PSYCHOLOGIST Raymond E. Rainville of the State University of New York at Oneonta knew very little about professional football, yet he discovered that he could tell the race of the player an announcer was talking about while the game was being televised. This was especially remarkable because Rainville is blind. Even when the names of the players were not given, he discovered, he could still determine the color of a player's skin.
Along with Edward McCormick, a psychology graduate student at the State University of New York at Cortland, Rainville decided to try to document what he had picked up in the voices of the sports announcers. They made audio tapes of 12 NFL games televised by the three major networks and set up protocols for each player listing everything the announcers (all white) said about each player in a particular game.
They paired black and white players who played the same positions and had similar performances in terms of yards gained, passes received and so on. The names, teams and cities of the players were disguised, and the protocols were handed to raters who characterized the announcers' comments.
Black players who had performed similarly to whites in the same positions had not won similar praise from announcers, they discovered. In fact, the announcers seemed to begin with the assumption that black players are inferior to whites and then broadcast the game in such a way as to support this belief.
They more often praised whites on how they played the game. They more often put down blacks for past achievements or failures that had nothing to do with the game. Blacks were more often compared unfavorably with whites. Whites won more comment for physical and mental attributes and received more special focus and sympathy.
"The least inferential conclusion which can be derived from these results is that the announcers are building a positive reputation for white players and a comparatively negative reputation for black players," say the researchers.
Blacks were the targets of more speculation, both negative and positive. This finding is in line with other research on prejudice.
When blacks broke though line or make a long end run, this was seen as the result of luck, good blocking by other players or other forces outside the player himself. When whites made the same accomplishments, this was interpreted as being due to their own skill, strength, initiative or other internal qualities.
Sports announcers are probably are unaware of their biased blurbs, Rainville and McCormick suggest. There are strong social prohibitions against racism in public media, and the prejudice that once could be shouted on the streets must now be stifled on the air.
In professional athletics, where blacks have achieved success and prominence, the old prejudices must find their vent through covert, probably unconscious channels. Certainly the announcers could not have shaded their broadcasts so carefully if they were color-blind.
This article is reprinted from Human Behavior magazine.