Bill Rhoden is frustrated. He doesn’t hold back.
“Our industry (sports media) is one of the most segregated parts of journalism,” Rhoden said.
Later, he said, “If you’re an editor, and you don’t have any Black reporters, you’re part of the problem.”
Rhoden, a 35-year veteran, wants to change a dynamic that still shows few African-Americans writing about sports and even fewer in positions of leadership in the sports department. The Undefeated, ESPN’s multiplatform initiative for sports, race and culture, is giving him the chance by sponsoring the Rhoden Fellows.
It is a sports journalism internship program focused on identifying and training aspiring African-American journalists from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The inaugural class, announced in March, has six journalists. With Rhoden and others serving as hands-on mentors, the students will contribute stories to The Undefeated during the school year, and they will have paid internships in the summer, working in New York, Washington, D.C. and Bristol, Conn.
The hope is that the students, and more to follow, will then move into a pipeline that will produce greater diversity in the industry.
“I want to do everything I can to help desegregate the press box,” said Rhoden, a longtime sports columnist for the New York Times who joined The Undefeated last summer.
The numbers support Rhoden’s blunt assessment. In its most recent study in 2014, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, headed by Dr. Richard Lapchick, reports African-Americans make up 15 percent of all sportswriters, and 16.7 percent of copy editors.
The report also notes the numbers would be much worse if not for ESPN. It includes these passages:
“Of the 16 people of color who are sports editors at this level, seven work for ESPN. If the ESPN sports editors of color were removed, the percentage of sports editors of color would drop from 11.7 percent to 6.9 percent.”
“Of the 48 men of color who were columnists at “A” newspapers and websites, 41 worked for ESPN. If the ESPN male columnists who are people of color were removed, the percentage of male columnists of color would drop from 17.5 percent to 3 percent.”
Indeed, the 2014 report was done before ESPN created The Undefeated, which launched in 2016. The current statistics would be skewed much more by ESPN given that The Undefeated is staffed and run by a vast majority of African-Americans.
Rhoden contends The Undefeated’s staffing is an indictment of the industry as a whole.
“How is it that The Undefeated has so many gifted young African-American writers who were just sitting around because they couldn’t get a job?” Rhoden said. “They could have filled the staff twice over with all the talent out there.”
This experience has caused to Rhoden to reflect on his own roots in the business. A graduate of Morgan State, a HBCU school, he says he benefited greatly with his first job being with a Black newspaper. His mentor was none other than Sam Lacy, a Baseball Hall of Fame Black sportswriter who pushed for the integration of the game.
“I learned so much from Sam,” Rhoden said.
Rhoden now wants to serve the same role for the students involved in his program. He has contact with them almost on a daily basis. On the one hand, he says he has to keep reminding himself that those students are only 19-20-years old.
“They are a work in progress,” Rhoden said. “But I want to challenge them. The higher you set the bar, the better off they will be.”
The ultimate goal is for the Rhoden Fellows to find jobs once they complete the program. And he hopes a few of them get in positions where they eventually have a chance to hire other African-American sportswriters.
“I want to put more African-Americans in positions of leadership,” Rhoden said. “If you don’t have Black folks in charge, you are less likely to have Black folks being hired. Just look at the numbers. The proof is in the pudding.”
I shared my own experience with Rhoden. Since 2013, I have taught sports journalism at Northwestern and De Paul. There is a high level of diversity in my classes. If anything, I tell Rhoden, the White male student is in the minority.
“You see change in the classroom,” Rhoden said. “Now the question is, how do you convert that to the newsroom? That’s what we’re trying to do.”