The investigator examines ESPN first take and their coverage of black athletes. The intent is to compare the representation of black athletes opposed to their white counterparts. Research on this issue and aspire to extend and expand my findings by focusing primarily on the coverage that is done specifically by ESPN first take and how they use social media as the court of public opinion. Some of the issues that I will share will be similar, and others will be dissimilar, as the goal is to make a correlation in the treatment. Research material will be varied.
(Key terms: social media, race baiting, demonization, self-annihilation)
The cultivation of black athletes and the way things are done in today’s society make it impossible for an individual to express themselves in a manner that’s fit by public opinion. A term that is so synonymous with media models is agenda setting. There is a void to be filled and a reason to be met. The careful dissection and constant prodding at the image and stereotype of what it is to be an athlete, ultimately a black athlete. It seems to be so evident that many times in the media individuals are heavily scrutinized for their collaborative antics and against the grain perspective and approach to life. Moreover, ESPN first take takes a step further on a day-to-day basis on a consistent spectrum about how black athletes are portrayed and actively acknowledge the plight of their situation.
Social Media- The interaction among people in which they create, share or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Race Baiting- The act of using racially derisive language, actions, or other forms of communication in order to anger or intimidate or coerce a person or group of people. Demonization- The reinterpretation of polytheistic deities as evil, lying demons by other religions, generally monotheistic and henotheistic ones. The term has since been expanded to refer to any characterization of individuals, groups, or political bodies as evil.
Significance of the Study
ESPN First Take is a program that airs every day on ESPN2 at 10am eastern standard time. On this television program, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless debate on a daily basis about various topics in the sports world while their co-host, Carrie Champion, moderates the entire discussion. The premise of the show is to stir up debate amongst those who are watching by covering topics that are controversial.
Moreover, many of the topics discussed do not transcend the issue of race when it is mentioned on air. Once a topic does become racially based, ESPN First Take uses its analyst to antagonize the issue and magnify into something larger than it truly is. Social media plays in integral aspect in the show because it is used and facilitated as the court of public opinion for the sports fans out there who watch the program live as it is being aired. The goal of this research is to assess the coverage of black athletes on ESPN First Take and whether or not they use race as a form of bait in an attempt to gain viewers through social media interaction and inclusion.
Review of Literature
Social media is a key component of ESPN First take, and it is used to engage the fans at a much more intimate level because they make it seem as though their opinion as the audience is absolutely valid. On February 5, 2014, ESPN as a network logged its most successful all-day live twitter campaign to choose who was going to win this year’s Super Bowl (Chong-Adler, 2014). The participation marked the best since ESPN began incorporating twitter into their television shows and episodes. The goal of social media for the network as a whole is to garner as much following as possible. ESPN First Take headlines using the twitter world because it is a show based on debate which requires various subjective opinions, which in turn, is actually the driving force behind all of their topics on the set. Raphael Poplock is an employee of ESPN, who when asked about the twitter success on the day of the Super Bowl had this to say:
“Early on in our Super Bowl planning, we had talked about doing an all-day Twitter vote across TV, Radio, Digital and Social. As it turned out, Verizon had their week-long #WhosGonnaWin campaign, and they recognized the level of scale we can bring to engage sports fans on multiple platforms. Executing this required a tremendous amount of teamwork across our TV, Digital, Ad Integration, Sales and Marketing groups. The payoff was worth it, being a part of the first-ever social media driven light show on the Empire State Building. We were also able to work with Mass Relevance to produce ESPN.com’s first socially-enabled custom co-branded ad unit on the homepage, featuring a live vote count. It’s a perfect example of how we are able to serve fans with unique experiences around big sporting events as well as marketers with innovative ad solutions” (Chong-Adler, 2014).
The quote suggests that ESPN, over the last few years, has witnessed other companies use social media in ways that gained them more notoriety and clout through reaching out to larger demographics. During this same Super Bowl week, ESPN First Take began their show in New York City, the sight of the Super Bowl, the impact of social media once again flourished when the show had a topic that raised the question about whether or not Tim Tebow could lead the current Broncos roster to a championship win. Social media erupted by firing back at Smith and Bayless for even discussing the issue. One might say this is partly due to the esteem that many people, fans and journalists, hold for Tim Tebow for being the All-American white boy quarterback from Florida who can do no wrong because of his openness about his religion. Conversely, many resent Tebow because of his opportunities considering many believe him to be a marginal athlete at the professional level. This was clearly an attempt to grab more ratings by ESPN First Take. This is exactly why ESPN's "Embrace Debate" format is utilized by ESPN. It was the first morning of the first day of a big week and people were already talking about First Take (Gaines, 2014).
Race baiting is done deliberately by many networks in an attempt to lure in ratings by offending listeners. The practice consists of “using racially derisive language, actions, or other forms of communication in order to anger or intimidate or coerce a person or group of people” (Wiktionary, 2014).
Skip Bayless is considered a constant villain on the show and Luther Campbell makes it a point to call him out on his excessive race-baiting. Campbell actually refers to him as the king race baiter in the sporting news world. Also, he gives a bit of a prelude to his least favorite journalist by stating, “The 60-year-old ESPN commentator is the Rush Limbaugh of sports journalism. He has built a cottage industry playing the role of the angry white guy on the show First Take, in which he debates other sports journalists and ex-athletes, usually African-Americans, on racially charged topics”(Campbell, 2012). . Luther Campbell’s article is actually one that seeks to uncover the suspected hidden agenda of Bayless and ESPN First Take of constant race-baiting the public through social media. Bayless has a track record of making scandalous, egregious comments about various athletes. In 2011, he made a comment about how proud he was that Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers was half white and was birthed by a white mother (Campbell, 2012). Many of the statements made by Campbell are very subjective which make them less credible. One of those statements include the idea that most African American sports journalists and sports celebrities don’t particularly care for him (Campbell, 2012). Everyone warrantscritics; however, to say that Bayless is not liked by a majority of African Americans in the sports realm does not hold much value. Especially coming from one particular person who is not around him on a consistent basis nor does Campbell work with Bayless. In December of 2012, First Take had a fellow ESPN cohort on the show named Rob Parker. While Parker was on set, alongside Smith and Bayless, they discussed the current quarterback for the Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III. Parker went out of his way to question Griffin’s blackness (Farrar, 2012). Parker appalled the audience when he stated:
"I've talked to some people in Washington, D.C. Some people in [Griffin's] press conferences. Some people I've known for a long time. My question, which is just a straight, honest question, is is he a 'brother,' or is he a cornball 'brother?' He's not really he's black, but he's not really down with the cause. He's not one of us. He's kind of black, but he's not really like the guy you'd want to hang out with. I just want to find out about him. I don't know, because I keep hearing these things. He has a white fiancé, people talking about that he's a Republican there's no information at all. I'm just trying to dig deeper into why he has an issue. Tiger Woods was like, 'I have black skin, but don't call me black.' People wondered about Tiger Woods early on -- about him” (Farrar, 2012).
Parker was soon after the show reprimanded by the network and ultimately lost his job with them. ESPN supposedly believed his comments were egregious enough to fire him.
Racial profiling is still a prevalent issue in the United States. However, in the sports world it is something that happens figuratively much too often. Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks discussed on a medium's panel after his post Super Bowl rant about how he felt about the backlash he received on social media. He was called a thug and recanted this notion by stating he knew a few thugs himself (Petchesky, 2014). Sherman felt as though the word thug was now being used as the new ‘N’ word.
A year prior to the Sherman’s incident on television he was involved in a bit of a skirmish on ESPN First Take with host Skip Bayless over whether or not he was considered the best defensive back in the NFL. The discussion took a turn for the worst when Sherman began to name call Bayless for the individual he thought he was. Sherman referred to Bayless as being ignorant, pompous and worthless (Chase, 2013). The two traded commentary back and forth only to make the interview extremely tense. The entire interview comes off as contrived, which is usually how most abrasive topics on the show seem (Chase, 2013). Moreover, the interview paints a picture of Sherman as the type of black male who is a “thug”. ESPN First Take relishes the opportunity to display things like this so that social media receives the incident as Sherman being a demonstrative black man who has no self-control and Bayless being the helpless white male who is in the most vulnerable of positions attempting to harness the aggression of the black male.
William Rhoden (2006) speaks of black athleticism and the exploitation of the black male in his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves. One poem used in the beginning of the book is:
“Glistening black bodies on the field of dreams on battlefields, scoring, between defense’s seams. Tight muscles bulging, ferocious bucks who scratch and claw, say,”Aw shucks, wasn’t much.”Cream-colored spectators cheer and roar for conquering heroes who conquer no more (Rhoden, 2006, p.45)
The previous poem detracts from the idea that black athletes are people and more so simply mules valued for entertainment. The demonization is evident through the dilution of the black athlete and the fear of black aggression on the playing field and its possibility of spilling over into society.
“In the public mind, the black athlete is still largely feared and despised, in keeping with the history of black Americans, whose success is often seen as imminent danger. Every African American accomplishment in sports has-for more than two centuries now- triggered a knee-jerk backlash from forces within the white majority. The strategies of the white reactionaries have become predictable: to take back, dilute, divide, and push back any black achievement, in an effort to restore the same balance of power that has existed in this country since slavery, one in which the bulk of the rewards reaped from black talent and labor are distributed to and serve to perpetuate white power” (Rhoden, 2006, p.56).
Rhoden essentially states that black aggression is framed in one way and harnessed on the other end of the spectrum. The framing is actually what allows the reasoning for taming this behavior by many analysts, including Bayless and in some ways Smith, even though Smith is black himself.
This brings one to the next point about a young man from Oklahoma State University, Marcus Smart, who was involved in an incident midway through his sophomore season that could have conceivably ended in shame had he not been given a second chance. During a game against Texas Tech, Smart fell into the crowd chasing a loose ball. Abruptly, Smart hopped to his feet and charged at an older white gentleman only to push him and walked back onto the court (Parrish, 2014). Smart allegedly ran into the crowd at the man when he stated that the fan called him a ‘nigger’. The aftermath of this incident sparked debate amongst countless writers. In the minds of many journalists, it is undoubtedly unacceptable for any player to put their hands on a fan in the stands and not expect any repercussions to arise from their actions (Parrish, 2014). Smart served a three game suspension and created an ongoing debate about player-fan interaction for weeks on much sporting news shows especially ESPN First Take.
Stephen A. Smith is also a co-host on the morning show ESPN First Take. He too is an African American male. However, Smith often engages in the scrupulous discussions about race on air. One might see this as a detriment to his own race, but Smith goes above and beyond to support his stance on some black athletes today. Smith speaks of stereotypes that plague the black community in his article about Gilbert Arenas and his incident in 2009. The incident involved Arenas and ex-teammate Javaris Crittenden in a Washington Wizards locker room. The two pulled guns on one another over a card game in which one owed the other money (Smith 2010). A few weeks after the incident Gilbert Arenas came out in pregame introductions and attempted to make light of the situation by making gun motions with his hands amongst his teammates (Smith, 2010). Many did not see the stunt as a joke and the media criticized him heavily for it. His stupidity or lack of judgments is what makes the black community as a whole suffer in the eyes of those who observe this specific behavior (Smith, 2010). Actions by an individual of Arenas’ social stature can easily reinforce attitudes about the type of people he represents. The word “thug” makes him and other athletes, who do similar thoughtless things, fit the description.
PlaxicoBurress is another athlete who struggled to stay out of trouble and actually ended up costing himself millions of dollars and his freedom. Smith begins the piece with, “Another black athlete. Another sad statistic” (Smith, 2008). Burress shot himself in the leg walking upstairs in a night club. The gun he had was unregistered. Burress got weapons charges filed against him. Burress eventually served two years in jail and is now a retired NFL football player who wasted the latter half of his career. Smith discusses how the black athlete has become a detriment to itself. This mindset is what inherently leads Smith to speak the views he chooses on ESPN First Take when discussing negative incidents involving black athletes.
The video footage is the rawest from of research used in this project because it contains a collaboration of commentary that support the points established in this paper.
Research conducted based on the video footage provided that involves Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, who are figureheads on ESPN First Take. These two individuals will serve as examples to support the terms stated previously about agenda-setting and framing.
The sampling extracted from the ESPN First Take show and commentary made during the airing of specific episodes that involve race.
Data collection used in this study included a perspective of the viewership and ratings produced by the broadcast of the show. For example, this graph suggests that something is causing ESPN First Take’s viewership to slide during a one year span:
The video segments selected include, but are not limited to:
Denniedoll. (2014, January 20). First Take - Richard Sherman rips Michael Crabtree after NFC Championship Game [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xkWAj6asKk
Dhaliwal, I. (2013, April 25). Are black quarterbacks evaluated fairly? - Espn first take [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUSMCAYHSiY
ESPN1stTake. (2014, February 11). Marcus smart's outburst related to pressures of social media? [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpfe14OwAXU
ESPN1stTakeHD. (2013, August 1). Should riley cooper be suspended for racial slurs? – espn first take [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2uxPK0bUmE
ESPN1stTake. (2012, January 4). Tim tebow and race discussion on espn first take [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st7JRB4U3fQ
The evidence is clear enough that it deciphers ESPN First Take does engage in agenda-setting on their show when they purposely mention race. The video footage provided in the research portrays Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless as two antagonists on the show who facilitate a climate that is highly unacceptable for daytime television. The ploy is to gain viewership by allowing social media feeds to appear on air so that other viewers watching will feel compelled to contribute their “two cents” in hopes of also getting their responses on the television set in front of them. The goal of the show is to spark interest and “embrace debate”, like the moniker suggests.
The constant race baiting and stereotypical remarks that are made to engage people in a way that produces revenue for the station. ESPN is basically conveying to the audience that if they disagree with any statements made on the show, they have accessibility to the show through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Viewers have the comfort of feeling as though their perceptions are valid if they can tweet them in and have them shown to a larger audience as if they are sticking it to Smith and Bayless for their snarky comments.
ESPN First Take often times evaluates incidents involving race in a one-sided. For example, the portrayal of Richard Sherman was set up long before his Super Bowl rant when Skip Bayless coaxed him into a shouting match on national television. First Take portrayed him as though he was some over- zealous, self-control lacking black man. Sequentially, Sherman made his rant after the NFC championship game and gave First Take all of the ammo it needed to discuss his character and the sportsmanship of athletes in sports. They compared Sherman to a number of athletes who were outspoken in history such as Muhammad Ali and Charles Barkley. By placing Sherman in the same breath as such athletes, they quarantine him off into a group of individuals who are notorious for not being liked, hence, media framing.
Another example, Marcus Smart’s actions were considered highly unacceptable by everyone on the ESPN First Take the panel. Both Smith and Bayless scolded the sophomore basketball player calling him immature and too emotional. Many of the black athletes who make mistakes are considered individuals who need to “mature as men” and learn to “control their emotions”. Conversely, one might find it interesting to see how the discussion would be if Doug McDermott were the player who ran in the crowd and pushed a black fan. McDermott is also a high profile player in college basketball except, unlike Smart, he is white. Instead of ESPN First Take asking why he ran into the stands, maybe they would have asked what did the man say to make McDermott run into the stands and retaliate because that was simply out of his character? The possibilities might be a stretch, but are very plausible considering the opinions of Smith, Bayless, and other journalists on the show are subjective.
Within the time frame of the research, there was not enough time to include the internet involvement of social media participants. The volume of the individuals using social media to interact with the show could be correlated with ratings of other topics compared to that of race. Also, no interviews of black athletes contained in this research. More footage of First Take could have been used. However, the daily broadcast of the show makes it difficult to analyze each episode individually and would make the content too extensive to include the main point of the research.
Research in the near future should yield interviews of various athletes to portray what they think of the show and how often they feel as though ESPN First Take condemns the black athlete as being reckless. Also, more research could be done on how often First Take discusses race and the volume of those who respond on Twitter during the time segment when it is discussed.
The purpose of having a talk show is to get people to talk about the show because of what was talked about. This is totally understandable, but it should never be at the detriment of a specific demographic. Also, controversy shouldn’t be the focal point of the broadcast. Some might say it’s tacky, First Take program directors would probably say it works for them because people watch their show. Athletes such as Michael Vick and PlaxicoBurress were subject to ongoing extensive public scrutiny, yet, white athletes such as Riley Cooper and Ben Roethlisberger simply get a casual slap on the wrist and counseling suggestions.
Social media allows many fans to feel as though they are included in the discussion because they have the ability to comment on the same pressing issues that First Take chooses to sensationalize. Profit is also a goal of any network. Social media allows ESPN First Take to appeal to advertisers who want to host an hashtag battle such as Verizon did when they partnered with ESPN during the Super Bowl to host a Twitter battle.
Black athletes must do a better job of representing themselves in a way that positively reflects who they are. Their plight is only hindered by those who do things in the public eye that are seen as bad or unacceptable. Shows like First Take will only sensationalize incidents that take place involving black athletes because they realize if it bleeds it reads. Dissection of an individual, especially someone of a specific race, is interesting to people because it is taboo. Everyone has different values and backgrounds, therefore; it is only natural for people to want to debate them and microscopically excoriate another group or person. ESPN First Take surreptitiously initiates race based discussions for the ratings and relevance of their show with a reckless abandon for the damage they are doing to the perception of the black athlete in all sports.
ESPN is an abbreviation of the Entertainment and sports Programming Network with operational studios in Miami, New York City, Seattle and Los Angeles in the United States of America. In the present Day America, the African –American population makes a good number of athletes and entertainers. From basketball players, footballers and field/track event athletes. ESPN like any other network has positions and stands on a varied number of topics. It is the sole duty of ESPN to assign coverage and attention to whichever deems fit, as a network. Consequently, when it comes to the issue of blacks and racial fairness, ESPN first take has a skewed opinion (Cunningham, 2009, p.43). For the purpose of this essay, I will give a holistic account on the social, cultural, political, economic and historical, perspective attached to this topic.
Historically, the American society bears sacred memories about the black community. Racial discrimination and white favouritism were common in the society. ESPN was, however, founded in 1979, years later after black emancipation from racial strings. It was during this period that the United States witnessed an increase of black participation in national Championships as well as the Olympics. It was during this period that the majority of the general population acquired cabled television sets thus ESPN first take was bound by circumstance of ‘national reinvention the blacks’ to the limelight to cover black athletes, if not for their colour, then for their talent as athletes (Carty, 2005, p.139).
After the bloody revolution against racism and black discrimination, the blacks had their political voice and their say increased in national debates and conversations. During this period of a free American society, the masses embraced different colours as equal thus the media fraternity was at worst bound to cover and broadcast racially relevant items. For instance the rise of blacks in the entertainment industry this period was noticed. (Not that there was no talent prior to this period) A practical example is Michael Jackson,who rose to high standards of fame(Agyemang& DeLorme, 2010, p.39). ESPN first take as a media outlet and a profit maximising at that, was skewed by public opinion to play and give airtime to relevant and popular items at that point. Over the years, increased political stake and voice in the United States, has seen black American form awards like the BET awards which receive massive airplay and airtime across almost all cable networks. ESPN first take would not be left behind in this regard (Farred, 2000, p.100).
Social awareness and consciousness of the black community in the US has been remarkable. This can be attributed to agenda setting largely carried out by the media fraternity as a whole (Gaston, 2004, p.79). It is considered offensive to refer to an African –American as a black, rather. After continued use of the euphemised reference by media commentator and social analysts, the whole society is thus structured to refer to the black community as African Americans.It is important to note that, the media fraternity, ESPN first take, in this case in pursuit of viewership and subscriptions are at times forced to use an underhand tactic, like racial baiting (Frey & Eitzen, 1991, p.511). They may achieve this by discrediting the talent and technical abilities of a black athlete or compare the African American to a white player with calculated bias, so that people/listeners would respond.
The instruments of mass communications especially ESPN first take, always seek to keep their subscribers locked in at all times, for obvious reasons-increasing ratings and revenues in turn (Andrews, 2001, p.4). Thus the media outlet would go at all lengths to ensure that their create attention. Majority of people rely on the media as an instrument for communication; thus the media can easily manipulate the public’s opinion towards a topic by giving it undue attention, and/or repeated airplay to the extent that the public would consider it as important. Mass communication instruments can blow minor issues into proportions of huge magnitudes even when that may not be the case.
The world of communication is ever changing and dynamic, the advent of social media services like Facebook, Twitter amongst others, is a testament to this. Viewers’ response and feedback are easily gauged and received in a split second. This has made it easier for the mainstream media outlets and cable networks to set agenda that would maximize on response through Facebook likes, twitter responses etc.
This technique is aimed at controlling the public’s attention and focus on a particular and treat that topic as important even though it may not be. For instance, when the media analyses competence and talent of an athlete. Objectively, the analysis is supposed to be on merit, nothing more nothing less. But when the “self-proclaimed” know-it-all analysts diverge from the topic of interest and focus on personal issue or scandals with a calculated view of drawing comparison to the race/culture of person then it becomes awfully wrong.
A hypothetical example is when a black athlete with a scandal say divorce case has struggled in the game, and his performance is under scrutiny. Media analysts, in order to invoke the public’s rage and anger, may frame a theory (not based on empirical data) to try and link the variable. From poor performance-scandal-race. Media framing theories coupled together with agenda-setting are aimed to achieve only one result, that is the focus on the character trait and weakness, then justify it with the race of the athlete especially blacks. Direct response will be defence of the concerned athlete with those of the same colour, and the cycle continues every day.
Culture in the simple and basic sense implies the way of life to a person, his beliefs, customs religion and general mannerisms (Leonard&King, 2011). Therefore, entertainment and sports culture is the overview of a person talent based on family background, race and opinions. It is widely opened through heavy agenda setting occasioned by the instrument of mass communication and social media that people of a particular race say blacks are good at particular positions and games. Therefore, the general public will hold that opinion to that extent. Culture and race of an athlete tend to be intertwined, and a positive correlation can be made about them. For instance blacks are generally assumed to make good centre-backs.
It is common knowledge that the black athlete do not receive the same amount of airplay as their white counterparts (Lindsay, 2012, p.120). Whenever there are embroiled in scandals or are undergoing a period of personal weakness, every person who cares to, listen will hear the news. Analysis aimed at “character assassination” will then be made, correlating his race, the scandal and why the so called athlete performs poorly. The analysis which should at best concentrate on the performance of the black athlete is then carried over-board with biased comparison to his race/culture. For instance a black athlete who performs slightly lower than his level and has personal issues, will receive more airplay than the overall team even when the team would have won the championship. The general idea here is to rub the targeted audience badly so that their can respond. Any response is good for a media outlets rating especially when the outlet says ESPN has framed a theory around an athlete so that the public can comment.
At this level it is worthy to note that ESPN first take, can improve ratings and subscription to their network when they maintain their audiences with catchy episodes and coverage’s of black athletes scandals and weaknesses. By giving airplay to specific minor issues especially touching on a person weakness, the members of that race are surely set to join in the conversation and defend their own. Historical and social bearings are then mostly brought up when discussing the same. By using techniques like racial baiting, agenda setting and media framing is aimed at keeping the conversation going in all fronts. From social media where fans exchange their views and opinion to the direct calls to the studios all help ESPN for instance to achieve the desired end result.
Racial television issues are attached and intertwined with other issues raised above. It is, however,unfortunate when disparaging comments are made on a person due to his culture or race. ESPN first take is a sports television network and should remain that at best. Drawing racial comments and relations to an athlete because of his colour being black is outrageous. When theories are modelled around an athlete,it should be based on meritocracy and competence and not cheap linkages based on colour.
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