The Unspoken Truth: The Case For More Diverse Primetime Sports Commentators
"... networks must be willing to hire and/or elevate Black and minority candidates to primetime in-game play-by-play and color commentators."
August 27, 2019 at 5:59 pm
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As you may know, the fall sports season is coming upon us very quickly. As an avid sports fan, it's exciting to anticipate and finally watch sports on television, supporting my favorite teams at the collegiate and professional levels. In reality, I may be an oddball because I'm one of the few people, that I know of, who enjoys watching sports on television more than live in-person. The reason why is because I often find live sports having too many breaks and a bit distracting with all of the other “entertainment” and people. What can I say? I’m an introvert.
With that said, as I prepare to watch hundreds of football and basketball games between now and next June, I'm keenly aware of an unspoken (and overlooked) issue in the larger context of race and sports: there are few, if any, Black primetime play-by-play and color commentators.
Many folks will immediately think about Shaq, Charles Barkley and Kenny “Jet” Smith on NBA on TNT; Jalen Rose, Chauncey Billups and Paul Pierce on NBA on ESPN; Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NFL on NBC; Randy Moss and Charles Woodson on NFL on ESPN; Desmond Howard and Joey Galloway on ESPN College Football; and Jay Williams on ESPN College Basketball. That list of Black personalities is excellent and they are great at what they do. Their presence allows for greater Black and minority representation and viewpoints into the mainstream dialogue of sports in America. However, those personalities are in-studio analysts and not the people calling the game, and that difference is hugely important.
Current Black and minority in-game play-by-play and color commentators in primetime slots are: Booger McFarland (Monday Night Football — ESPN), Mark Jackson (NBA on ABC/ESPN), Chris Webber and Reggie Miller (NBA on TNT), Gus Johnson and Charles Davis (Fox College Football), and, Mike Tirico (NBC College Football/Notre Dame). That’s it! Baseball does a slightly better job with Alex Rodriguez, Eduardo Perez and Jessica Mendoza on MLB Tonight (ESPN). This is proportionally higher, compared to the NFL and NBA, when considering the fewer national media outlets MLB has now. Also, local airings of NFL, NBA, college football and basketball (CFB & CBB) games may feature more diverse primetime play-by-play and color commentators, but there is still disproportionate representation, specifically on the large national networks.
This lack of proportional Black and minority representation as in-game primetime commentators is crucial because: (1) they reach the largest audiences at a high frequency which, (2) allows them to sway national trends and public opinions on teams, players, awards, etc. by (3) creating or altering entirely the storylines, early on, across all matters which persist throughout their respective season and postseasons and (4) that sets the tone for viewership and network ratings, which targets specific racial, age and socioeconomic groups.
All of that is to say that in-game commentators are highly influential and power brokers in sports entertainment, as they are often branding themselves.
For example, we have Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso in CFB; Jay Bilas in CBB; Jeff Van Gundy in NBA; Jim Nantz, Al Michaels, Tory Aikman, Joe Buck, Cris Collinsworth, and more in NFL. Their influence shaped recent sports phenomenons like Zion Williamson, the Colin Kaepernick situation, the NFL & NBA MVP races, the Kevin Durant-era Golden State Warriors, the College Football Playoff and the LeBron James-era Los Angeles Lakers, to name a few.
Commentators were annoyed by James Harden’s style of play that is reliant upon high-volume ball usage and going to the free throw line often, which was part of how he earned the 2018 NBA MVP award. So, early on the national narrative was neutral or slightly negative of Harden, which was uncommon for an incumbent league MVP. Once the season started and Giannis Antetokounmpo started the 2019 NBA season on a hot streak, the MVP chatter was started by NBA primetime in-game commentators, and eventually studio analysts, and it set the tone for the entire season that culminated in Giannis winning the 2019 NBA MVP award. James Harden even said as much recently. Now, I actually do believe that Giannis and Pat Mahomes should have won their respective league MVP awards, but I’ve seen other seasons where the sports media placed undue influence on the narrative which swayed the public and voter opinions. This happens to a degree in all sports, but that does not make it right or fair. And, it is disproportionately affected in the NBA, NFL, CFB and CBB.
I think the solution is simple — networks must be willing to hire and/or elevate Black and minority candidates to primetime in-game play-by-play and color commentators. They need to be willing to train current Black and minority in-studio analysts to call games. But that may require diversity in the leadership of those networks, which demonstrates the insidious and systemic racism present in all sectors and levels of society. It also requires courage and confidence to do the right thing and have sports presented in a way that is representative of their workforce (the players) and audience. It even recognizes the demographic shifts of this nation and realizes that hip-hop and rap culture is the predominant media culture in white society as well.
This realization can help change the narratives of race in sports from how owners like Donald Sterling, Jerry Jones, Jerry Richardson and Bob McNair treated players, to race-based protests and what artists perform at the Super Bowl.
In the meantime, I will still watch as many NFL, NBA, CFB and CBB games as possible and continue to stay just as excited as any year. However, I will be more aware of who’s calling the games and the influence of their opinions and analysis may have in coloring my individual opinions moving forward.