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The Houston Post's Carlton Thompson was eating with three other journalists in the dining room of the Astrodome press box last year when an usher made his way to their table. He wanted to see some identification -- but only from Thompson.
Thompson dutifully proffered his press credentials while trying to tamp down his anger at being singled out from the dozens of people in the room. Most of them, like Thompson, were there to report on the Houston Oilers. But Thompson did stand out. He's black, and that makes him a rarity in the almost lily-white world of sportswriting.
"I really started to curse the guy out, but I kept my composure," recalls Thompson. "It's happened more than once. That incident could've been because of my age, though, you never know."
That indeed may have been the case. Thompson is only 24 -- an age when most fledgling sportswriters are lucky to be assigned to cover high school football games -- and already he's the chief writer reporting on a professional football team (the Oilers still qualify) for a big-city daily newspaper.
But he's got good reason to wonder.
While black athletes dominate professional leagues like the NBA and NFL, the number of black men and women who report on them for big media outlets is minuscule. Thompson was one of just 11 blacks among the 251 print reporters who regularly covered an NFL team last season, and the only one in Texas, according to Ron Thomas, co-director of the Sports Institute, a San Francisco firm specializing in race and media issues in sports. Sixty-eight percent of the NFL's players during that season were black.
The figures are only slightly better for the scribes of the NBA, a league in which more than three-quarters of the current players are black. Of the 186 reporters who covered the NBA during the 1993-94 season, just 22 were African-American. In baseball, where blacks account for 18 percent of the major-league rosters, only one of the 268 reporters who covered a pro team was black. Three other black reporters cover sports on a national basis. And there are only seven full-time black sports columnists on the nation's 1,600 daily newspapers.
"It used to be hard for me to believe," Thompson says of the sea of white faces he encounters in press boxes across the country. "But I realize that it's just representative of society. I don't think there's much difference between society and any professional workplace."
Blacks aren't in high management positions in sports journalism, either: there are five black sports editors on daily newspapers, and only one, Garry Howard of the Milwaukee Journal, runs a sports section in a town with a professional franchise or a market of 200,000 or more.
On the electronic side, 12 of the 115 NBA radio/TV announcers are black. All are former pro players.
Ralph Cooper, a staple of Houston sports broadcasting, recalls that when he covered Texas Southern University events as a stringer for the Post in the late '60s "some individuals there seemed amazed that I could type."
"There have been some improvements," says Cooper, "because I didn't know any blacks who had beats (covered a team regularly) back then."
These days white fans are more than willing to shell out for expensive tickets or spend long hours in front of the tube to watch black athletes, but apparently still can do without a black perspective on the games and the people who play them.
Newsroom managers are well aware of the disparities.
"In sports journalism, I'm certain it would be refreshing to minority athletes to be surrounded not by 19 white males, two black males and a female in a locker room asking the same questions over and over," says Post sports editor Dinn Mann. "I think we're doing a disservice to the readers with that kind of pack journalism.
"Not to say that a white male can't relate to minority athletes. But it says that something is out of balance."
Cooper believes that, to a degree, there is still "a good ol' boy network" in sports journalism that is difficult for African-Americans to enter. "But it would be hard to prove that," he adds. "Some of the young people are talented, but there's more to it than being talented."
Thompson has talent, but he'd be the first to acknowledge that luck and timing also figured in his success. Just three years ago the Hitchcock native was an intern at the Post, taking football scores on the night desk while finishing up requirements for his double-major in speech and mass media at Houston Baptist University. After Thompson graduated, Ivy McLemore, then the paper's sports editor, asked him to stay on as an editorial assistant. Less than two years later, opportunity knocked when the Post reporter assigned to the Oilers departed, and Thompson was offered the position two weeks before training camp opened for the '94 season.
"They asked me," Thompson says, "and of course I wanted to do it. It's the most competitive thing I've ever done."
(Thompson's one black sportswriting colleague at the Post, Darrell Ardison, started out in the paper's engraving department in 1978 and helped out on Friday nights with high school football. He became a full-time writer in 1987 and now is the paper's TSU beat writer and handles some backup coverage of the Rockets.)