Listen to this article here
By Collette Watson
American football is a culture. Or, perhaps more accurately, a cult. For over a century, this sport has upheld regressive racial narratives thinly veiled as patriotism and team-mentality.
Recent incidents involving coach Deion Sanders and veteran NFL reporter Jim Trotter underscore the reality that football media is one of the influential sources of old-fashioned racial attitudes in society – and the urgency of reckoning with this history of harm.
The history of Blackness and football
Racism in American football can be traced back to the Jim Crow-era of the late 1800s, when the sport was gaining popularity in colleges across the country. In 1922, there were only five Black players in the NFL.
After the stock-market crash of 1929, White people began to balk at paying Black people to play football. So in 1933, the NFL suddenly and quietly banned Black players.
The league integrated in 1946, but the game and its media machine continued to reflect its racist roots. A tradition arose in which White players are praised for their hard work and intellect, while Black players’ achievements are attributed to natural athleticism or brute strength.
In 1988, prominent CBS TV sports analyst Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder famously said on air: “The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way. …This goes all the way to the Civil War when, during the slave trading, the owner, the slave owner, would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see.” Snyder was fired, but the anti-Black narratives continued inside football.
Race-norming didn’t end until 2019
A recent lawsuit revealed that the NFL used a practice called “race-norming” to block Black retired players from accessing health-care benefits. In other words, the league used a scoring system for dementia and other brain-related claims built on the heinous assumption that Black players have lower cognitive function to begin with. This is especially disturbing given the prevalence of brain injury in the sport: Boston University researchers recently announced their diagnosis of CTE in the brains of 91.7 percent of NFL players studied.
The practice of race-norming just ended in 2019, highlighting the very recent impacts of racism in U.S. football.
This is the psychology of football. Black players are celebrated for athletic prowess while regarded as inherently inferior. The hierarchy is further entrenched in the ways Black players, and coaches, are chastised and ostracized for stepping outside the norms of whiteness. This mentality was on full display as the Colorado State Rams prepared to match up against the University of Colorado Boulder’s Buffalos earlier in September.
Coach Jay Norvell told an enthusiastic panel of White men on a radio show: “I don’t care if they hear this in Boulder. When I talk to grownups, I take my hat and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me. … I’m tired of that stuff. I really am.”
Colorado becomes ground zero
The comment was an obvious jab at UC Boulder Coach Deion “Prime” Sanders’ habit of wearing a cowboy hat or cap with sunglasses during interviews, throughout his storied career. Since the 1980s, Sanders’ flamboyant hip-hop style has been criticized according to Black respectability politics, described by journalist Barrett Holmes Pitner as a deeply held “code of conduct aimed at ensuring that African Americans, and other minorities, appear clean, safe, and presentable to a white audience.”
Anti-Black ideas of what’s proper, polite or professional in society have prompted the need for a variety of civil-rights legislation through the years, including, most recently, the CROWN Act, which has prohibited hair-based discrimination at work and school in 24 states since 2019.
Despite this legislation, racism in football persists. Many workplaces like the NFL and NFL Media continue to be stuck in narratives of anti-Blackness, and here’s the major reason why: There aren’t nearly enough voices in corporate sports media and journalism who are informed or empowered enough to properly challenge harmful ideas. The decision-makers are like the room Jay Norvell was speaking to last weekend: mostly White and cishet male.
What happens when Black media workers dare to speak up about racism in football
Black journalists made up just 5.6 percent of all newsroom staffers working at daily publications in 2017 and just 4.6 percent of newsroom leaders that same year, according to the American Society of News Editors’ annual study, which was first conducted in 1978. ASNE no longer plans to conduct this study due to a lack of newsroom participation.
Journalist Carla Murphy’s 2020 survey The Leavers shows that most journalists of color, particularly Black women, leave the field at the mid-career point due to newsroom conditions — just as they have accumulated enough experience to move into leadership roles.
The latest alarming example of this dynamic emerged with a lawsuit filed recently by veteran reporter Jim Trotter, which provides a view inside the grim reality of the NFL and its cable-media platform, NFL Media.
Howard University graduate and veteran reporter Jim Trotter is the former Pro Football Writers Association president, and was named the PFWA 2023 Bill Nunn Jr. Award recipient for “a long and distinguished contribution to pro football through coverage.” Filed in early September, Trotter’s lawsuit claims that his contract was not renewed this year because he repeatedly spoke out about the lack of diversity at the league office, among its coaches and within its media division.
Confronting racism in American football
At a press conference in 2022, Trotter asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell why a Black person had never been hired as a senior manager in NFL Network’s newsroom. According to Trotter, his supervisor asked one of his colleagues the next day, “Why does Jim keep bringing this up?” Soon afterward, Trotter was informed that his contract, which had previously been on track for renewal, would end.
Trotter’s lawsuit also cites racist comments by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team is currently valued at $9 billion, as well as Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula. Both owners have denied the allegations.
Across the country, Black journalists covering sports and every other beat are all too aware that their employment can be swiftly taken away if they dare to question newsroom practices. Just because we see Black faces in bylines and on our screens doesn’t mean that power has actually shifted. It’s impossible for culture to shift when those Black faces and voices are effectively censored by a white-dominated power structure.
For change to become real, there must be a wholesale redistribution of power.
The media system owes a hefty debt of repair
Corporate sports media is one of the most extreme sectors of our society in its persistent upholding of the idea that Black people are simultaneously superhuman and subhuman, and an inherent threat to society. These are the narratives that shape societal conditions in which 6’4” police officer Darren Wilson could acceptably testify in court that he felt like, “ … a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” when he confronted and ultimately murdered unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Stereotypes and tropes kill. Every day, our lived experiences as Black people are shaped by the racist, classist drivel we hear spewed at water coolers and kitchen tables — drivel that is coming directly from talk radio, podcasts, newspapers, magazines and television, especially those associated with football and other sports. This drivel is then echoed behind closed doors in law enforcement agencies, financial institutions, doctors’ offices and school board meetings — all the places where decisions are made that shape the quality and length of Black lives.
In Media 2070’s 2020 book-length essay, Media 2070: An Invitation to Dream Up Media Reparations, my colleagues and I wrote:
“Culture is the forest floor where policy either dies or flourishes. For that reason, media reparations are crucial to repair the harm the government caused via policies that created structural racism in the media industry — policies that have benefited white-controlled media institutions that in turn have defended, reinforced and upheld our nation’s white-racial hierarchy.”
Football fancies itself as a cultural bedrock of U.S. culture and society. If we are to realize a safe, multiracial future, football media must reckon with its racism and anti-Blackness and embark on the road to repair and healing.