Last November, in the lead-up to the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day game between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons, NBC decided to switch things up for the primetime telecast. They gave the regular commentary team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth the holiday off and promoted Mike Tirico, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison from the studio to the book.
As roster moves go, this was a major one: NBC’s commentary booth went from all-white to all-black. While Tirico at least had called his share of major events for NBC and ESPN (not least Monday Night Football), neither Dungy nor Harrison could boast much history inside the booth despite the trove of on-field credentials (the two have won two Super Bowls apiece). That Plymouth Rock-sized gap in live-game experience could have been fodder to keep the internet trolls fed for weeks. But aside from Harrison singling out potato salad as his favorite Thanksgiving side dish, NBC’s backup team were barely picked over. Never mind that they had just toppled one of the more stubborn barriers in sports.
For as much as the NFL has done to become more racially inclusive, much of that progress has come in the locker room rather than on television. Switch on any game at random and, more than likely, you’ll find at least two white announcers covering a league in which the majority of players are black. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, who will call the Super Bowl for CBS on Sunday, are just the latest. For all the hue and cry about diminished head coaching opportunities for minority candidates, this seems no less glaring an inequity.
Of the 252 broadcasters who call games or work the sidelines for the NFL’s TV and radio partners, a mere 49 (or less than one-fifth) are black, according to a recent Guardian analysis. What’s more, there are only two black announcers – CBS’s Greg Gumbel and Fox’s Brian Custer – who cover the play-by-play for network telecasts, while just eight more handle color commentary duties. That includes ESPN’s Booger McFarland, who was relegated to a comical Nasa-like sideline rover for much of his Monday Night Football debut. (The notable omission from this group is Tirico, who announced Thursday night games for NBC and is seen as an eventual replacement for the 74-year-old Michaels on Sundays. Tirico, who describes himself as “mixed race”, strongly identifies with the family of his adoptive mother, who is Italian American, and has been reluctant to talk about his identity in interviews). Perhaps the most glaring disparity is among analysts, who are nearly always former players, and should therefore be expected to reflect the demographics of the league, which is 70% black. And yet only 29% of those analysts are black. In other words, it’s fine for black people to play the game, as long as they don’t talk about it on TV.
And yet: the situation was much worse when the league started its march to television domination more than four decades ago. For long periods we watched as white broadcasters struggled to describe the league’s black players without falling back on ugly stereotypes. A 1977 SUNY-Oneonta study matched the networks’ telecast audio to the relevant players and their stats. They found that white players were more likely to be praised for good plays, while black players were more likely to be criticized for bad ones. “One of the comments made in the article as a footnote was that of the two authors, one was blind,” says James Rada, an associate professor at Ithaca College. “Yet he could tell, just by listening to the descriptions, the race of the players.”
Twenty years later, Rada, who played college football at San Diego State and was often appalled by the language used in the press to describe his black teammates, analyzed network telecasts of the 1992 season, taking particular notice of the announcers’ efforts to refer to white players by their first names (thus rendering them more personable) while reserving their negative perceptions for black players, who would mostly be referred to by their surnames or full names. Even more telling, Rada noted just two black announcers in the 20 quarters of football that he studied.
And while that count would probably come in slightly higher were Rada to do a follow-up study today, the glacial pace of black representation on NFL game telecasts stands in stark contrast to, say, the NBA, where diversity on the TV network mic is quotidian. There are consistent voices at the game (Chris Webber, Mark Jones) and in the studio (Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, Jalen Rose).
Those NBA voices do a pretty good job too when compared with the NFL’s more buttoned-up tone, which still tends towards extreme worship. The more a network announcer praises an owner for his civic benevolence (even as he syphons billions away from his community) or a coach’s genius (even though he wasn’t the one who caught the ball or made the tackle) or a quarterback’s savvy (even though many of his decisions are already made for him), the harder it is to tell whether these on-air talents are journalists or spin doctors. The harder it is not to confuse the NFL’s white broadcasters endless plaudits for identity bias or worse. “How much,” wonders Rada, “would they be willing to bite the hand that feeds this multibillion-dollar industry?”
More to the point: it seems as if retired black NFL players have to join the hallelujah chorus just to get a break on TV. Who could forget Michael Vick, of all people, telling Colin Kaepernick that the only thing holding him back from getting another job in the league was a haircut? (Now Vick is a studio analyst on Fox.) Or Ray Lewis, of all people, excoriating Kaepernick after his girlfriend posted a meme that showed the former Ravens linebacker embracing owner Steve Bisciotti in one photo alongside a screenshot from the movie Django Unchained of Samuel L Jackson’s loyal house slave embracing Leonardo DiCaprio’s vicious plantation owner. (Now, Ray Lewis is a studio analyst for Showtime’s Inside the NFL.) Given those episodes, it’s no wonder LeBron James thinks the NFL has “a slave mentality”.
Doubtless, it’s an unflattering perception, but James is hardly the first to call it out. Changing that impression means not only featuring more black voices in game coverage, but pushing them into more prominent positions inside the broadcast booth – where the league’s narratives are most firmly established. Sure, announcing and in-game analysis (where words must not only be chosen quickly, but carefully) are vastly tougher mental exercises than pre- or post-game analysis (where there’s more time to breathe and marinate on two or more quarters), but who’s to say Fox Sports’ Shannon Sharpe or the NFL Network’s Nate Burleson couldn’t do the job? Who’s to say they couldn’t be as insightful or even as clairvoyant as the excellent Romo has been alongside Nantz? Or as discerning as Charles Davis was calling the Saints’ NFC championship game? Or as generically entertaining as Tirico, Dungy and Harrison were on Thanksgiving?
We’ll have to wait another year before NBC’s studio team are in the booth again. That their big moment came and went without much comment speaks less to Thanksgiving food comas than how ordinary it should be for three non-white men to announce an NFL game. But in hindsight, it was an extraordinary moment indeed, one that should be repeated a lot more often.