Pat Ferrucci: How Does The Language Of Sports Journalism Reveal Racial Biases? Sports is supposed to be "the great equalizer," but Pat Ferrucci says the language sports journalists use often stereotypes athletes by race. He says acknowledging this is one step toward changing it.

Pat Ferrucci: How Does The Language Of Sports Journalism Reveal Racial Biases?

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On the show today, ideas about confronting racism in all aspects of our lives, including sports.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Jack Johnson retains his heavyweight championship of the world.


PAT FERRUCCI: Numerous historians have argued that, in terms of race, sports has always been the great equalizer in this country.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Jackie Robinson hurrying for the plate...

RAZ: That's the voice of Pat Ferrucci on the TED stage. Pat teaches journalism at the University of Colorado.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Althea Gibson of New York became the first of her race to win the title at Wimbledon.

RAZ: And if you look at the number of African-Americans in sports today, you could very well think that the battle for racial equality, at least in the sports arena, has been won.


FERRUCCI: But that's not entirely accurate. Journalists and broadcasters consistently and constantly stereotype athletes by race through their word choices - intelligence, background, motivation, physical strength, effort, leadership - right? These are all word choices that journalists make when they're talking about athletes, but they do so in a racialized manner.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: One of the league's top workhorses...

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: ...Workhorses on one of the leagues...

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: Has some of the best natural talent I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: We're going to try and identify three freaks in this...

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #5: The guy moves like a dancing bear on the turf.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #6: He's not a great natural athlete. He's a very smart, instinctive...

RAZ: As Pat points out, our sports language is racialized, whether we are aware of it or not.


FERRUCCI: So there's decades of research out there, where, basically, people have sat down and coded the descriptors that journalists and broadcasters use to describe players. And again - so these descriptors - we'll call them stereotypes - tend not to be negative, right? They're very positive attributes, whether we're talking about intelligence or effort or physical strength - whatever. But there's - if somebody was to use the word intelligent about a quarterback, it's almost definitely going to be about a white quarterback or why a quarterback succeeds who's white. And yeah, there's really no debate about that.


FERRUCCI: Let's take Cam Newton and Tom Brady as examples. Now, we can all agree Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever live, right? Ever - easy. Yeah. No doubt about it, right? But when Brady succeeds, journalists often talk about his intelligence or his effort. Now, compare Cam Newton - guy won a national championship in college, played in a Super Bowl, won an MVP in the NFL. You'd think for a quarterback to do that, he'd have to be pretty damn smart and work really hard. But when Newton succeeds, it's often about his physical strength or his natural talent.

And that's the thing with athletes and stereotypes. If you're white, regardless of the sport, you're often talked about in terms of intelligence or effort or how great of a leader you are. If you're black, it's about physical strength, natural ability or athleticism. The problem is when we start to label people completely based upon their race with no scientific evidence to back it up, we start to see race, which is entirely a social construct, as something that actually matters. This is what we call everyday racism - a sociological concept that describes the subtle ways that we treat people of divergent races differently.


RAZ: So you have all these studies, studies that show black and white athletes are described differently. But what effect does that have? Is that actually changing how audiences view athletes?

FERRUCCI: Yeah, exactly. And so what we've done - we get photos of anonymous athletes, people that nobody would know and that they've been pre-tested to be the same in terms of what people label them as - physical or intelligent or attractiveness, all these things that could impact how people judge somebody, right? So we get them all on kind of an equal baseline with just the - you know, just random people doing that. Then we run experiments. So what we do is, for example, one group will see a photo of a white athlete with a story underneath it that, basically, talks about how intelligent they are. Right? Let's say they're a quarterback. It'll say about how intelligent of a quarterback they are. The other group will see a photo of a black athlete but the exact same paragraph about intelligence.

And so to put this quite simply - right? Then you ask them to rate the person on intelligence. And you would think that our groups would rate them as the same intelligence. But that's not what happens, right? So consistently, every single experiment we've run, people rate the white athlete as higher in intelligence than the black athlete, even though they have no information besides what we've given them. And again, we can look at this in a lot of different ways. And we've done it in - you know, we've changed the race of participants. We've done a lot of different things, but it always turns out the same.

RAZ: You're saying that when you have white participants and black participants looking at these images, those two groups come to the same conclusions.

FERRUCCI: Yeah, it's actually a little bit different. You know, when we - we've done one experiment where we, basically, only sampled black participants. And we found that black participants actually stereotyped even stronger. So they found white athletes even more intelligent. And that's the real insidious kind of effect, right? That's what we call the spiral of stereotyping. If you're a group that's constantly stereotyped, you actually start to believe it more than others do.

RAZ: So basically what you're saying is this is part of our culture. Day in and day out, we're watching these games. We're hearing these broadcasters. We're internalizing these stereotypes. And it trickles down to other aspects of our lives.

FERRUCCI: Yeah. No, absolutely. And I think the best way to think about it is that - to acknowledge that there are stereotypes about everything, right? - literally everything. That's how our brain works. That's how we - you know, most things that happen in our brain happen in, like, milliseconds, right? We make these decisions. And that's because we're using cues to come up with what we think something is, right? We hear a sound. We hear - we're watching a movie, and there's some ominous music in the background. Immediately, we know something bad's going to happen, right? Those are the things that happen in our brain all the time.


FERRUCCI: So the more we pay attention to everything and don't just let things go into the background and just go with the flow, the more knowledge we're going to gain. But the key, I think, is that change and betterment in these kind of areas, it just doesn't happen, right? It takes effort from people. And unless there's that effort, it's - your brain's just going to make quick decisions based on what you already know. And you're not going to learn anything new.


RAZ: That's Pat Ferrucci. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado. You can see his full talk On the show today, ideas about confronting racism. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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