An analysis of 200 televised pro baseball games reveals broadcasters' hidden biases.
Sports broadcasting history is littered with stories of announcers making offensive remarks about a player's race. To name a few:
- 1983: Howard Cosell's description of a catch by black Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett: "That little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?" Cosell insisted there was no racial aspect to the comment, and that he referred to his own white grandson in the same way. Cosell had actually used the term to describe other players—white and non-white alike—prior to the Garrett incident.
- 1988: Football commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, on black athletes: "This goes back to the Civil War...the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman...so that he could have a big black kid." Snyder was fired for his comments.
- 2003: Rush Limbaugh, then in the booth for Monday Night Countdown, on Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." Limbaugh was gone from the show soon after.
- 2005: San Francisco sports radio host Larry Krueger, in regards to the Giants: "Brain dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly." The quote would eventually cost him his job.
The aforementioned instances—possibly excluding Cosell's—have an obvious racial tint. What is more difficult to prove is the existence of subconscious racial bias: a white man crossing the street as a black man approaches, for example. The white man may not even realize he is acting in a way that assumes the approaching stranger means to do them harm, but is acting on a racial bias nonetheless. Are sports announcers guilty of this sort of bias, and are viewers unknowingly absorbing them?
To answer this question we dispatched a group of ten people to combine to watch every single television broadcast of a Major League Baseball game for a week last season—95 games total, and nearly 200 separate broadcasts, since nearly every team fields its own broadcast for every game. We analyzed these games for the words announcers used to describe players, with the goal of finding out whether broadcasters spoke about white players and players of color differently.
Our analysis shows that while black players are not discriminated against, foreign-born players—of which the vast majority are Latino—find themselves at a disadvantage.
"Last season, I led this team in ninth-inning doubles in the month of August!"
–Tom Selleck as Jack Elliot, in the 1992 movie Mr. Baseball
Virtually everything a baseball player can do on the field has a corresponding metric, no matter how completely meaningless (ninth-inning doubles in the month of August), misleading (pitcher wins), or downright silly (fielding percentage). Announcers, however, still find themselves commenting on things that are inherently immeasurable. These "intangibles" nonetheless comprise a significant portion of announcer language.
While baseball discussions often reference countable statistics such as home runs, batting average, and strikeouts, they also reference intangible characteristics that cannot be listed on the back of a baseball card. Descriptors such as "scrappy," "hustling," or "plays the game the right way" are bandied about despite the fact there's no way of actually measuring these qualities.
As a general rule, these descriptors tend to fall into three categories: performance-based, effort-based, and character-based.
Performance-based descriptions often take the form of contrasting equivalents—praising a pitcher for being "a pitcher, not a thrower." or being "not just an athlete, but a baseball player."
Effort-based descriptions rely on the old standards of "grit," "hustle," "scrap" and other such synonyms that seem to rely on how much dirt a ballplayer gets on his uniform over the course of a game.
Character-based descriptions ignore the on-field product and instead describe the subject as a person. Announcers frequently like to call ballplayers "professionals" as a compliment. This category also includes praising players for "respecting the game" and being "old school."
Then there are the descriptors that belie categorization: Vin Scully of the Dodgers likes to use the term "Big Butter and Egg Man." George Grande of the Reds has used "Colorado Antelope." Most, however, fall into one of the previous three categories.
From August 11 to 17, 2011, we watched and coded every single television broadcast of Major League Baseball as data gatherers listened for such intangible code words. Coders were compensated thanks to funding gathered via Kickstarter last fall.
Why August? In theory, due to how long the baseball season is, selecting any one-week window should be representative of any other one-week window. August, however, is unique:
- The make-up of rosters has largely stabilized: players who left spring training with their teams but failed to impress are in the minor leagues, and will not be called up until rosters expand in September.
- The trading deadline has passed, further lending stability to rosters.
- Most teams are well aware of their chances to make the postseason, a factor that may play into how announcers describe the on-field product.
- This late in the season many players' statistics (most of which are ratio-based rather than count-based) have normalized, so that very little is left to the announcer's imagination when measuring a player's on-field contributions.
Our primary purpose is to determine if there are significant links between player race and how announcers describe these players. However, one cannot simply look at announcer language to determine the presence of racial linkages; several factors besides player race must be accounted for to make sure they're not driving announcer comments. Specifically:
- Race of Announcer (white or non-white)
- Player "Performance" (measured by offense and defense)
- How Close the Game Was
- How Close/How Far a Team is from a Postseason Berth
- Player Place of Birth
- Player Height (shorter players seem more likely to be praised for intangibles)
- Special Events: Two rather extraordinary events occurred during data collection and need to be accounted for. One event was Jim Thome hitting his 600th home run, a milestone only 7 others have reached in their careers. Announcers made mention of this event and praised Thome's character.
Similarly, then-Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano was ejected from a game for throwing at Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. In the locker room after the game, Zambrano said he was retiring from baseball, a claim which he later retracted (he has since been traded to the Miami Marlins). In any event, the incident and Zambrano's subsequent suspension were sufficient material for announcers to remark on Zambrano's lack of character.
While this is a scientific analysis, some of the categorization is an art rather than a science. Lumping each descriptor into the general category of "performance, effort, or character" is a task that could be reasonably interpreted in different ways by different people.
In the "performance-based" category, the most popular terms were things like "athlete," "talented," "clutch," and "plays the game the right way." Some terms were context-specific: calling a player a "baseball player" is not an evaluation unless in the larger frame of "so-and-so is not merely an athlete, but a baseball player." All of these are completely meaningless terms, of course: by definition, all baseball players that manage to make it to MLB are both talented and athletic. No player runs clockwise around the basepaths; all players play the game the right way. In the "effort-based" category, the most popular terms featured "hustle," "scrappy," "effort," "hard working," and "lazy".
The "character-based" category was all over the map; this area is where the most discretion was needed. On the whole, however, several themes emerged: "patience," "leadership," "class," "intelligence," and "professional."
This allows for several analyses depending on how one slices and dices the data: whether the use of positive/negative terms is linked to race, and whether specific descriptors are linked to race.
Before delving into the full analysis, looking at which players are most commonly addressed is interesting. The most-commented players, in hindsight, are largely predictable:
Even before the 2012 incidents, Zambrano and Thome had cultivated their respective reputations.
Altuve, a 2012 All-Star, is the shortest man in MLB. Many of the comments about Altuve were in seeming awe of his ability not to be stepped on by normal-size players, much less to play professional baseball competitively.
Fielder and Pujols, two of the game's premier players, were in the final year of their contracts with their respective teams. Given how often home-team announcers praise their local nine, one wonders if this particular praise was attempting to prime listeners for impending free agency.
Nyjer Morgan is frequently cited for his personality—or more accurately, the personality of "Tony Plush," Morgan's suave and gentlemanly alter ego. It is a reputation Morgan clearly goes out of his way to cultivate.
The list of most-praised players is very similar to the most-mentioned players. By and large in the data, announcers were quick to praise and more sparing in their criticism. The absence of Pujols—the face of the Cardinals throughout the 2000s—on this list speaks to the possibility that Cardinals announcers were perhaps priming listeners to accept the possibility of his leaving for greener pastures via free agency.
Whereas the most praised Top-10 was more similar to MLB's demographics (62 percent white, 27 percent Latino, 9 percent Black, 2 percent Asian)—and perhaps even over-represented black players, the Top-10 criticized list is Latino-heavy. Only Brandon Belt and Mat Latos are white. Pablo Sandoval, the Giants' All-Star third baseman, has battled a weight problem throughout his young career—a problem that his nickname, "Kung-Fu Panda" emphasizes. The only black player, Upton, was nearly moved at July's trading deadline due to conflicts with senior management.
Most of the commonly-used terms are intended to be proxies for the effort the player gives on the field. The presence of "clutch," describing the ability to succeed in the most crucial situations, is notable: there's no such thing as "clutch" statistically.
The full analysis yields the most interesting results.
Results: Positive/Negative Terms and Race
The analysis reveals that foreign-born players—the vast majority of whom are Latino—are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to receiving praise for intangibles. Latino players are almost 13 percent less likely to be praised for intangibles than their white counterparts. Announcers are nearly 14 percent more likely to praise a US/Canadian-born player for intangibles than they are their international counterparts. Unfortunately, data is inconclusive as to whether or not American-born Latino players such as the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez are also at a disadvantage, or whether the bias only applies to foreign-born Latinos. Black players—a population in decline in MLB—are not at any particular disadvantage. There are not enough Asian players in MLB to draw any meaningful conclusions.
A difference of 13 to 14 percent may not seem very large, but over the course of a 162-game season, a player is exposed to over 300 broadcasts—nearly every MLB team has its own affiliate with its own announcing crew that covers its games. Add in the fact that in any given broadcast, announcers are likely to use from between 20 and 40 intangibles, and the number of intangibles that could involve the player leaps nearly into the thousands. This bias over the course of the season can help paint a picture of a player using terms that have no grounding in measurable reality.
Knowing that announcers treat players differently based on their nationality or Latino status is less interesting than knowing how they treat players differently. Here, the distinctions become more obvious.
While there is no difference between race or nationality when it comes to performance-based descriptions, effort-based and character-based descriptions make a big difference. Players born in the US or Canada are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their effort. White players are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their character.
Indeed, it is not so much that announcers are unwilling to praise non-white players, but the terminology they use in so doing falls into a set of pre-defined "code words." For example, if a player is described as being a "guy next door," or "regular guy" there is a greater than 80 percent chance that player is white. If a player is described as "impatient" or "over-aggressive," there is a greater than 50 percent chance that player is not white. This echoes the findings of similar research in the field of print sports journalism.
Setting aside the questions of race and/or nationality, some other factors affect how announcers talk about players. Take very short players: For each inch a player grows above 5'6", announcers are 2 percent less likely to praise him with intangibles. By the time you reach Jon Rauch (6'10") stature, you had best be a good pitcher on merit; he has no citable intangibles.
What was viewed as a racial construct at the outset of this project may well be a nationalism construct: announcers are biased against foreign players, and most of these foreign players are Latino.
In December, Albert Pujols, likely the best player in baseball over the last decade, signed an enormous contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: 10 years, $240 million. The Dominican-born Pujols was raised in Missouri, is an American citizen, holds a US passport, and has lived in the US for decades. This did not stop rumors from surfacing during his free agency that his birth certificate was a fraud and that any long-term investments in him should be colored by his questionable age—most baseball players see significant declines in performance as they reach their late-30s. Per CBS's Jon Heyman (who was with Sports Illustrated at the time):
What we have here is "baseball birther-ism." Certainly, there have been instances in recent years of Latino players lying about their age (Miguel Tejada) or even their identities (Fausto Carmona actually being Roberto Hernandez, Leo Nunez actually being Juan Oviedo), but none of those players are American citizens, and none of them have resided in the US as long as Pujols. Presumably, Pujols went through far more stringent tests of his documentation when applying for citizenship. Heyman's birth-certificate quip is unwarranted for Pujols, and would be completely laughable if suggested for Joey Votto, the Cincinnati Reds' Canadian All-Star first baseman who signed a $200 million deal of his own this season. Heyman's skepticism only applies to Latino players, and is entirely inappropriate in the case of Pujols. Presumably Heyman—who has a history of this sort of thing—did not intend to make an offensive remark, but the tweet is informed by bias.
It's worth taking a minute to think about what is said in the broadcast booth, and by sports journalists and fans more broadly. While there is much to be said for the sentiment that "the game isn't played on spreadsheets," an overreliance on intangible descriptors can be dangerous. Given the millions of baseball fans and the billions of dollars invested in MLB, the bias involved in intangibles is no small matter. While giving up on intangibles would rob fans of a rich variety of descriptors that enhance the game, broadcasters should employ more caution when using them.