Can white sports writers tell a black story properly?

The only way you can walk a mile in another person’s shoes is if you can fit into their head.

I mean, those of my vintage can tell young people about the violence, the fears and the music/cultural revolution of the 1960s, but you can’t do Woodstock unless you were at Yasgur’s Farm. You can’t relate to the horrors of a president of the United States being gunned down in broad daylight, half his head blown off, unless you felt the hope that John F. Kennedy gave so many of us in our youth.

I can tell one of my climate-coddled friends here on the West Coast about a Winnipeg winter—I survived about 40 of them before fleeing—but until they feel the harsh, immobilizing, bitter bite of a minus-40C wind chill at Portage and Main they won’t get it.

Similarly, if you aren’t a person of color, can you truly understand what the fuss is all about at sporting events in the U.S.?

It seems to me that the protest movement started by Colin Kaepernick last year and re-activated in his absence by National Football League players numbering in the hundreds this season has veered off-message. That is, I read and hear about the American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner and the U.S. military (as fighter jets roar overhead) daily, yet the plague and evil of racial injustice—which is what taking a knee or raising a fit is about—is lost.

It reminds me of the O.J. trial. It was supposed to be about the double murder of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife and her friend. Instead, the trial was hijacked by high-priced barristers in $1,500 suits who took it in an entirely different direction and made it about racism, in large part because of a racist Los Angeles cop, Mark Fuhrman.

In the case of the NFL players’ protest of racial injustice and police brutality against black people in America, we can’t blame Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz or celebrity mouthpiece Robert Shapiro for the misdirection of topic. We might look at the messenger, though.

In the week-plus since U.S. President Donald Trump went off the rails in Alabama and began ranting about any “son of a bitch” NFL worker who kneels during the American national anthem should be “fired,” I have read numerous newspaper articles about the pre-game protests and, almost without exception, the writer was white.

Now, I understand that racism is an everybody issue. At least it should be. But if it’s black people being targeted and (mostly) black people doing the protesting, why are white people telling the story?

Because sports scribes are white.

I mostly read Canadian newspapers and sports journalism (newspaper print division) at the elite level in the Great White North is exactly that—a group of great white northerners. As a collective, our sports writing is whiter than a saint’s soul. It’s whiter than NASCAR. Whiter than the National Hockey League. Yet the flowers of jock journalism on this side of the border wax philosophically about the non-diversity of the NHL vis-a-vis the players’ unwillingness to take a knee alongside their NFL, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball brethren.

So I ask this: How credible can white sports journalists be when covering racially charged stories if they are not of the issue? How about women’s stories? LGBT stories? How many stories will they miss because they lack the cultural knowledge to ask the meaningful questions of black or gay athletes?

When the openly gay football player Michael Sam appeared in the Montreal Alouettes lineup in a game vs. the Ottawa RedBlacks in August 2015, one of the country’s prominent jock journalists, Steve Simmons of Postmedia, denied it happened.

In reality,” Simmons scribbled, “pro football still awaits its first openly gay player.”

It was an astonishing piece of rejective writing. There existed unassailable evidence that Sam had been on the field for 12 plays. A sellout crowd and a national television audience would testify to that under oath. Yet Simmons stood firm.

I don’t think it will be remembered,” he said on TSN’s The Reporters with Dave Hodge.

When baseball player Kevin Pillar or hockey player Andrew Shaw call a foe a “faggot,” Canadian scribes deliver, at best, a politcially correct comment then move on like there was never anything to actually see. That’s because they aren’t gay and they don’t see and feel the hurt.

Chris Hine, however, can write from, and to, the very heart of the matter, because the Chicago Tribune hockey scribe is openly gay. As are a few other jock newsies in the U.S.

Some of the sports scribes in Canada can pull it off. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star, for example, has a high social awareness quotient. He wrote a terrific piece on the current protests as it relates to black players in the NHL. It had feeling. It conveyed the loneliness of the NHL’s few blacks working in a white man’s world. A good writer can do that, regardless the issue, simply by talking to those who live the issue.

Overall, though, the highest level of Canadian sports writing is a sea of white faces, the most non-diverse group in mainstream media (no blacks, no gays, one woman) delivering a message about racial injustice. And it isn’t much different in the U.S.

Little wonder the protest story has lost its way.

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