How Sherman ‘Rant’ could help change coverage of Black men
By Dori J. Maynard President, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
On a friend’s Facebook page, a commenter contended that the Richard Sherman controversy was just a sideshow. More important, she wrote, we should be focusing on the push to roll back civil rights. Yes, a football player talking trash after a game should be a sideshow. And, according to Deadspin, when white athletes such as Brett Favre act up, it is exactly that.
In Sherman’s case, though, an argument can be made that it is the main show, with very familiar themes. There was the threatening Black man “scaring” the pretty blonde. To be clear, Erin Andrews has declared that she was thrilled to get an unscripted response to her question. There was also the thread of the uppity Black man, despite the fact that many sports enthusiasts say Sherman is one of the best players on the field and has earned bragging rights.
In a side note, someone once pointed out that Muhammad Ali, another great athlete prone to touting his skills, became the beloved sports figure he is today only after he could no longer speak clearly. Before Parkinson’s disease affected his speech, he was considered “controversial” at best. Then there is the word “thug,” which many people, including Sherman, believe is a polite stand-in for the more inflammatory N-word.
Of course, Sherman’s hometown of Compton, Calif., played a feature role, what with its reputation for being a rough and dangerous city. As someone who lives in Oakland, I know that is often only one part of the story. Not as widely bandied about is Sherman’s graduation from Stanford University with a 3.9 GPA and his current pursuit there of a master’s degree in communications.
While it would be nice to dismiss all this as a sideshow confined to sports, the distorted news coverage of Black men makes that impossible. As shown in content audits such as one by The Opportunity Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit, media coverage of Black men focuses primarily on crime, sports and entertainment, far out of proportion with their actual involvement.
Judging from reactions to Sherman’s postgame rant, the All-Pro cornerback’s story can fit into all three categories. As a result of skewed coverage, many people may believe that athletes represent the face of Black men.
So how they are perceived and covered does matter. To the person arguing on my friend’s Facebook page, reports like those about the Sherman interview can help to create a climate that allows dismantling of the very public policies on which she believes we should focus.
In a 2006 Dellums Commission report titled “Young Men of Color in Media: Images and Impacts,” George Washington University professor Robert M. Entman writes of a correlation between watching crime coverage, which often features boys and men of color, and fear of that population. He also says fear can lead to support of policies such as mandatory long-term sentences and the death penalty. So for those concerned about the state of civil rights, I contend that rather than ignoring the Sherman story in the hope that it will go away, this is the perfect time to work on changing the narrative surrounding Black men.
Now that people of color are the fastest growing demographic in the country and are overrepresented on influential social media sites such as Twitter, they have power.
Use those social media skills to lift up the stories of average Black men, such as those contributing to our society.
Get to know members of your local media. Remind them to include Black men in their reports about Father’s Day, Christmas and business matters. If you notice that crime coverage always focuses on men of color, tell your local news organization that you will be voting with your eyes. When you see coverage ignoring Black men point this out on Twitter and to representatives of your local media. In other words, work to change the climate that fosters the rollback of progressive policies while at the same time ensuring that the Sherman commotion is just sideshow.