By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

There's a story I tell whenever I go to a high school or college to speak.

I ask everyone to tell me how many black professional basketball players they know. Depending on the size of the room, 90 percent of the time, the students say they can name most of the players in the NBA.

There are roughly 350 players in the League, about 85 percent of them black. We usually round to about 300 -- therefore, the students claim to know for a fact that there are 300 professional basketball players.

Then I ask them to name 300 black sportswriters.

The room always gets eerily quiet. Beyond mortuary.

Michael Wilbon's name comes up, Stephen A.'s, "that black man with the beard who's on 'SportsReporters' a lot" gets mentioned (for the record, William C. Rhoden), and, if they're seriously official with their sports journalist knowledge, Phil Taylor and Ralph Wiley will get nods.

Past that, more silence.

Then I make a point.

"Do you know why you can't name 300 black sportswriters?" I say to them. "Because 300 of us don't exist."

The room becomes less quiet. Mumbling. Private conversations break out.

Then I make the point: "Which means you all have a better chance to make it to the NBA than you do doing what I do for a living."

I wish I wrote well enough to describe the looks on their faces. Every time.

The story I came to tell received some publicity recently. The story is about a research project initiated by the Associated Press Sports Editors and under the direction of Richard Lapchick (who contributes to of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. The study looked at how many black sports editors at APSE newspapers there were in America.

It was a study that came back with these numbers: four out of 305.

Last week, Norman Chad, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a column headlined "I'm in the White Business."

Four out of 305. Enough to make a white journalist turn white.

Or write about.

It's a story that the fewer than 300 black sportswriters have been talking about for years, but it took a white writer to bring it to the masses.

And now that it's out, it must be accompanied by substance. Not that Mr. Chad didn't do the story justice, but this study is about just us, the 1.3 percent and those who live with this number every day, the ones who won't get the opportunity to become editors of the pages of sports.

It's a story we've been screaming forever, but no one wanted to hear. One that we've all thought was one of the biggest in sports, but no one wanted to read.

Four out of 305.

Chad said the number was "like Gilbert Gottfried's hit rate at a singles bar." To us African-American sportswriters and editors, it was more like our reality finally coming to life.

When you live in a place where a "skewed" misrepresentation of the balance is your daily existence, you cope. That's what you learn to do, that's where you have no choice.

The sports experience for black people is different. It is one that hasn't and will never be shared by any other race or nationality in the country.

Much of the civil rights and forces of equality we living black in America have achieved have come from accomplishment in sports. Think about that. Serious.

Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, the Harlem Globetrotters, Wendell Scott, Willy T. Ribbs, Shani Davis, the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods.

Much of what these people stand for and what they represent has nothing to do with sports. But the role they -- and many unnamed others -- have played in shaping African-American history has been told to us by those who do not share what these "sports figures" mean to us  12 percent of the American population (or higher, if you consider the walls broken down for other minorities to participate in sports).

That is why this report is significant. More significant than if the report had come out about any other business in America. Even though the 1.3 percent top management rate reflects almost any other Fortune 5000 business in America, sports, you see, is different. Along with music and entertainment, it has been one of the only places we've been able to find equality.

To us, sports is not a game ... it represents freedom. Always has, always will. But most of America doesn't understand that. Never has, never will.

But because of the makeup of sports, because of the "skewed" number of us who play, because of its history in connection to our emancipation, the fact that only four of us have been given the opportunity to run the pages in which a major part of our history is being told gives an insight into what we black sportswriters have been saying since Pulitzer became a prize.

(Note 1: Take into consideration that that number is probably the highest it has ever been. Note 2: Take into consideration that that number doesn't include television, radio, magazines or Web sites. Note 3: Take into consideration that the number of positions held by blacks of the 128 media staff members of the 30 NBA last season teams was only 14, the most of the four major sports leagues.)

But understand this is not about racism or racist activities in sports as much as it is about a way of life in this country. Yes, there is something racially wrong with four out of 305, but if that's what we concentrate on, then we are missing the raw data inside the study.

As Chad wrote, the excuse for why there are so few black sport editors is because "usually [newspapers] aren't looking for black people or claim they can't locate them." I had that "reason" spun on me once at a magazine. And of course I let it slide, saying to the publisher, "Cool, I'll let you have that. Finding black [writers] is not your job, not your responsibility -- it's mine."

To me, his line of thought was not Mark Fuhrman-ish. But the next comment was.

"But none of them is going to be as good as you," the publisher said.

It is here we must deal with the issue of race and journalism as it exists in sports head-up, mano a mano, white-on-black.

"Why," I asked the publisher, "does a black writer have to be held up to my standards and every white writer that gets an assignment or white editor who gets a job with this magazine isn't?"

He said nothing. Couldn't. And this guy is far from a racist, but I told him, "That's the most racist [expletive] I've ever heard."

And of course it wasn't, but I had to make a point. I had to make them see my Anthony Hamilton, see where I was coming from, see life from the back of the bus, see what it was like to be tar in their game of feathers.

And it is here, inside this mind state -- not necessarily the hiring practices, bogus recruiters and faux search committees -- where we can find the real problem of the results of the Associated Press Sports Editors study.

It's black-on-black competition (crime, if you wish) delegated and controlled by white sports publishers and editors. For every Mike Wilbon, there must be another Mike Wilbon. For every David DuPree, there must be another David DuPree. For every Kevin Blackistone, there must be another Kevin Blackistone. For every Phil Taylor ... There's no acceptance of anything less. No room for anything less.

Only rope.

And yes, using rope as an analogy might be harsh, but again, appropriateness has a byline. As a black writer, former editor and one of the very, very few national sports columnists who is black (the percentage is said to be lower than the percentage of sports editors), existing and trying to find existence inside the trains of thought that run this "white business" is a reality check that will never bounce, but it is one we -- blacks in the business of sports journalism -- can never cash, either.

This is supposed to be on "Outside the Lines." Ya think? How about "Real Sports"? Better yet, "60 Minutes." This is supposed to be the reason ESPN gave Stephen A. a show and Mike & Mike syndication -- to talk about important issues.

But because the story doesn't jump, run, hit, dunk, head-butt in the World Cup finals, use HGH, lie in congressional hearings, melt down in the final round of The Masters, have a $90 million shoe deal or a $250 million contract; because it doesn't call ownership "classless," make phantom calls at the end of championship games, fire coaches, get caught with guns, beat its wife, hold news conferences on its front lawn, have an agent, play for the Yankees; because it involves the right and wrong of what's wrong with the dynamics of journalism and sports; because it deals with race and the evidence is basically irrefutable (and inexcusable, depending on who you ask), this story probably will go no further than what you are reading right now.

The 301 sports editors the report is not about probably won't push it forward; they won't give this bit of info the legs it needs to transfer from print to broadcast.

But the other four -- Leon Carter of the New York Daily News, Larry Starks of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Garry Howard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Alan Whitt of The (Nashville) Tennessean -- they might (Jon Stewart is the sports editor at the Huoma [La.] Courier, a non-APSE paper not counted in the study).

Yes, those are their names. Like the title of John Singleton's last, they are the "four brothers" who are like "Oz" actors on "Lost": the only "brothas" on an island. Trying to survive.

Howard, like all of us who hold him and the others in high regard because of the position they've earned, knows that the numbers don't lie but that they also don't tell the entire truth.

"It's ridiculous, basically laziness of the ownership [of the newspapers] when it comes to identifying talent," he said over the phone. "[Blacks] have proven that we can competently do the job. The onus falls on ownership.

"We have to be given chances to become, first, sportswriters, then copy editors, then assistant sports editors, then deputy editors, in order to increase that number of four. And it can't just be because we are black. It has to be about someone simply deciding to be fair."

Which is why, he says later on, that he's adhering to a new mission in sports editorship. "My goal: Eliminate the B.S. ... I want more of me," said the man who, while an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, was the first to give Stephen A. a chance at being a sportswriter.

And Garry D. Howard wasn't talking about cloning Garry D. Howard.

But from a sportswriter's perspective, Marc Spears of The Denver Post, the West region representative of the National Association of Black Journalist Sports Task Force, spits a different chorus inside the same song.

"I'm not surprised by the results," he said. "What gets lost is that you automatically think racism, but human nature tells us that people are going to associate themselves with people they are most comfortable with. And if the people doing the hiring at most newspapers are white ..."

He tails off into the other side of the game, the one he has to sell himself on -- as many of us do -- to maintain some form of leverage without turning into Jayson Blair.

"Many black sportswriters are frustrated. We feel as if we continuously have to prove ourselves when other writers don't. It puts so much pressure on one of us to succeed because so very few of us are going to get a shot [at the top position]. We don't have a nest conducive for us to feel comfortable in."

When asked whether he thinks he'll ever get the opportunity to run the sports section of a major newspaper, Spears keeps the real extreme.

"No," he says in a deadpan, you-already-know-the-answer-to that-question voice. "I'd love to get that opportunity. But do I ever see that happening ... no."

And so goes the general consensus of us. Our life in print. Roscoe Nance (USA Today), Lacy Banks (Chicago Sun-Times), J.A. Adande (Los Angeles Times), Terry Foster (Detroit News), Dwain Price (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), Jason Whitlock (Kansas City Star) and every other black writer who covers sports and looks in the mirror every day and sees the same reflection on the playing field but not inside the offices that hand them assignments.

Knowing their day at the top might never come. Knowing there will never be a civil rights movement in sports media.

One time about eight years ago, Michael Wilbon walked up to me during a media event at the NBA All-Star Game and said something to me that now is even sadder than the data learned from this study.

He said, "Do you realize that right now you are the most powerful black man in sports journalism?"

At the time, Slam, the mag I was editor-at-large at (not even editor-in-chief), was just finding its niche, making a little noise and getting a little respect. Circulation might have been about 175,000, while Sports Illustrated's was about 3 million (and it was read by about 20 million).

So when Wilbon sent those words my way, I couldn't understand. I looked around the room, saw every black sports journalist in the business. The pantheon. How was I the ackniculous one?

He said, "Because you are the only black person in the room who can make a decision on what goes on the cover of a national magazine. And that's big."

And the sadness in that is that it's true. As small as the magazine was at the time, the fact that no other person of color had the juice to do what I was allowed to do at Slam was sickening.

It was then I realized how distorted the game was. And eight years later, according to the 1.3 percent doctrine, ain't a damn thang changed.

In the introduction of "My Soul Has Grown Deep," John Edgar Wideman writes, "... the still unresolved question: How should radically unequal, African-descended ex-slaves -- impoverished, landless, stigmatized, disenfranchised, without civil rights, lacking of formal education, with little or no previous experience of citizenship -- be incorporated into a society whose announced creed is democracy, a democracy in theory open and fair that guarantees all its citizens an equal opportunity to compete in the struggle for a decent life?"

Apply that to the results of the Associated Press Sports Editors report, and the question still remains unresolved.

In reality, the situation isn't about race as much as it is about fruit. Strange fruit.

That's why I once told Boston sports radio host Willie Maye, who is a member of the 1.3 percent in his area of sports media, "When I do my memoir about my life as a journalist, I'm not going to call it 'A Raisin in the Sun,' I'm calling it 'A Raisin in a Bowl of Milk.'"

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.