portrayed as “brutish, buffoonish, comical, criminal, ignorant, lazy, and oversexed” (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005). An athlete participant makes a similar statement in reference to the media’s portrayal of black athletes in that “they would like us to be seen as barbaric and as non-approachable as possible” (Participant “Sanchez”). Another negative stereotypical belief the media asserts that Black athletes do not work as hard as their White counterparts (Eagleman, 2009). The previous illustrations indicate stereotypes are prevalent in the media, and the athletes are aware of those racial stereotypes.

An additional aspect that emerged included the phenomena of stacking. Stacking can be defined as athletes being assigned to certain positions in team sports based on stereotypical characteristics such as race related athletic ability (Coakley et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 1999). Within professional football, the quarterback is typically a position held by Whites, while wide-receiver and running back are held by Blacks due to the athletic ability those two positions entail. A proposed hypothesis to counter the stacking practices suggested that instead of Black youth being channeled into certain positions by coaches, they merely modeled their athletic heroes, and consequently played similar positions in their own athletic careers (Eastman & Billings, 2001).In a study of a mock NFL draft by Mercurio and Filak (2010), Black players were described as athletes playing quarterback while White players were described as athletic quarterbacks. This seems to depict the position of quarterback as suitable for White players but out of the comfort zone of Black players.

The subtheme of racial biases in media coverage indicates there is a discrepancy in the portrayals of Black and White NFL players. One player commented that “you see the media kind of blow stuff out of proportion sometimes…and specifically nowadays on Black athletes” (participant “Thomas”). Rada and Wulfemeyer (2005) found racial biases in media coverage across a range of sports ranging from professional to intercollegiate athletes in the United States. Results from a study conducted on racial descriptors in television coverage of intercollegiate sports explained that when sport announcers described African American athletes, the majority of the comments were negative about a player’s off-field intelligence, character, and personal life (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005). In contrast, the White players received positive comments in regards to the previously stated categories (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005). The same study asserts that sport announcers often take attention away from the player’s on-field achievements, and averts attention to other aspects of that player’s personal life and character. Researchers found that “through this transformation from the player-as-athlete to player-as-person, the announcers are also able to shift the commentary – and thus the portrayal – from positive to negative” (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005, p. 68-69).

Previous research on media studies supports the notion on “getting the story” because “the media may have a need to give the audience selected information in order to provide a sense of entertainment” (Coakley, 2007, p. 368). Many of the sport reporter participants discussed that stories may be skewed to “juice up in order to gain attention” (Media Participant 2). Thus, two theories can be referenced pertaining to the media and sports: media and framing theories. The media theory suggest that there are three aspects essential to the success of media outlets: (a) determine who or what is shown, (b) determine how much who or what gets shown, and (c) determine who or what does not get shown (Billings, 2004).The framing theory is the process of selectively influencing an individual’s perception and influencing the choices they make.

Media outlets not only select the athletic event that is going to be covered, but also decide on what pictures, impressions, and commentary will be given to the public (Coakley et al., 2011). Whannel (2002) says when the media creates the images the public will eventually view, “they [media] play an important role in constructing the overall frameworks that we in media audiences use to define and explain sport in our lives” (p. 369). What has to be remembered by athletes, the media, and the public is that media outlets are just another form of entertainment attempting to gain ratings that no one is forced to read. One veteran sport reporter (Media Participant 3) expressed the public’s need for entertainment by saying the media “sensationalizes” stories and for that reason, “the media is not one for pumping up the good.”

Although the sport reporters and NFL participants agree that the media is imbalanced in their portrayals of African American NFL players, all the veteran sport reporters reiterated that they do not personally see race as a factor in their portrayals of NFL players. While many of the African American athletes mentioned they feel race is a big factor in the negative portrayals of black NFL players, a sport reporter participant mentioned that he feels that “football media has done the best making race a non-issue as a whole” (Media Participant 4). While speaking about the misconceptions of media portrayals, another veteran sport reporter stated: “I never really thought in terms of whether a player was Black or White. When I sat down to interview a guy, it was for a specific reason. It had something to do with his role on the team, the way he had played, where he was drafted, what his, where he fit into the plans” (Media Participant 6). Therefore, the media participants agree that there may be some racial bias in the profession, although each participant believes he is as unbiased as possible.

What research appears to be lacking is the knowledge of how these African American NFL players are coping with the media’s negative portrayals of them. Cox (2002) asserts that any behavior that assists an individual in dealing with a stressful situation is considered to be a coping behavior. Coping for these participants included not reading or watching media coverage because of the negative effect it could have on an individual’s psyche. Another aspect of coping from the athletes’ perspective was the notion of the number of African American NFL players placing themselves in unfavorable situations resulting in negative presentations of their persona. The majority of the participants in this investigation are consistent in that a large amount of Black NFL players are viewed more in the media partaking in negative situations than their white counterparts. One NFL player (Participant “Boogie”) stated: “I try to encourage those around me to not do things that are going to bring negative publicity to them…as long as you have people that are doing negative things that are against the law or bringing negative publicity to themselves, or negative attention, you going to have the white media doing what they do.”  One of the sport reporters compared his profession to that of the NFL players. Kristiansen, Roberts, and Sisjord (2011) found that professional goalkeepers coped with the media via social support, avoidance coping, and problem-focused coping. However, avoidance strategies are quite difficult in a culture bombarded with media and many NFL players are fined if they do not provide interviews.  Further research on the coping of African American athletes with the media is required.

Interrelationships between the media and the NFL players (Media Theme & NFL subtheme)

Many of the participants in this investigation discussed the professional relationships between the NFL players and media professionals. Like many other things in today’s culture, the media is a social construct that is controlled by people who create and organize ideas in order to relay thoughts and stories to the public. Without the reciprocal relationship between the NFL and the media, people would probably give less priority to sports, thus a decline in the revenue for both the media and the NFL could occur.

Many of the NFL player participants spoke about the mandatory relationship or “contractual obligations that make professional athletes have to deal with a certain number of media, or make themselves available” (Participant “Boogie”). However, it was stated by both the NFL and sport reporter participants that if you are not friendly with the media, or talk to them when they need you, a negative stigma will be placed on that athlete. This is evidenced by current NFL player Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to speak with media throughout the NFL playoffs. He was fined each time he refused to interact with the press (Hanzus, 2014). In his book entitled “Inside the sports pages: Work Routines, Professional Ideologies and the Manufacture of Sports News”, Mark Douglas Lowes (1999) detailed certain transgressions, like Sean Taylor not speaking to the media and in return receiving a negative stigma which led to confrontations between the reporters and athletes. In addition, reporters are being barred from locker rooms and many athletes are refusing to speak to the media (Lowes, 1999).

Black quarterbacks (NFL theme)

Playing quarterback in the NFL (Media Theme)

The final theme to emerge from all participants in this investigation pertained to the cultural significance and importance of the emergence of the Black quarterback, thus a comparison of both perspectives is crucial to this study. Both the NFL and veteran sport reporters agree that the quarterback position receives most of the scrutiny in the NFL, thus making the Black quarterback a common theme among both sets of participants. Until recent years, the quarterback may have been one of the most racially stereotyped positions in the NFL. Although the NFL is predominately Black, the quarterback position is still dominated by White athletes. Seventeen percent of QB’s are Black while 83% are White (Lapchick, 2014). In the past, if a Black quarterback wanted to play professionally, he had to make a crucial decision about the path of his career: “he could switch positions, usually to wide receiver or a defensive secondary role, bolt to the Canadian Football League to play quarterback, or face the long odds of becoming a Black quarterback in the NFL” (Roquemore, 2001, p. 38). Although the climate for the Black quarterback is improving, there is still a stereotype that has not been fully overcome (Donnellon, 2007).

 

CONCLUSION

Based on the results of this investigation, it seemed that African American NFL players utilized the media to increase positive exposure of themselves, yet remained aware of racial biases in the media coverage. The athletes were able to see racial stereotypes and viewed the media’s portrayals of African American NFL players to be negative. While NFL athletes in this investigation adhere to the obligatory relationship they have with the media, they understand the negative effects of placing themselves in unfavorable situations and as a result may receive negative scrutiny in the media. Thus, they prefer not to pay attention to media portrayals of themselves. In addition, NFL athletes believe the media is primarily made up of White men who never played the sport of organized professional football and can be propagandistic by providing reports that can be skewed in order to provide a sense of entertainment for the public. Veteran sport reporters in this investigation stressed the importance of “getting the story” when it comes to portraying athletes, and that not all portrayals have to do with race. Reporters in this investigation believed that players misconceive the profession of mass media and their intentions regarding racial issues. In spite of this, they see and are aware of racial biases and stereotypes in the media coverage of African American NFL players. In this investigation, reporters understood the importance of a positive relationship with the African American NFL players. They believed the players were often placing themselves in negative situations, therefore resulting in bad media portrayals. Veteran sport reporters also saw a difference in media styles of the older generation of media professionals versus the younger generation. Future research could examine the continually changing perception of race and media in NFL or other professional sports. In addition, research could examine the language used by television and social media outlets to understand how stereotypes are forwarded through such mediums. The impact of social media use by players and sports media is necessary as media in sport continues to evolve. Understanding how racial stereotypes are perpetuated or overcome via social media is crucial for the betterment of professional sports in general.

 

 

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