Monday morning, when news starting coming out about Dan LeBatard’s non-suspension day off for his political comments on ESPN, Twitter friend Jon Becker asked a good question:
yeah, the treatment of LeBatard vs. Hill is interesting and unsurprising.— Jon Becker (@jonbecker) July 22, 2019
I'm interested in the bigger question, though. Is it really possible to compartmentalize sports? How would ESPN have covered Jackie Robinson?
How would ESPN have covered Jackie Robinson?
That’s a fascinating question.
I feel like it’s one where you answer will be a direct reflection of your pre-existing political views and your opinion of ESPN. You don't have to think to hard to think how Dan LeBatard and Clay Travis would react to the news.
Luckily, research can help us a bit with this question. While we obviously don’t know how ESPN would have covered Robinson, we do know how contemporary mainstream sports media covered Robinson.
In 1976, William Kelley published a study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly that examined press coverage of Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He did a content analysis of the coverage in 14 publications — four metropolitan newspapers, four black newspapers and six magazines.
For the metro newspapers — The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inqurier and the Philadelphia Bulletin, Kelley found:
Though the event was couched in a=n emotional framework, the metropolitan newspapers treated the story with cautious objectivity. The Inquirer and the Times concentrated on the history of the event while the Bulletin and the Monitor played down the history and played up the issue of a contract dispute between Robinson's new employers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his old employers, The Kansas City Monarchs, a touring Negro baseball team. None of the papers belabored the fact that Negro ball players had been barred from baseball until that time. And none except the Inquirer treated the event with history-making significance. (emphasis added)
The four African-American papers, Kelly found, covered the story with more “fervor and emotion,” and because they were weeklies, they kept writing about the story long after Opening Day. The magazines focused on the human aspects of Robinson and his story.
The metropolitan newspapers tended to take the story as another occurrence in the sports world. Their reporting was not particularly voluminous nor concentrated. Nor did they seek out new news diligently.
Dr. Ann Travers, in 2009, published her study, “Jackie Robinson’s Legacy and Women “Cross-over Athletes”: A Comparison of The New York Times’ Coverage,” in The Open Sociology Journal. Her study focused on coverage in The New York Times. Among her findings:
A number of themes emerged in the coverage of Jackie Robinson’s initial participation in Major League Baseball, the most significant three being: the importance of winning; segregation as discrimination and hence social injustice; and Jackie’s dignified acceptance of his role as representative of the “Negro race” (sic). … The most important assumption threaded throughout the coverage of Jackie Robinson’s first two years in Major League Baseball was the importance of winning.
While coverage acknowledged racism as a social problem, documentation of the “spring training ritual” whereby players of colour had to stay at different hotels (or board in private homes) and eat at different restaurants (if available) than their white team-mates [ was mostly uncritical. Segregation was identified as discrimination – when the topic was playing fields in cities that would not allow black and white players to play together – but separate quarters for black athletes were reported more matter of factly.
(This post wouldn’t exist without the help of Dr. Christine Becker at Notre Dame, who had access to the Kelly article when my institution did not have access to it. As she said on Twitter, “Library privilege is real and should be shared.”)