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.
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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.)
Thompson says he detected some resentment from co-workers at his rapid ascent, but he believes that it quickly dissipated as he proved he could handle the job. Outside of his own newsroom, however, he's found that it helps to have developed a thick skin.
He cites another episode, this one in Kansas City, where he and several other reporters were waiting outside a locker room for player interviews. With a press credential dangling from his belt, Thompson was again singled out, this time by a security guard, and asked for identification. This time another writer intervened, berating the guard and letting him know that Thompson had every right to be where he was. That writer was Thompson's prime competitor, the Chronicle's John McClain.
McClain will enter his 17th year as the Chronicle's Oilers beat writer next season, and his connections within the organization and contacts around the NFL give him a competitive edge that makes newcomer Thompson's job more difficult and perhaps less envious than it would seem.
Cooper says he's proud of Thompson's accomplishments, but points out that other black sportswriters in Houston weren't afforded the same opportunities early in their careers.
"Take nothing away from him, his potential is unlimited," Cooper says of the Post writer. "But W.H. Stickney was qualified to do what he's doing 20 years ago."
Stickney, a lanky Prairie View A&M product known for his trademark cowboy hat, has been at the Chronicle for more than 20 years, having covered TSU and handled copy desk duties for more than a decade before covering boxing and the Rice University beat. He now helps cover the NFL and NBA. He and running columnist Gwen Lewis are the lone blacks among the nearly 40-member Chronicle sports staff.
Dan Cunningham, the Chronicle's executive sports editor, says newspapers are to blame for the lack of black sports scribes through their past failures to actively recruit and nurture young African-American talent. Recent efforts to improve the picture haven't been helped by the fact that Houston is a picture of stability for established sportswriters, making vacancies rare. Cunningham has hired just two writers in the last four years.
But Cunningham and Mann say their efforts to correct past inequities are not solely aimed at slotting blacks and other minorities in the writing end of their operations.
"We're training people younger for inside things like copy editing where you can advance into management," says Cunningham, who was chairman of the minority committee last year for the Associated Press Sports Editors. "We want to get minorities and women more familiar with the inside operation, putting the section together and deciding where things will run and what will go on the front page of the section. The money is equal to or better than that of the writers." (The Sports Institute's Thomas estimates there are about 300 African-Americans nationwide in all ends of sports journalism, including copy editing and broadcasting.)
Despite the condescending wonder his typing skills invoked in his white editors at the Post a quarter-century ago, Ralph Cooper has persevered and managed to carve out a long-lasting niche on the local sports scene, and he's done it on his own terms. In addition to the daily talk show on KCOH/1430 AM he's hosted since 1977 and the column he writes for the weekly Houston Defender, his regular appearances on Channel 13's Tell It Like It Is chat-show have recently exposed him to a wider audience.
"I think we'll have to roll up our sleeves and work harder," Cooper says. "Many blacks want to work at predominantly white places. But sitting back and being peeved at white people is a waste of time.
"Why not try it in your own way? I always wanted to do a sports program and I am. There are more advantages now than 20 years ago .... Back then, there were no blacks on TV and hardly any writing. Many of our young people don't know enough about their own history, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, Joe Louis ...."
"I'd be lying if I told you I was going to do this forever," he says. "I'm always looking to improve my situation. Eventually I'd love to get into the management side. And that doesn't mean just sports. I feel like a pioneer. I'm usually the first or the youngest. In some ways it feels good and in some ways it feels bad. And that's sad.
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