Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Happy July everyone. We are half way through 2020, and for all we know we will look back on these last few months as the good half. Things can always get worse. With that said, here’s a roundup of what is making sports media news around the TSM water cooler. As always, if there are things we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.

 

The COVID Games

 

Since North American professional sports shut down back in March the biggest question was whether it would be safe to resume live team sports. Almost four months later there is no clear answer. In the coming weeks MLS, the NBA, the NHL, and MLB are all set to resume competitive play.

 

While TFC and the Raptors will be away from Toronto for their games, the Leafs and Jays plan to play in Toronto. The Leafs will be joined by 11 other teams and their support staff. As per usual Bob McKenzie broke the news, on Canada Day:

 

 

As is tradition, McKenzie’s home radio station TSN1050 chose to air US syndicated programming rather than pay someone time and half to be on air to discuss their superstar insider’s breaking news. FAN590 ran local programming on the topic of Toronto being a hub city but, as is also tradition, did not credit McKenzie with the scoop.

 

 

Setting aside whether competing for the Covid Cup in the middle of summer is worth it, the immediate issue is whether the NHL is putting anyone at risk. Some media hold the opinion that the public health concerns surrounding the NHL being in Toronto are manageable:

 

 

The major question for proponents of Toronto being a hub city is what Vancouver knows that we don’t:

 

 

On the baseball side, things are a little more complicated since teams would be traveling back and forth across the border and in and out of several cities over the course of the shortened season.

 

 

There is a difference of opinion on this point:

 

 

While the Jays have government approval to play intrasquad spring training games for the next three weeks, they do not currently have permission to host regular season games against American-based teams. Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet has a good summary of what to expect as spring training gets under way. His colleague Shi Davidi also has a good article replete with quotes from Jays’ President Shapiro.

 

The most interesting questions to me around the decision to try to play professional sports during a pandemic relate to liability. Sports are not essential, and the fact that millions of dollars in advertising and TV rights revenue are at stake doesn’t change that. So, leagues that decide to put their employees (and to a certain extent the public at large) in harm’s way are on the hook for the outcomes of that decision. As Shapiro says in Davidi’s article, the decision to return “is not one that would be without any risk.” For a great read on the liability side of things, here is Michael McCann on whether waivers will protect the leagues if things go very badly:

 

“Public health experts have consistently stressed that the risk of COVID-19 spreading is higher in crowded, indoor settings. To the extent courts weigh public policy considerations when assessing the legality of waivers to participate in or attend sporting events, science might not be on the side of sports. In short, while waivers seem like uncomplicated devices to protect leagues and colleges, they are anything but in practice. Don’t count on them.”

 

Some of these reasons might explain why superstar players in MLB and the NBA have chosen not to return to play in 2020. NHL players have until this week to decide if they want to opt out. Ex-Jay David Price recently announced he would opt out of playing out of concern for the best interests of his and his family’s health. Wouldn’t the same considerations be true for all other major leaguers? Price has earned over a hundred million in his career thus far, and so can afford to sit out.

 

It will be interesting to watch what happens if the number of star players sitting out increases in the coming weeks. Will leagues forge ahead if their best players are telling them they don’t feel safe? Will any of us feel good watching games played under medical duress? The articles I wish were being written would address these and related questions. As Texas and Florida face seeing their hospitals overrun with COVID cases in the coming weeks the time is now to ask whether it would really be so bad to wait until 2021 to start up professional sports. If the games start and then need to be shut down it will have been a mistake. A pretty big gamble is about to take place.

 

Tackling Racism in Sports

 

The other big topic this week is the long overdue but seemingly impossible notion of getting rid of racist mascots and names in professional sports. The Washington NFL team is seriously considering dropping the name Redskins, due to pressure from advertisers and branding partners.

 

 

Despite the press release mentioning “recent events” and “feedback from our community” there is nothing new about the problem with the name or the public’s opposition to it. People like me who grew up listening to PTS will recall Bob McCown constantly citing a study that said most Indigenous people don’t find the name offensive. This is a typical case of someone finding data to support what they believe and then stopping any further research on the subject. If you want to read more about current research on the topic, here are some resources.

 

 

The Washington case was swiftly followed by news that the Cleveland MLB team who recently moved on from their racist logo was considering a new name as well:

 

“The recent unrest in our community and our country has only underscored the need for us to keep improving as an organization on issues of social justice.With that in mind, we are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”

 

Again here there is a reference to “recent” events. In both cases the pressure of the current political climate seems to be making a difference. But what exactly is that pressure? Is it a fear of losing advertising dollars or is it a change in values? In some sense, it doesn’t really matter which explanation is accurate. What matters is that public facing organizations are coming to see that active or passive tolerance of racism is unacceptable.

 

This now puts the Canadian focus on the CFL and the Edmonton Eskimos. The team recently announced it intends to ramp up consultation with the Inuit community, but that may not be enough to shield them from further pressure.

 

 

The common thread through these cases is that sports teams are increasingly unable to cite tradition or heritage or “the way things were” as an excuse for racist behaviour. Rather than getting into a nuanced debate about history, the appropriate response is simply to ask why organizations would choose to defend a status quo that perpetuates racist attitudes. It’s just a name, and there are dozens of locally meaningful names that are unambiguously on the right side of history. Pick one of those and move forward.

 

 

This point about disrupting the problematic status quo applies within sports media as well. Donnovan Bennett recently penned another powerful piece on the lack of diversity in sports media:

 

“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.”

 

This article addresses so many important issues, including the tacit acceptance of discrimination by the most powerful people in sports media. I wrote recently about this topic here. The reason why Bennett’s piece is especially notable is that his own network is among the league leaders in compulsively hiring white men.

 

 

It has been a few years since this photo was proudly advertised across the Sportsnet family of channels but in 2020 the lineup looks pretty much the same. The FAN has fired so many radio hosts over the last decade, yet they always come back to the familiar Toronto archetype of what a sports radio host looks and sounds like. As with his colleague David Singh, Bennett doesn’t go out of his way to name the people whose behaviour he calls out in the article. As a reader I would rather know whom not to support going forward, but that is not my decision to make.

 

 

Bennett rightly points out that, overwhelmingly, Toronto sports media involves white men covering Black athletes. Recent research demonstrates how language choices, be they conscious or non, in sports commentary reinforce racist attitudes and stereotypes. Bennett notes that until there is a commitment to breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of marginalizing Black voices by making White voices the status quo, change is unlikely:

 

“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.”

 

As I have written many times, think about what it’s like to be a Black Raptor or a Latino Blue Jay and to face the local media day after day. The Raptors and Jays beats are 100% White. This doesn’t mean Doug Smith, Eric Koreen, and Ryan Wolstat are bad at their jobs or don’t deserve the chance to write about basketball. It also doesn’t mean that Shi Davidi needs to learn Spanish to keep covering Vladdy Jr. It’s a collective failure by a bunch of different organizations, and this is why Bennett’s piece is especially consequential.

 

Sportsnet deserves credit for allowing him to write a piece that points the finger back at his own employer. The other major employers – TSN, The Star, The Sun, The Athletic – should also be scrutinizing their own hiring practices and what they can do to diversify their lineups. One of the issues is that Bennett is currently on an island through no fault of his own:

 

“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.”

 

I imagine it is very frustrating to be in a field where you want to talk about all the same sports topics as everyone else, but keep getting asked to talk about race. In a city as diverse as Toronto, with the large number of jobs in sports media that still exist, the status quo is not acceptable.

 

Low Hanging Fruit

 

  • Stephen Brunt deserves to be counted among the best sports journalists in Canada. Someone of that stature should not be narrating promotional videos for Tim & Sid.

 

 

  • Bob McCown’s soft re-launch continues:

 

 

  • I have no idea what happened to TSN’s Dan O’Toole over the last few days but it was harrowing to witness on social media. I hope his family is doing ok. If you want a rundown, Postmedia has the details. If you want a risky click you can read what Dean Blundell had to say.

 

 

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

COMMENTS

WORDPRESS: 8
  • comment-avatar
    Gary M 1 month ago

    Donnovan Bennett is one of my favourite broadcasters, possibly my favourite. I don’t consider his essay to be as blistering in substance as Mike does. It’s calling for more representation, which is fair. That Fan 590 photo from 2017 was certainly ridiculous. But it’s also saying he has not encountered intentional racism.

    And when you consider Canada is 3% black, reasonable people can differ on what the representation adjustment needs to be. If DB worked in the U.S., the chance that he would have been assigned a story by a black editor by now is pretty high, and it’s not like the U.S. is less racist than we are. But they are 4 times blacker.

    I’m also thinking Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed is probably not a white supremacist.

    Situation is going to change fast regardless. Driven by the consumer marketplace as much as anything else. Tastes are changing sharply.

  • comment-avatar

    Gary M,

    I take issue with almost everything that you wrote.

    “But they are four times blacker.”

    What an awful phrase. Would it not be better to write, “the percentage of the population comprised of black people is four times that of Canada”? If the percentage of Asians was twice as high in the US as it is in Canada, would you say “twice as Asian”? Good grief.

    “But it’s also saying he has not encountered intentional racism.”

    Donnovan Bennett did not imply the sentiment that you expressed above. Bennett recounted two meetings with executives. In the first meeting, one executive informed Bennett that he would not be on the air again. In the second meeting, Bennett interpreted an offer to go to another station as an invitation to leave. According to Bennett, “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.”

    Although Bennett noted examples of “accidental racism,” he stated that “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.”

    Bennett did not say that he had not encountered intentional racism; Bennett opined that he was not sure.

    “I’m also thinking Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed is probably not a white supremacist.”

    I do not see the relevance of the statement above. First, Nadir Mohamed has not been Rogers CEO since December 2013. For the record, I have a high level of confidence that Nadir Mohamed is not a person who espouses the views of white supremacists. Also, I highly doubt that Mohamed was involved in hiring decisions at the level of broadcasters at the pay grade of Bennett and others. Furthermore, I don’t think your citation of Mohamed supports your case at all. Mohamed’s tenure as Rogers CEO was from March 2009 to December 2013. Bennett’s Gemini nomination came in August 2009, and he said that the meeting with the two executives occurred after he was a nominee. The meeting, after which Bennett formed the conclusion “I do know they certainly weren’t anti-racist,” likely occurred Mohamed’s tenure. Your reference to Mohamed only weakens your position.

  • comment-avatar

    The second last sentence should read ” The meeting, after which Bennett formed the conclusion “I do know they certainly weren’t anti-racist,” likely occurred during Mohamed’s tenure.”

  • comment-avatar

    I imagine that Canadian sports media’s lack of diversity isn’t helped by the fact that hockey is so heavily covered here, which has an overwhelmingly non diverse player base. I think it’s important for hockey to diversify itself, and for the hockey media to be more diverse in its hiring. Take TSN Radio – they make three shows and all of them are: white host paired with white hockey player (or two). Not to say that shouldn’t be a commonly used formula for a Canadian city, but at least be better about providing SOME content that feels a little different or provides a different point of view.

    I think about the crazy crowds outside Raptors games during last year’s playoff run. Who’s making sports content in Canada that appeals to that young, diverse crowd? Not TSN or Sportsnet as far as I can tell.

    In terms of sports radio, both lineups are FAR from perfect, so it’s not like there’s not room for change there. Personally, I thought the Donovan Bennet/Richard Deitsch week on Writer’s Bloc had a lot of potential. Would be happy to see that turn into something.

  • comment-avatar

    I agree with Daniel on all points.

    But as for the article by Mike, I just don’t think we can call Brunt a journalist anymore. It’s been a long time since he produced anything journalistic. Nothing but in-house promotional puff pieces for years.

  • comment-avatar

    On another topic, I’m listening to Bob’s podcast okay you got 5 minutes. He’s got Shannon and morosi on. It’s actually pretty good. No BS with Shannon just straight to the questions and answers. This makes me a bit hopeful.

  • comment-avatar

    No longer 5 minutes.

    Like last Friday 30 plus and now a new format….Friday Roundtables only with the longer format.

  • comment-avatar

    Not just Fridays, actually.

    A new 30 minutes plus episode with Brian Cooper.