Growing up, I hated Duke basketball. Although I couldn’t express it as masterfully as ESPN journalist Bomani Jones’ takedown of the program, at 8 years old I knew the program didn’t represent me — not like the Fab Five. As an adult, I’ve learned that these programs don’t represent Black people at all — only the money they generate from their labor, but I digress.
JJ Redick was all a part of that Duke Blue Devils hate as a member of the team, and a very good member might I add, which fueled the hatred even more. However, his recent comments are proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover, per se. On the popular ESPN show “First Take”, podcaster and sports analyst Redick confronted sports talk radio host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo for telling Draymond Green to “shut up and play.”
Russo’s conversation was racially coded, yet he attempted to qualify his comments by saying they weren’t racist. Meanwhile, ESPN sports TV and radio personality Stephen A. Smith played the role as the Black man to vouch for the white man who says something racist — and follows up that qualifier about how he liked Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier growing up, which screams, “I like Black players, the ones that don’t make me uncomfortable… here are two examples.”
Redick’s takedown was refreshing specifically because the racist undertones posited by Russo are often heard throughout sports commentary, whether on the radio, podcast, or TV. I would argue that the lack of representation in sports media has a lot, if not everything, to do with it.
Consider that for the most part, most of the Black people talking sports on TV or on the radio are former athletes. Most of the white people talking sports are usually journalists. Redick is one of the exceptions to this rule.
But what if Stephen A. Smith had responded to Chris Russo the way Redick did? Not that Smith would, but if he did, would it be received with the same level of adulation as Redick received? I doubt it. My reasoning: Stephen A. Smith isn’t the highest paid commentator on ESPN because he confronts systemic racism and the racist ideas born from it. It can be argued that he’s paid to lean into racial stereotypes about Black people, but I digress.
If Black people speaking truth to power on the topic of race carried a level of adulation with it, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith would still be on ESPN, Bomani Jones would have more than just a podcast, and Sage Steele wouldn’t be suing ESPN for not allowing her to be the antithesis of who she believes Jemele Hill is.
But what about the broader sports metaverse? Does it go over better when white people in sports media check their own use of racially coded language? Do we (Black people) like it better when white people check their own versus us having to always do it, let alone wrestle within ourselves as to whether doing so may cost us our livelihoods?
But an even bigger truth is that racially codified language in sports media will continue. While representation is critical, it’s no guarantee that Black folks will dictate the terms of the language used for us, or that we won’t (ourselves) lean in to such language.
Because this is a systemic problem requiring an up-ending of the system. JJ Redick damn sure ain’t doing that.
Image: Stephen A. Smith, Molly Qerim, Chris Russo and JJ Redick discuss Russo telling Draymond Green to “shut up and play” on ESPN’s “First Take”. (Screenshot from video posted May 5, 2022 on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ft2SLP4du58).
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. He is the author of the upcoming book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, with an anticipated release date of February 2023. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ .