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".