Is it possible to even discuss race in sports, let alone anywhere else? This past week provides little hope. Whether Rush Limbaugh’s comments on Donovan McNabb were “racist,” there is a general agreement that he was factually wrong, that Limbaugh did not know what he is talking about. Yet, what is the evidence?
Limbaugh readily admits that it was just his opinion that “the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” But his critics allowed no possibility for uncertainty, calling his comments “ignorant” or worse. As National Public Radio put it: “Rush was able to turn a complete lack of understanding of football into a cross burning.” Even the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial disagreeing with his statements on news coverage.
A couple of stories compared McNabb to another quarterback, such as Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson, whom many apparently regard as just a so-so quarterback. But no one has tried to compare the news coverage of any two quarterbacks, let alone generally between black and white quarterbacks in the NFL.
To measure positive news coverage, I quickly put ten research assistants to work on a Nexis search, which is a computerized search of newspaper stories across the country. They looked at the coverage received by the 36 quarterbacks who played during the first four weeks of this season. (The articles were from the day of their first game to the day after their last game during the period.) To try to make the categorization of news stories objective, 23 phrases were picked to identify positive descriptions of a quarterback and 23 phrases for negative ones. Positive phrases included words such as “brilliant,” “agile,” “good,” “great,” “tough,” “accurate,” “leader,” “intelligent,” or “strong arm.” Negative phrases included “overrated,” “erratic,” “struggling,” “bad,” “weak arm,” or “mistakes.” Obviously the media involves more than newspapers, but this is measurable and it is not clear why newspapers would be so different from the rest of the media.
We then identified news stories where these phrases appeared within 50 words of a quarterback’s name. Each story was read to check that the phrases were indeed used to describe the “quarterback” and to make sure that the word “not” did not appear before the different phrases. Depending on whether positive or negative words were used to describe the quarterback, stories were classified as positive, negative, or falling into both categories.
The evidence suggests that Rush is right, though the simplest measures indicate that the difference is not huge. Looking at just the averages, without trying to account for anything else, reveals a ten-percent difference in coverage (with 67 percent of stories on blacks being positive, 61 percent for whites).
We also collected data by week for each of the first four weeks of the season on a host of other factors that help explain the rate at which a player is praised: the quarterback’s rating for each game; whether his team won; the points scored for and against the team; ESPN’s weekly rank for the quarterback’s team and the opponent; and whether it was a Monday night game. In addition, I accounted for average differences in media coverage both in the quarterback’s city and the opponent’s city as well as differences across weeks of the season.
Accounting for these other factors shows a much stronger pattern. Black quarterbacks’ news coverage is 27 percentage points more positive than whites. And that difference was quite statistically significant — the chance of this result simply being random is the same odds as flipping a coin five times and getting heads each time.
The quarterback ranking, scoring, winning, and higher-ranked teams playing against each other all increase the percentage of positive stories. For example, each additional point scored by the quarterback’s team raises the share of positive news coverage by about one percentage point. Being in the only game played on a particular day lowers how positive the coverage was by about 12 percentage points, as more newspapers outside the home area cover the game the next day.
The media’s interest in the number of black quarterbacks can also be seen in other more explicit ways. Last season, out of 217 news stories discussing the race of professional quarterbacks, 194 mentioned whether an individual quarterback was black, only 23 if they were white. By contrast, for running backs and receivers — where the ratio of blacks to whites is even more lopsided with blacks dominating — discussions of a player’s race are virtually nonexistent. Only 6 stories mentioned that running backs were black and 10 that they were receivers, and the numbers discussing that they were white were 4 and 7 respectively.
These numbers also help address another possibility: whether newspapers write such supportive articles on black quarterbacks to encourage more racial diversity on the field. Yet, a preference for diversity doesn’t seem to explain the data. In positions where whites are underrepresented they do not receive even a fraction of the extra attention that blacks do as quarterbacks.
If indeed skin color results in significantly more positive coverage, doesn’t that imply that the media, not Rush, might be racist? Presumably the media feels that coverage is justified, though it could mean that the press has too low expectations of blacks.
Hopefully the furor over Rush’s statement will help us understand the media a little better. The evidence indicates that there is a lot to explain. The current fact-free name-calling hardly shows that sports have come to grip with race.