The question came from a bewildered veteran reporter when he noticed I’d landed a hard-to-get interview: “I saw you got a sit-down. Are you doing a Black History Month story?”
This was in October a few years ago and, as is so often still the case, I was the only Black person in the room on our side of the microphones, notepads and recorders. Here was an established journalist suggesting that my Blackness was the only explanation for the exclusive access I’d arranged with someone who also happened to be Black. No one batted an eye. It was treated like innocent small-talk.
Maybe in his mind that’s what it was. He saw me, saw the colour of my skin, and assumed I was a token, a novelty. I couldn’t be in that room because of talent or hard work. I couldn’t have gotten the interview by putting in the time and effort to build the professional relationships. I was the only Black person there, so my Blackness itself had to be the answer. The rest — everything that makes me me — wasn’t worth considering.
This is a glimpse at what it’s like to be a Black sports journalist in Canada.
I remember another time I dapped up Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell after a game. Powell did his first-ever interview as a pro with me at NBA Summer League in 2015. I had seen his potential and reached out when no one else did, and he’s been open and honest with me ever since. We’ve got a good relationship. On this particular day, after I gave him a bro hug, a prominent white reporter asked me, dismissively, “Did you grow up together?”
I’m Canadian and Powell is from San Diego but, of course, the rapport between us couldn’t be based in mutual respect or the fact that I took an early interest in a player and treated him like a human being. To get anything more than a handshake, I must’ve had a head start, an unfair advantage. It’s the same type of thinking that leads trolls on social media to call me a “diversity hire” every time I write a column. In the press box, though, it’s dressed up in a suit.
Situations like these are symptoms of a larger problem in Canadian sports media: its ridiculous lack of diversity and representation. That’s not a new issue, or one unique to this country or industry, but the fact we’ve all managed to put up with it for this long doesn’t mean it’s not doing real damage — to people of colour who work in this business, to sports media companies themselves and to our audiences. In the past month, as outlets here have attempted to engage with the larger public conversation about race and racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it’s only made the lack of diversity in the voices they’re able to put forward more noticeable. But the willingness to engage with these issues at all is a significant step, and hopefully also a sign that this industry is finally ready to take a hard look in the mirror.
In the course of my career, whenever I’ve run into the type of ignorance described above, I’ve wondered how the conversation would play out differently if I wasn’t the only Black journalist in the room. If we had more strength in numbers would I not be viewed as the Black History Month documentarian or the diversity hire?
I’m ready to stop wondering.
The last month has been the busiest of my professional life.
Since May 25, the day George Floyd was killed and Amy Cooper threatened Christian Cooper with police violence, I’ve been navigating five to 10 outside requests a day. They are for radio and podcast appearances, TV hits, written interviews, board and advisory council meetings, speaking engagements and personal mentorships — and they’re all coming on top of my actual job. My calendar is now the most used app on my phone.
Before you start to think I’m just bragging here, know that all of those hundreds of inquiries have been about race. Not one person has wanted to talk to me about the NBA returning or the postponed CFL season. It’s as if being Black has become my only field of expertise — though so far I’ve been unable to add my race as a skillset on LinkedIn.
To be clear, I don’t feel I’m any better at talking about Black life in North America than thousands of other Black Canadians would be. If I’m “good on these issues,” as I’m told I am by white people, it’s because I’m forced to think about them every day, whether I want to or not. I’m not unique in being constantly confronted by this stuff. What does set me apart is that I’m one of the few Black Canadians with an existing platform — particularly in sports. I was always one of the only names producers could come up with when they needed someone to discuss a “Black” subject like Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Akim Aliu’s truth-telling or the Rooney Rule. In this moment, those conversations are simply happening more regularly.
I feel a lot of different things about this sudden demand, some of them conflicting:
I believe the asks are well-intentioned, that they come from a genuine desire to learn and inform, but they’re also all basically saying, “Hey, I know you are going through something traumatic. Can you fit in a 15-minute block on my show tomorrow to explain it to me? And the extra labour will be unpaid.”
I don’t mind being sought-after, but when my name only comes out of the rolodex when someone is needed to speak about racial issues, it robs me of the ability to shape views on other things people that look like me care about and can educate on. I’m not the Wakanda bureau reporter; I wouldn’t mind talking about sports from time to time.
Finally, I’m excited these conversations are happening at all, but I wish Black lives didn’t have to be lost before we had them, and I wish there were more voices and more diverse viewpoints involved. Trust me, I’d rather not wake up to a sea of negative tweets every time I mention Colin Kaepernick in a column. I’d be happy to spread the burden around, but who else is going to write about these issues? People of colour in the media know that if we don’t pitch stories about race, it’s likely nobody else will. And there simply aren’t that many of us.
Odds are your local newspaper doesn’t have a Black sports reporter. Your national newspaper of choice definitely doesn’t. The beat reporters for every Canadian team in every league are almost all white. You will not find a Black voice hosting a sports talk show on your radio dial. You won’t see a Black person on the board or executive leadership team of a major Canadian sports media company. Kayla Grey became the first Black woman in Canadian history to host a national sports highlight program in 2018 — just two years ago. And since Morgan Campbell left the Toronto Star, I’ve been the only Black national sports journalist with the freedom to give my opinion written into my job description — with the autonomy to write a story like this one. The radio hosts, columnists and TV talking heads that shape views and dictate narratives in this country are all white. And it’s not any better behind the scenes.
Thirteen years into my career, I’ve never been managed by a Black person, assigned a story by a Black person or had a story I wrote edited by a Black person. I’ve never worked on a show produced or directed by a Black person, either. I’d love to have those opportunities, just as I’d love to have people in my industry to confide in who look like me, especially when another reporter says something in my presence that exposes the unconscious bias that runs rampant in sports media.
We also don’t do a good job retaining and developing the Black talent we do have. Years into my career, after I was already established enough to have been nominated for a Gemini (now called a Canadian Screen Award), I was looking for ways to grow and develop further. I had a pair of meetings with management that were supposed to be about strategizing ways I could provide more value and be better utilized by the company. Instead, in the first meeting, I was told by a manager that I’d never be put on-air at the company again, and in the second, an executive told me he’d be happy to reach out to smaller stations to see if they were hiring — an undisguised invitation to leave. The motivations behind these conversations may not have been racist, I have no way of knowing, but I do know they certainly weren’t anti-racist.
I was too stubborn and self-assured to let that experience dissuade me, but how many other people of colour have had similar interactions and decided they’d rather receive more money and face less hardship in another industry? And how many have experienced much worse? I am, after all, straight, male, able-bodied and middle-class; I do have privilege. What is life like for people of colour in this industry who don’t check those boxes?
I’m fortunate enough to never have worked in a newsroom that felt like a toxic battlefield, the kind of situations recently brought to light in painful threads by fellow Canadian Black journalists like Imani Walker and Alley Wilson.
I’m also fortunate to not have seen an example of blatant racism on the job like the one my colleague David Singh described last month:
What I have been exposed to is a steady stream of “accidental racism” like the stories I shared at the beginning of this piece, and a ton of things that felt racist without being overtly or demonstrably so. For example, well-intentioned white people will often praise my work by telling me that I “sound so articulate” or that a particular point “was so educated.” These are compliments; I should be able to just feel good about them and move on, but I’m never sure how to take them because they come with the built-in assumption that I shouldn’t sound articulate or educated because I’m Black. I don’t hear white reporters saying these kinds of things to other white reporters because we’re all paid to speak intelligently about sports on camera, on the radio and on the page. That’s the job. It’s as if people decided to give Kyle Lowry a pat on the back for being able to dribble with both hands.
No Black person in Canadian sports is immune to this kind of murky situation. Case in point: Just days after the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship, I was with a few media members and Masai Ujiri’s run-in with an Oakland police officer came up. The story was still fluid at the time, and the details on the ground were unclear at best. A prominent NBA writer took control of the conversation and began to rant and rave about Ujiri: He said he’d heard the Raptors president was “a dick” and “a mean SOB,” that Ujiri had a temper and the smiling persona the public knew was all a façade. He said he was certain Ujiri had struck the cop in the face.
Now, I’m a big proponent of the idea that you never truly know what famous people are like behind closed doors. But the person this writer was describing was the diametrical opposite of the Ujiri I’d experienced, both personally and professionally. The writer was also leaning into his viewpoint a little too hard, taking too much joy in the character assassination. If this writer could talk that way about the most powerful Black man in Canadian sports history, how would someone like him characterize me when I wasn’t around to defend myself?
The more I thought about it afterward, the more it bothered me that a Black man at the height of his profession was being smeared based off of less than hearsay and painted as the stereotypical angry Black man. It also bothered me that I’d stayed silent in the moment, not looking for confrontation. But even if I had called it out, what exactly would I say? “I have an inkling that you’re spiking the football on a man’s reputation because he’s Black, but I can’t exactly prove it”?
What makes so many of these moments so difficult to navigate is never really knowing how much race is a factor. Was that piece of work actually exceptional or was the compliment based on a racist assumption? Did management not see a place for me in their larger plans or was that inability to find a fit more personal? Was a writer just trying to look like someone with inside information or was he tearing down someone based on racist stereotypes? The effect race has on daily interactions is much more often covert than overt, and that’s just one of the reasons why it would be so helpful to have someone to talk with about these type of interactions who’s actually experienced them, too. Nobody teaches you how to navigate life as a Black journalist. It is on-the-job training, sink-or-swim in rough waters.
More balanced representation would make that learning process easier, of course, but it would benefit the industry in ways that reach far beyond the lives and careers of the people of colour it employs. Would Marcus Stroman’s tenure and relationship with the media have been different if he’d had a writer like J.A. Adande or David Aldridge to confide in and relate to? Could this upcoming crop of talented Latin Blue Jays benefit from a group of reporters on the beat that could converse with them in their native tongue? Would all the sports coverage in this country be better and more well-rounded if we diversified the voices creating it? It’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t.
As Canadian sports fans, we are only getting a piece of the ideas, insights, jokes and analysis that exist around the games we love. Imagine if we got more — imagine if we got the whole story.
The only way for that to happen is for sports media companies to hire and empower more people of colour. So, if you’re a person of colour reading this who is working to break into the industry or dreams of doing so one day, I want to say something to you: Stay the course. As bleak as it can seem, stay the course. If my dumb ass can figure it out, so can you. And we need you. I need you, my colleagues need you, the fans need you.
These companies need you, too, and they may finally be starting to realize that. Based on the criticism of Bill Simmons and the lack of representation at The Ringer, it is clear audiences and contributors alike are demanding a change. This moment should force them to get their acts together, so as ridiculous as it sounds considering we’re living through a financial recession and a global pandemic, there has never been a better time to try to break in. I believe that’s true even if you’re not willing to trust that things will actually change, because unlike when I was starting out, you don’t need traditional media — you can be an undeniable success without them.
I live in one of the most diverse and progressive countries in the world and I cover sports, a field of human endeavour that prides itself on being a meritocracy. Yet the industry I work in is far from progressive or diverse, and thus cannot possibly be a meritocracy. If everyone at the top of a profession is white, that’s white supremacy. Some might take issue with the use of that term, but I take issue with the reality — and every day, more and more people are giving voice to same feeling.
If audiences don’t see themselves in media, they will seek out media that better represents them. They don’t have to settle. And neither do those of you looking to break in. Start a blog, create a YouTube channel, find a way to monetize your social feeds. You might be doing yourself a favour circumventing the traditional gatekeepers — and you’ll certainly be doing one for your fans. Force the equality that audiences want and deserve.
Recently, I saw an open letter signed by influential Black figures in film, television, visual art, music, theatre and literature that called on the institutions they work with to actively fight racism by cutting ties with the police, as well as financially supporting Black artists. Not long after the letter was made public, the Washington Post created 12 new jobs to cover race from a variety of angles.
Alexis Ohanian, who is Serena Williams’s husband, just stepped down from the board of Reddit to make way for a Black executive.
There are real signs of change with the big players in media, and I’m confident sports media will soon follow suit. It has to.
My job is incredibly fun and fulfilling, and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my professional life. But if this industry doesn’t change in real and fundamental ways, I wouldn’t advise my son to follow in my footsteps. I hope that change does come by the time he’s old enough to decide what he wants to do with his life. But it’s going to take white people relinquishing some of their traditional power and Black people collectively creating theirs.
Being Black has become my beat, and I’m often covering it alone. As proud as I am of the work, I’d love some company, and I’d love to be considered an expert on something else for a change.
Fearless on and off the ice, John Epping is just the star sport needs
John Epping would rather let his curling do the talking. But as the only openly gay star male athlete in major North American sports, he feels a responsibility to talk about his sexuality — and hopes his example will empower others.