Why are sports broadcasters always making racial gaffes?

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Nov. 30 2006 5:03 PM

Color Commentators

Why are sports broadcasters always making racial gaffes?

Michael Irvin. Click image to expand.
Michael Irvin

While Michael Richards' tirade continues to make news, I ask you to turn your attention to a less-publicized racial gaffe. On Dan Patrick's ESPN Radio program, NFL-star-turned-NFL-analyst Michael Irvin postulated that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is white, owes his athletic ability to the miscegenation of a distant relative with one of her slave hands. Or, as Irvin eloquently put it: "[Romo's] great, great, great, great Grandma pulled one of them studs up outta the barn."

Irvin has since apologized and, despite a long rap sheet of embarrassing episodes, seems destined to stay on the air. Sports columnists have noted the double standard here—that CBS analyst and amateur eugenicist Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder got fired in 1988 for saying that blacks were "bred to be the better athlete because ... the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid." I'm less interested in this hypocrisy than in the fact that Irvin is the latest in a long line of sportscasters who've said inflammatory things about race. Why is there so much racism in the broadcast booth?

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Famous examples abound. Steve Lyons was recently fired by Fox for his somewhat cryptic remarks about Mexicans and Jews. Rush Limbaugh resigned from his position as an ESPN commentator after saying that Donovan McNabb gets good press because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." Lee Hamilton resigned as a Vikings broadcaster due to a history of making racist comments on his radio show. San Francisco radioman Larry Krueger was fired after saying that the Giants' lineup was full of "brain-dead Caribbean hitters." Howard Cosell once referred to wideout Alvin Garrett as a "little monkey" on Monday Night Football. CBS broadcaster Billy Packer called Allen Iverson a "tough monkey" during a Georgetown-Villanova game.

As George " Macaca" Allen and Trent Lott would be the first to remind everyone, racially insensitive remarks are hardly the sole province of sports. But there are certain aspects of sports and sports broadcasting that make it a breeding ground for hate speech.

First, there is the rough-edged atmosphere of the locker room. Irvin explained his comments about Tony Romo by saying he was merely taking the language of the locker room into the open air. In the sports world, politically correct language and attitudes are anathema—that's why it's no surprise that gay athletes aren't lining up to proclaim their sexual orientation. Athletes spewing racist and sexist garbage is nothing remarkable, from John Rocker's John Birch outlook to Fuzzy Zoeller's comically insensitive take on the Masters menu to Jeremy Shockey's casual relationship with homosexual slurs. Athletes often say what they feel, however offensive, and it's possible that media types who spend time in their midst have some of that attitude rub off.

A more plausible explanation, though, is that ex-athletes are hired and immediately shoved into the broadcast booth. Producers encourage them to act natural and speak off-the-cuff. Today's athlete-turned-commentator is told to be edgy and "keep it real." The networks are making a Faustian bargain, and they have to live with the consequences when edginess turns into language considered uncouth by general standards—whether it's Michael Irvin talking about slavery, Steve Lyons saying that Lou Piniella stole his wallet, or University of Miami broadcaster Lamar Thomas goading his alma mater during a gigantic on-field brawl.

Last year, Slate's Jack Shafer speculated that TV reporters omitted mentions of race from their coverage of Hurricane Katrina for fear of having a "Campanis moment." In 1987, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis ruined his career and reputation by telling Nightline's Ted Koppel that African-Americans lacked "some of the necessities" to run a sports team. Well-trained talking heads are savvy enough to know that it's dangerous to say anything about race on the air—one misstatement could end your career. It's fair to say that jocks-turned-broadcasters aren't so savvy.

That being said, the simplest reason for all the unvarnished tongues in the sports broadcasting universe: the sheer tonnage of live airtime. Each day is filled with countless three-hour game broadcasts, 24/7 sports-talk radio in every city, televised press conferences, interviews, analysis shows, etc. With all those hours waiting to be filled, it's no surprise that it's not all Daniel Webster-level oratory.

Meanwhile, the Internet has empowered citizen critics to fan the flames of outrage, spotlight offensive statements that might otherwise have slipped by unnoticed, and have their voices heard by the networks. As recently as a couple of years ago, a radio sound bite from Michael Irvin would probably have been ignored. In 2006, it's posted immediately and blogged about incessantly, forcing ESPN to react and Irvin to apologize. And given the supposed lack of seriousness involved when discussing bats and balls, it's ironic that sports commentators are often given much less leeway than shock jocks or political hosts. Rush Limbaugh is hugely rewarded for race-baiting every day on his radio show. It was only when he ventured onto ESPN that his (far milder) comments were deemed a sackable offense.

Sometimes it isn't boorishness or poor training that undoes sportscasters, but rather a slip of the tongue. Take the case of David Lenihan, a St. Louis radio host who, while praising Condoleezza Rice's potential candidacy for NFL commissioner, said the word "coon" instead of "coup." Although Lenihan was obviously intending to compliment Rice, the mangled word cost him his job. I agree with ESPN that Michael Irvin's comments, while far more than a slip of the tongue, don't constitute a fireable offense. I'd much rather see them fire Irvin for something bigger—say, his complete incompetence as a broadcaster.

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