It started out as a friendly conversation in the late 1990s between friends and sports fanatics, filmmaker Spike Lee and late author and sportswriter Ralph Wiley.
The two HBCU graduates — Lee is from Morehouse College while Wiley went to Knoxville College — were bemoaning the fact that the number of minority sports journalists was so low, especially since the sports they cover are often dominated by non-White athletes.
The result of that conversation is the beginning of a new program at Lee’s Atlanta alma mater. Along with Morehouse officials, Lee recently announced a new journalism and sports program at the college.
“They talked about the need for more, not only Black journalists and sports writers, but also those who could ascend to leadership in the industry to become active voices in shaping the images of African-American athletes,” says Kathleen Johnson, special assistant to president Walter Massey.
Lee “is an avid sports fan,” Johnson says. “During the last 20 years, as African-American players became more prominent in sports, Spike certainly noticed how African-American athletes were presented.”
The topic is one that has been discussed widely. While Blacks have made strides in the sports journalism field, many say the number of Black sportswriters is still lacking.
Since beginning his professional career in 1965, “other major newspapers have hired Black sports reporters,” wrote veteran Chicago Sun Times sports writer Lacy J. Banks in his September 2006 column for the paper. “But on the whole, Black sportswriters for major dailies remain a disproportionate minority.”
A 2006 study from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports found that 95 percent of sports editors, 90 percent of sports columnists and 87 percent of assistant sports editors and reporters were White.
So far, nearly $1 million has been raised for the new program. Lee has contributed some of his own money, and is working with Johnson to get contributions from various organizations and individuals, including Lee’s friends.
Morehouse kicked off the program last fall with a panel discussion on the importance of having an appropriate number of Black sports writers to the numbers of minority athletes.
Panelists included Atlanta Falcons linebacker Ike Reese; Tara August, public relations manager for Turner Sports; Atlanta Journal Constitution sports editor Ronnie Ramos; Reggie Roberts, vice president of football communications for the Atlanta Falcons and Morehouse graduate David Cummings, senior deputy editor for ESPN the Magazine.
The Morehouse program, which will be part of the school’s English department, will teach students the basics of news writing and reporting, but will also give them a strong base in covering sports.
“We’re starting with a concentration, which is one step below a minor,” says Dr. Paul Wiebe, chairman of the English department. “It involves a news writing course with an emphasis on sports writing. There will also be a course in our health and physical education department that talks about the history of sports.”
The program will also stress internships and multidisciplinary courses, he adds.
“This program is really being developed to address fundamental skills that are required to be a good journalist,” says Johnson.
The program’s first courses — in news writing and the history of sports — were offered this semester, with another panel discussion expected to be held sometime before the summer.
The school is currently seeking a director for the program. Officials hope to have that person in place by the summer so they can continue planning the program’s expansion and evolution.
Weibe and Johnson say there has been lots of excitement about the new program.
“There’s a synergy, especially when you talk with people who understand what this program is trying to do, and clearly there’s a need for it,” Johnson says. “We’re just thrilled that Spike thought of us first.”
–Add Seymour, Jr.
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