Sitting in the same Philadelphia press box was Master Tesfatsion, a 27-year-old senior writer for Bleacher Report. Tesfatsion saw the cartoon, and by the third quarter, he had retweeted the picture along with the phrase, “This is Jim Crow Imagery in 2018. This is disgusting.”
After the game, Tesfatsion showed Reid the image inside the Carolina locker room while a colleague filmed the exchange. “I expect nothing less from a racist,” Reid said. Tesfatsion tweeted that video, too.
“The connotations about black people being crazy, scary — whatever — that’s what this was,” Tesfatsion said this week. “I was working on a story about Eric Reid. I thought he should see it.”
Kempski, 41, covers the Eagles for the Philadelphia Voice. He used to work in sales before he started a blog several years ago, and it was his irreverence and social media following that landed him a full-time journalism gig. He regularly draws caricatures of players as part of his coverage — quarterback Mike Glennon with a long giraffe-like neck, for example, or former Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford with long sleeves going down to the floor.
His original tweet featured his drawing next to a photograph of Reid taken during a pregame altercation with Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins. The two men have been leaders in the NFL’s protest movement against police brutality and racial injustice that was started by Colin Kaepernick. Kempski said this week that he was intending to poke fun at Reid’s pregame anger and, “I thought it would be funny to accentuate that if he had a bad play.”
Kempski pulled up a photo of Reid’s face and “tried to draw an angry-looking mouth instead of big red lips,” he said in an interview. “He didn’t have the dreads in his picture, and [I] drew them in there. And the eyes were already big.”
“Take those three things — take the mouth, eyes, and he’s part of the publicized fight for racial equality, and it was the perfect storm of unintentional racism,” Kempski said. “I should have recognized it when it was a racist caricature. It’s unacceptable.”
He eventually deleted the Reid tweet and issued an apology.
Tesfatsion wasn’t looking for an apology when Kempski attempted to talk to him in the press box. The son of Eritrean immigrants, Tesfatsion has covered the NFL for the past five-plus seasons, first the Vikings for the Star Tribune in Minnesota and then the Redskins at The Washington Post. He moved this year to Bleacher Report, where part of his beat is the identity of black athletes.
Kempski also drew his cartoon on a particularly fraught day. After the game, Reid called Jenkins a neocolonialist and a sellout for partnering with the NFL on a deal that will raise some $90 million for social justice causes. Jenkins is not protesting during the national anthem this season, while Reid continues to do so. Reid and Jenkins have split along fissures familiar to many protest movements, both within the black community and beyond. How much do you work within the system for change, and how much do you push from outside? Those tensions boiled over Sunday.
“No one is going to remember who won the Panthers-Eagles game 50 years from now,” Tesfatsion said. “They will remember Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins. The Eagles have been vital to this conversation of NFL players trying to make lives better for people, and that cartoon just minimizes what they’re doing.”
If Kempski saw the cartoon as an isolated incident and a one-time mistake, Tesfatsion felt a larger weight that led him to take the cartoon to Reid. It was just a few months ago that an Australian cartoonist depicted Serena Williams as an almost ape-ish figure after her confrontation with a chair umpire during the U.S. Open, for instance.
Then there is the daily experience of covering the NFL, Tesfatsion said. Seventy percent of players in the league are black. According to this year’s Associated Press Sports Editors Race and Gender Report Card, 82 percent of sports reporters are white — down from 85 percent in 2014 (87 percent of reporters are men). Tesfatsion pointed out that Wendell Smith, a black reporter who covered Jackie Robinson, wrote from the stands because he was barred from the press box.
“I talk to players in locker rooms all the time,” he said. “They don’t understand how they can be covered by people who don’t understand them, who can’t relate to them — and who a lot of times don’t even try.”
The questions Tesfatsion faced are not unfamiliar to other black sportswriters. Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and the Orlando Sentinel, recalled a white sportswriter casually commenting to her once that being a black woman must have helped her career. She noted that days after Kempski’s cartoon, NBC host Megyn Kelly apologized for suggesting blackface was an acceptable Halloween costume.
“I like to think I would’ve shown it to Reid,” Hill said. “What’s so frustrating to people of color is that we’re put in this position where we have to educate people over basic stuff.”
“We all feel it,” Michael Wilbon, the ESPN host and former Washington Post columnist, said of being a black reporter in the press box. “Thirty years ago it was David Aldridge, 20 years ago it was me.”
Wilbon continued: “Two things can be true: this guy can be sorry, which it sounds like he is, but this is also something — racism — that we deal with.”
Wilbon, though, said he probably wouldn’t have shown the cartoon to Reid.
“I might have just walked over and cursed [Kempski] out,” Wilbon said. “If he apologized, maybe I would say, ‘okay.’”
A. Sherrod Blakely, chair of the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force, offered a public service announcement:
“If you draw a picture of a person of color with exaggerated lips you are going to get backlash,” said Blakely, who covers the Boston Celtics for NBC Boston. “It’s a reminder of why diversity matters and there should be more people of color in these press boxes.”
Wilbon, though, was not particularly optimistic that press box diversity will increase. “Black sportswriters make up 10 percent of the people in the industry just like the population in America. We’re never going to be overwhelming in number,” he said.
Ultimately, Kempski and Tesfatsion did talk in the press box, after their Reid exchange had already attracted broader media attention. Kempski apologized. Tesfatsion was unmoved.
“I certainly understand his frustration and the inequality in the press room,” Kempski said. “But obviously I don’t think that this was the best example to make that point.”
Tesfatsion’s answer: “Yeah, I did want to make a point."
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