It’s that time of the bleak midwinter when all of the baseball buzz has moved from the winter meetings to the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee has already made their announcement, elevating Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller to the pantheon of greats. Meanwhile, the fates of controversial figures like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Curt Schilling will continue to be heavily discussed while the election of Derek Jeter has been accepted as a fait accompli. It’s also the season when, buried in all of the punditry about the nominees, the Hall announces the winners of their two annual awards, the J. G. Taylor Spink, given for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, and the Ford C. Frick, presented to a broadcaster who has made an indelible mark on the game.

A quick clarification before we begin. Contrary to the common misconception, Spink and Frick Award winners are not Hall of Famers, although they are commonly referred to as so. You will not see their plaques hanging in the main gallery. Rather, they are award winners, chosen by a selection process that is not dissimilar to the way the Veterans Committee works. This year, the Spink will be presented to Nick Cafardo, columnist for The Boston Globe and longtime Red Sox scribe. It was also announced in December that the Frick would be given to longtime voice of the White Sox, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

The news was met with celebration from South Side fandom, as well as national media, with some calling Harrelson’s career “legendary.” Admiration came from many corners, including respected baseball names like Peter Gammons, who tweeted that Harrelson had “an extraordinary baseball mind,” that “rankled Bosox management w/his honesty.” The issue that Gammons, who covered the Red Sox during Harrelson’s formative broadcasting years, is perhaps politely trying to gloss over is that for some Harrelson’s unfiltered “honesty” could also easily be perceived as bigotry.  

Harrelson in 1965.

Harrelson’s career is, indeed, a lengthy one. After a relatively unremarkable stint as a player from 1963-71, he transitioned to broadcasting in 1975, calling the Red Sox for WSBK before moving to Chicago’s South Side in 1981. He had a brief tenure in the front office of the White Sox in the mid ‘80s, an experiment that ended after a single season, before he returned to the booth. There, he spent nearly 30 years calling games for the White Sox, a career that saw him win five Emmys and two Illinois Sportscaster of the Year Awards.

Unfortunately, in the final years of Harrelson’s long, long installation on the airwaves of Chicago, it seemed as though barely a week could go by without him saying something truly awful. He could be heard claiming that “Asians” were more “deceptive,” than American pitchers. In one rant, about the rules implemented in 2014 that were designed to protect catchers (the Posey rules), he called the measures, “B.S. Next thing you know we’ll have catchers wearing skirts out there.” An on-air discussion about analytics, and the potentially overwhelming amount of information available as a young star tries to establish themselves, urged Harrelson to contribute that the stats were especially baffling to “Latin players.”

Being a broadcaster is a deceptively difficult job, as there can be no script to follow in the spontaneous world of professional sports. Malapropisms, misremembered statistics, and plain old brain farts can occur to the best of them. Perhaps it is the forgiveness we give those who have to speak so many words almost every night that has, unwittingly, allowed for a culture of acceptance for on-air racism. For certain, the willingness to turn a blind eye by the largely white-owned media has made it difficult to even find stories predating the 1980s that mention racist language by broadcasters. But, there has also historically been a willingness by the public at large to ignore such slurs. When beloved baseball voice Mel Allen used a string of racist metaphors to describe the action during the 1948 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves, there was no public outcry. His words were, as they say, a product of the times.

The first academic study of the phenomenon was done in 1977, when Raymond Rainville and Edward McCormick published their “Extent of Covert Racial Prejudice in Pro Football Announcers’ Speech.” In it, they found that praise for good plays was typically reserved for white players, while criticisms for bad plays was more heavily used for Black players. A follow up study done twenty-years later found that broadcasters not only praised players along color lines for their athletic talent, but there was also a marked difference in how their intellects was described. The “smart” players were almost universally white. Outside of academic circles, however, the public remained relatively oblivious to the disparity.

Jimmy “The Greek” and the rest of The NFL Today team from a 1979 Sports Illustrated advertisement.

All of that changed in January 1988, when The NFL Today host, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, responded to a question from reporter Ed Hotaling about the future of Black coaches in the NFL. Snyder’s initial response, that the coaching jobs should be left for whites because African-Americans already had all the jobs on the field, was offensive enough. He made matters worse when he said that Blacks were naturally better athletes because they had been bred that way. Occurring just eight months after Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis was fired for telling Nightline host Ted Koppel that he didn’t believe that Blacks had the “necessities” to be managers, CBS was quick to react. Snyder was fired the following day.

Since then, the presentation of sports has become more readily available. Cable television and the internet have not only made it ubiquitous, but they have also aided in the preservation of sporting events and, subsequently, questionable comments from careless broadcasters. In the ensuing years since Snyder was terminated, the NFL has had to manage racist (or at least thoughtless) comments from multiple fronts. Lee Hamilton, who served as the play-by-play announcer of the Vikings, was fired in 2001 for the repeated use of slurs on his radio show. In November 2006, Michael Irvin, who is himself an African-American, claimed that the reason white quarterback Tony Romo was so talented was because his ancestor must have had sex with “one of them studs up outta the barn.” In a rare twist of fate, Irvin was able to keep his job, likely because of the uniqueness of the situation.

Rush Limbaugh’s brief foray into sports broadcasting was one of ESPN’s more foolish attempts at finding a wider audience. caricature: DonkeyHotey

Perhaps the most predictable racist episode in football came in 2003, when ESPN made the short-sighted decision to hire one of the most controversial right-wing purveyors of hate speech in the country, Rush Limbaugh. The experiment lasted all of four weeks before Limbaugh placed his foot in his oversized mouth, stating that Donovan McNabb was overrated and that his fame was owed to the media being “very desirous that a Black quarterback do well.” His African-American co-host, former linebacker Tom Jackson, immediately responded by highlighting the quarterback’s record of success, right before McNabb led the Eagles to a 23-13 victory over the Bills. Limbaugh resigned later that week.

The issue persists in the NFL. Earlier this season, San Francisco 49er’s broadcaster Tim Ryan was suspended for one game when he made an almost comically absurd claim. He stated that the reason Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was so successful was due to a split second advantage caused by, “his dark skin color with a dark football with a dark uniform, you could not see that thing.” Ryan apologized and Jackson remained mum about the slur, although some analysts pointed out that the following week Jackson wore a white sleeve and a white glove on his left hand during the first half of the game against the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens won, 24-17.

Don Cherry’s outlandish fashion sense is as famous as his outlandish political opinions. photo: Dave O

The problem is not limited to baseball and football, nor to the borders of the United States. Famed Canadian hockey analyst Don Cherry has a long history of making questionable statements. Over the years, he’s made no secret of his right-wing views. He has denied climate-change, criticized the Canadian government for failing to support the U. S. in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and once crowed about the election of scandal-riddled Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto, by declaring the political victory a rebuke of “left-wing kooks.” He also has history of xenophobic statements, including a 2004 remark about “Europeans and French guys” wearing protective visors, that resulted in his broadcasts being put on a seven-second delay for the remainder of the season. Interestingly, the statistics on his claim were later proven to be true. European players did wear the voluntary piece of protective equipment more often. However, his larger point, that it made them more likely to hurt someone, proved to be unfounded.

In November of the current season, Cherry finally crossed the line when he made the unsubstantiated claim on Hockey Night in Canada that immigrants wear remembrance poppies less often than Canadian-born citizens because they didn’t properly respect who “paid for your way of life.” With xenophobia a rapidly spreading problem around the globe, the Sportsnet switchboard was overloaded by viewer complaints. Cherry was fired two days later.

Maybe the most famous on-air example of racism came from the recently deceased Don Imus, whose death on December 27, 2019 provided the opportunity to revive in the public consciousness his controversial career. He made multiple racists comments over his long tenure, including referring to African-American journalist Gewn Ifill as a “cleaning lady,” and insinuating that Dallas Cowboy’s cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was a criminal because he was Black. He once called fellow shock jock Howard Stern a “Jew bastard,” that “should be castrated and put in an oven.” However, his most famous, and perhaps career-defining, slur occurred in 2007 when he referred to the champion Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes,” a quip that got him fired by CBS.

Most disturbingly, the phenomenon is not limited to professional and college sports. Even high school athletes have been subjected to hateful commentary. In 2017, commentator Mark Banton was fired when he referred to the Seguin, Texas football team as the “Coogroes.” Just a few months later, the same fate awaited two Des Moines radio station employees when they derided the Hispanic members of an Iowa high school basketball team.  Host Orin Harris and engineer Holly Jane Kusserow-Smidt lamented the number of “Español people,” in the area, and cited the Bigot-In-Chief when they offered, “As Trump would say, go back to where you came from.”

The issue is not going away, and academia continues to notice. Since the initial 1977 study, multiple other papers have been written on the topic, including separate studies conducted in Sweden and the Netherlands. A 2014 examination by Youngstown State University student Zachary Humphries took the novel approach of observing the issue through the dual lenses of the media and fandom. His exploration of fan response, which owed a heavy research debt to Twitter, is perhaps the key to solving the problem. The most effective route to eliminating racism in sports broadcasting, as seen in the case of Don Cherry, is when fans effectively perceive the issue and voice their displeasure. This is not always simple, especially when people like Hawk Harrelson receive rare and important superlatives, seemingly reinforcing the behavior. However, it is exactly because of the continued ambivalence towards the problem by insiders, that the responsibility falls on the rest of us.

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