A Conversation On Sportswriting And Race With Deadspin's Greg Howard : Code Switch The young sportswriter sat down for a Q&A with NPR's Laura Wagner about whether athletes have an obligation to speak out on social issues and how sports journalists should cover them when they do.
NPR logo A Conversation On Sportswriting And Race With Deadspin's Greg Howard

A Conversation On Sportswriting And Race With Deadspin's Greg Howard

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears an "I Can't Breathe" shirt during warmups. Al Bello/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Al Bello/Getty Images

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers wears an "I Can't Breathe" shirt during warmups.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Greg Howard is a staff writer at Deadspin, a Gawker Media site that covers sports and culture, and has written and reported on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the shortcomings of boomerangs. But he's become best known for his writing over the past year about the behind-the-scenes turbulence at a planned ESPN site called "The Undefeated," which meant to focus on issues of sports and race. Those stories gained a lot of attention, as well as the ire of Jason Whitlock, the polarizing sports columnist whom ESPN had picked to helm the site. (Whitlock was removed from his position at the site earlier this summer, and was fired altogether from ESPN this month.)

Howard spoke with me about how sports media address — or don't address — race in its coverage and what, if any, obligation athletes and the journalists who cover them have to talk about race. In particular, we focus on a fascinating exchange between two NFL players on race and police violence. (You can read about the exchange on Deadspin, but here's the gist: During a press conference, Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks said that while there are some bad police officers, "black-on-black crime" must be of primary concern. A day later, his teammate Michael Bennett took the podium to disagree with Sherman's characterization of the issue and speak about the structural inequality that has long affected black communities.) The conversation was edited for clarity and length.

What do you think about the idea that athletes should "stick to sports" and avoid addressing other topics, especially ones like race that will potentially elicit backlash?

Greg Howard is a staff writer for Deadspin who writes about sports, race and culture. Courtesy Greg Howard hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy Greg Howard

I don't hate many things more than that. Athletes are people; they're not workhorses just to dance or hit other people or whatever for our pleasure. Many have thoughts that have nothing to do with sports, just like a lot of us have thoughts and interests that have nothing to do with our day jobs. When you see people try to silence athletes, it's just a sign that they don't like what the athletes particularly have to say.

When Sherman and Bennett talked to the media about their views on race and police brutality earlier this season, the mainstream sports media barely mentioned it. It struck me as a missed opportunity to use the platform of professional sports as a vehicle to address an important issue. Do sports journalists have an obligation to cover the intersection between sports and social issues like race?

No. I think sports journalists have a duty to do whatever their employer tells them to do. Depending on where you work that duty changes. I think at Deadspin, we're not just a sports site, we were never just a sports site. We always cover society through the lens of sports and I think that's when we're at our best — and so we have a duty to talk about Richard Sherman and Bennett and their opinion of Black Lives Matter. If you're at ESPN and you're writing [game recaps] after the football game you don't really have a duty to say Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett are currently embroiled in an interesting debate about Black Lives Matter and black pathology.

So mainstream sports coverage is more or less devoid of conversations about race because there is no appetite for it?

I just don't think there is very much empathy for these people are outside of the field and that's just because your job is to go get this quote from this athlete about this game, and when they start speaking about something else, especially if it doesn't mesh with your politics, you don't really want to hear what they have to say. But I really don't think that's much different from anything else. When someone has politics that runs counter to what you think, your first instinct is to turn it off. And I think that's what was going on there.

What about athletes — should they be more willing to address social or political topics?

I don't think athletes should feel like they should be silenced. There are a lot of really, really intelligent men and women who play sports; it's not just jocks. The fact that a lot of people don't want to hear athletes speak on other issues says a lot of sad things about how we look at athletes, as just existing for entertainment and not really contextualizing them off the field.

But beyond the value of showing fans that they are whole, complex people with ideas of their own, when athletes talk about nonsports issues like race, they are inevitably going to reach people with their huge platforms — people who otherwise may not be reading or hearing about social or racial issues otherwise — so isn't this sort of a "with great power comes great responsibility" situation? Should they feel obligated to talk about race, police violence and other issues?

I would say hell no, athletes aren't obligated to talk about things other than sports, but they should if they want to. If an athlete wants to speak on anything I think they should and we as media [don't have] any right to tell them they can't, but that's different from having an obligation to speak on anything.

For example, with Richard Sherman I happen to think he is wrong. And so it would've been cool maybe if he didn't say that if black people stopped killing each other maybe they'd be more deserving of, what, equality from white people or something? So that kind of sucks, but he has every right to say that, but if he didn't it would've been awesome too.

But Sherman's comments did open the door for Bennett to jump in and disagree. Don't you think the conversation could have continued and evolved if journalists had asked about it?

In an awesome and different world you can have these debates back and forth with athletes, you can have journalists who are going back and forth with athletes, and athletes who are going back and forth with each other, having the same conversations that we're having. But there are a lot of people who don't particularly care about what athletes are saying and there are a lot of people [who aren't] particularly versed themselves in these debates. So it might not always be the best idea for a sports journalist to ask an athlete about Black Lives Matter, for instance.

Are athletes trying to talk about these issues more?

I think athletes are having the same conversations everyone else [is] having. And with Twitter, Instagram, I guess Facebook — even [retired baseball pitcher] Curt Schilling is commenting on the world too. There are more outlets and more ways to hear people you didn't really have access to. Now there are so many different ways of accessing athletes that sometimes their opinions come back the other way. I don't think athletes are particularly trying; I just think it's easier to listen to them.

Other athletes have made statements about racial injustice: Most notably, LeBron James organized a team photo of the Miami Heat players wearing hoodies after Trayvon Martin's killing and he also wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt during warmups after the death of Eric Garner. But it seems he's also very careful to walk a careful line of not being too provocative. For example, he explained that he was wearing the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt more as an expression of sympathy for the family than a statement about America's racially biased law enforcement system. What do you make of that?

Yeah, and that's probably where the most money is. Republicans buy sneakers too. [This is a reference to a quote often attributed to Michael Jordan, regarding his refusal to endorse a candidate running against Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.] It takes a very unique and special person who also doesn't really give a damn about money to an extent to make really hard statements, but with that said, I think LeBron was absolutely [doing that] when he was wearing the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts and the hoodies, and when he was getting other players to do so. For him to come out and say later, "Oh no, it's not what you think," that's neither here nor there, in my final estimation — I think he made every statement that we wanted to make, and I thought he did it quite artfully.

Do you think athletes making statements like this and talking about race will affect the way some people think about these issues?

If Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett can have a conversation and change one person's mind, then that's a victory, but I'm not optimistic about that.

I just think that because they have an occupation that is to entertain us and because they are young and our biggest sports [stars] are often minorities, I think people have more of an appetite to cover their ears and say, "La-la-la" when athletes are talking because we look at them as our servants in a way.

But isn't that more of a reason for them to speak about social issues like race?

Freedom fighting ain't for everybody. If you're just a young, single man or woman and you don't really have to care about anything except paying rent and buying cool clothes, it might be easier. But if you have a family — athletes are receiving death threats when they take stands on social issues — not everyone has time for that, or being called an idiot or a racist or whatever, so I can't say they have an obligation.

Would sportswriting and sports coverage look different if more sports journalists were people of color? Or would the focus still be on just writing gamers and "sticking to sports"?

Oh, for sure. I think if you had more minorities and women and queer people in sports, you would get better, more nuanced conversations, for sure. Just like anything else, if you had it in finance reporting or any kind of reporting. But for that to happen I think you'd have to have minority editors who are going out and giving these assignments to minority writers or are teaching even white writers more about race.