It would be easy to wipe the slate clean with ABC television commentator Howard Cosell's apology for calling Washington receiver Alvin Garrett a "little monkey" during Monday night's Dallas Cowboys-Redskins football broadcast. Too easy.
Matter of fact, it would be dead wrong to let the remark be buried beneath the epitaph of verbal slippage. It would be wrong not because Cosell is some kind of racial bigot. Quite the reverse is true. Cosell has championed the black athlete's cause when such stands were unpopular.
But his remark reflects the broader problem of the white domination of the sports and media industries. There are almost no black representatives in the sports broadcasting booth, behind the scenes or in upper management levels. It reflects the truism that sports is heavily black, but blanched in its delivery on television.
It also puts into sharp focus the dilemma that, in sports, blacks have to look for a good white man to protect their interests. Now we hear that O.J. Simpson soon will become Cosell's colleague to do the ABC color. But why wasn't someone like Simpson permanently hired years ago to sit in that and other network booths? Why wasn't a black hired for Cosell's job?
Cosell brings to mind the Lincoln syndrome. Abraham Lincoln was a great man because he freed the slaves. Howard Cosell is great because he championed black athletes. You have to respect this. But the fact that we do reflects the scarcity of blacks in sports broadcasting in the first place. The plantation mentality is alive and well when millions of black American viewers must be content with the anxious hope that the networks find a good white savior to protect their image and interests.
"I don't know of any major black play-by-play sports announcers in college or professional athletes on national television," says Chicago broadcast expert J. Fred MacDonald, author of "Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948." He adds: "There are black faces in sports delivery on television but they don't command any major position except Bill Russell--and he just does color. You have a few blacks on the field--ex-athletes with a mike interviewing people on the bench. But . . . the kings of TV sports broadcasting--that is totally the domain of white men."
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission made a compelling case for improving minority hiring practices at local stations and at networks in its study "Window Dressing on the Set" when it contended executive network suites are like private clubs where minorities and women have a hard time gaining access.
But underrepresentation in sports is particularly miserable relative to the overwhelming dominance of black athletes and the amount of the audience that is black. Check out blacks on commercials; they're there because blacks watch games and buy beer. Civil rights leader Joseph Lowery was right in calling for more representation in broadcast booths as well.
MacDonald said he thinks television overall has reneged on its '60s promise of becoming an antidote to bigotry and in recent years has embraced a new conservatism. With ABC dropping its three-way anchor arrangement, eliminating Max Robinson's anchor job, for example, MacDonald said it "will be deep into the 21st century before any network has a black man or woman anchoring the national news week nights."
Cosell isn't the only sports commentator to stumble and say something offensive. That world is known for its colorful language and free-for-all humor. But those practices need to be altered to take in the sensitivities of minorities and women. A one-on-one interview, when give and take can be balanced in the repartee, is one thing. But the isolation of the sports booth magnifies ribald, insensitive humor.
The Cosell remark upset blacks because it revealed how naked and vulnerable they are. Ultimately, it reflects how American sports exploits blacks and black athletes--despite the big salaries of some athletes. In ancient Rome, the gladiators who fought in the arena in public shows were often slaves. It's sad that in our society the gladiator is the football player, and even sadder that in many ways he is as much slave as were the gladiators of antiquity.