Sports writing has a white, male problem. I mean, water is wet and fire is hot, right? But it’s true: the world of sports journalism is overwhelmingly white. This would be problem enough just for sheer lack of diversity itself, but it becomes especially problematic when you consider the fact that the athletes playing the sports that journalists are writing about are predominantly people of color.
Take, for example, Houston Chronicle Sports Columnist Brian T. Smith’s recent column about Houston Astros player Carlos Gomez. Pretend for a minute that the column is well-written or provides any sort of compelling analysis of the on-field performance problems Gomez has faced to start the season. Where it would still falter is in the way it talks about Gomez, particularly in the way it quotes him. Gomez, who is from the Dominican Republic, speaks Spanish as a first language. Smith chooses to quote him verbatim in broken English as saying, “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”
Quoting Gomez in this way is incredibly offensive. It makes him sound unintelligent when, in reality, he’s experiencing a language barrier. In fact, Gomez even took to Twitter to tell Smith exactly that, suggesting, “next time you want an interview have Google translate on hand.” But this is what happens when you have a white journalist who is not attuned to the cultural issues affecting the person he is reporting on. And when you have a largely all-white staff, like the Houston Chronicle does, there’s possibly no one to catch the mistake (or, like in the case of SB Nation’s incredibly misguided piece on convicted rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw, white editors who refused to listen to the Black woman who told them not to run the story).
While it’s absolutely outrageous that the Chronicle staff is far from being as diverse as it should be (especially considering that the state of Texas is nearly 40% Latino and that The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is located there), it’s par for the course when it comes to sports journalism in general. A 2014 report from The Institute For Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that 91.5% of sports editors were white and 85% of the reporters were white (full disclosure: I’m white, myself).
And this is not a new problem for journalists covering Major League Baseball. As the number of Spanish-speaking players has continued to grow (in 2015, Opening Day rosters boasted 198 players that hailed from Spanish-speaking countries), the demographics of the media writing about the sport has remained largely unchanged. As far back as 2003, Pedro Martínez was calling for interpreters to help non-native English speakers express themselves to the media after player Sammy Sosa was quoted verbatim in broken English. Martínez saw it as a sign of disrespect, and felt his lack of English fluency was being used to mock Sosa. The league did not require Spanish-language translators for players until this 2016 season, 13 years later.
It may be unrealistic to expect that an interpreter will be present for every single interaction a player may have with the media, so what are journalists to do in the case that they don’t have one? Why is there not yet a media policy with best practices for how to quote a player who is not a native English speaker? How can journalists be both respectful and accurate in their reporting in these cases? Perhaps paraphrasing is one solution because, often, we know what is being said or the point that is being made, even if the English is not “perfect.” The fact that there are not yet best practices for these situations reflects not only the whiteness of newsrooms, but of the Major League Baseball clubhouses as well. When the people in charge are not culturally reflective of the people they’re in charge of, the needs of those people become secondary.
Aside from a general media policy and having translators available for players that want them, the answer here — as it is with most things — is that sports journalism needs to be diversified. As sports writer Jeff Passan told SI.com, “As much as white, American writers try to understand the society in which many [Latin players] grew up, we can’t fully, and their background informs their worldview.” And this is where cultural competency and diversity in newsrooms becomes imperative.
Without it, journalists aren’t doing justice to the subjects they’re reporting on, and, at worst, they’re actively doing them harm.