Before last week's NFL draft, Deadspin's Reuben Fischer-Baum, Aaron Gordon and Billy Haisley compiled a fascinating tool. The trio pulled nearly 300,000 words from NFL draft scouting reports across the internet, and with that database, they created a program that allows the user to find how often specific words were used to describe white and black NFL prospects. The results, for those who are familiar with the language of sports media, were not surprising. A stark example:
Draft scouting reports tend to be some of the most voiceless writing on the web. The purpose of these reports is to write from an objective position and inform the reader of the players' strengths and weaknesses. No more, no less. There is no editorializing, and although opinion is impossible to avoid, any opinions presented are ostensibly those of a highly trained scout.
But the impersonal voice and objectivity are impossible goals. Writers may manage to remove their own voices from scouting reports, or they may manage to eliminate their personal biases. Still, as the Deadspin tool shows through any number of searches, the words that reach the page still carry an obvious racial bias. To implicate the authors of these draft reports as malevolent calculated racists would be silly. As somebody who used to write similar reports at RotoWire.com and CBSSports.com, I know there simply isn't that much effort put into this kind of writing.
Rather, this kind of writing reflects the ingrained assumptions of the sporting world. When a writer makes a conscious effort to eliminate their personal voice or their personal bias -- something also seen in many mainstream news reports, particularly from sources like the Associated Press -- it is replaced by what the writer sees as the voice of the consensus. And in the case of draft scouting reports, that means the consensus of the scouting world.
Kevin Kerrane's book Dollar Sign on the Muscle, recently re-published by Baseball Prospectus, exposes the racism of baseball's scouting establishment.
One of the most interesting figures Kerrane interviewed was Jim McLaughlin, a former scouting director for the Reds and Orioles. McLaughlin was retired by the time Kerrane got to him, and unlike most of the "baseball men" -- a term McLaughlin hated -- McLaughlin had major issues with the ways most scouts approached their jobs. McLaughlin recognized perfect objectivity was unattainable, but he also saw the racism inherent in the way many scouts approached scouting black talent:
I used to hear scouts talk about 'the good face'?as if they could tell about a kid's makeup just by looking at him, instead of taking the trouble to get to know him, or studying the results of a psychological test. I used to hear those 'good face' stories and they'd drive me up the wall. Scouts can be so damn unscientific! At one time it was the conventional wisdom that a black kid couldn't become a successful big-league pitcher, because he wouldn't have any guts when he walked out to the mound, because he'd be only sixty feet, six inches from home plate. There was no basis for that. It was just prejudice?or fantasy, or myth, whatever you want to call it. I was the scouting director and I had to listen to this bullshit.
According to USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale, writing on this year's Jackie Robinson Day, there were only 12 African-American pitchers on rosters. There was not a single African-American catcher. As Stewart Prest detailed at The Society Pages, many of the words featuring a heavy disparity between white and black prospects in the Deadspin database were position-based. Quarterback-related words (delivery, accuracy, etc.) showed up much more often for white players, while words like "safety" and "cornerback" showed up more often for black players. While some considered this to be proof that the reports weren't racist and were merely a product of the players' positions, the quote McLaughlin provides instead suggests the racism of scouts is a powerful force in deciding which position players end up playing.
Dave Ritterpusch, a scout who learned the trade under McLaughlin but left the game in 1976 to re-enlist in the army, provides an example of how these biases show up on scouting reports. Ritterpusch was in the Orioles' organization when Eddie Murray was a top amateur prospect. Kerrane writes:
"All the scouting reports I'd seen on Murray," Ritterpusch said, "stereotyped him as a big, lazy power hitter. I think most scouts, when they judge makeup, tend to value kids who remind them of themselves when they were players?and that's why you run into problems when white scouts look at black prospects. Here was Eddie Murray, younger than most of his classmates, and extremely composed, cool, to the point that the scouts called him 'lackadaisical.' But then I read his motivational profile, which said his drive was well above professional average, and his emotional control was off the charts. And it hit me that the emotional control was really masking the drive, and that the scouts who talked about his laziness must have an unconscious ethnic bias."
Moose Johnson, a Phillies scout, on outfielder Lemmie Miller: "He has a black man's swing."
Kerrane refers to Charles Hudson, a black pitcher the Phillies drafted out of Prairie View A&M, as one of scout Tony Roig's "'loosy-goosy' black players."
Another scout, Joe Reilly, recalled seeing a remarkable 14-year-old prospect in the early 1970s. "Well, he ran pretty good, not great, but you figure four years from now he's gonna be 18 years old, he's gonna be able to run a little bit -- black kid, right?" The prospect was Harold Baines, who stole 34 bases and was caught 34 times in his 22-year career.
Kerrane writes about watching a number of scouts observe Shawon Dunston, who would be the number one overall draft pick in 1982, at a high school game. Kerrane writes, "The scouts had to go beyond the numbers to do justice to his body. They said it was live, springy, wound tight, that it had the loose-limbed grace typical of so many good black athletes, and that it was obviously going to fill out for even greater strength." Dunston averaged 13 home runs per 162 games over an 18-year career.
These scouts repeatedly show racial prejudice in their descriptions of the players they watch. It was deeply ingrained in the culture, and for men who generally spent the entirety of their adult lives within major league organizations, there were few chances to learn any other way of thinking. This was particularly apparent in the case of Al Campanis, the Dodgers GM who didn't confront his prejudices until they were exposed on national television. As sports sociologist Harry Edwards said after talking and working with Campanis, it was about more than personal bigotry. "At another level," Edwards said, "it was a form of discourse he was embedded in."
As the Deadspin experiment shows, that discourse is still alive and well. A large proportion of scouts have historically been convinced in an essential difference between white players and black players. The language those in sports, whether as scouts or as media, may be more subtle in today's world. But in a world where scouts and coaches still hesitate to trust black players at "heady" positions like quarterback, pitcher or catcher, and in a world where we still associate athleticism with the black body, there can be no doubt that the pseudo-scientific racism of the scouting world has become deeply embedded into our sporting culture.
Like the scouts, the writers who filled the Deadspin database have spent their lives embedded in a sporting culture rife with assumptions about the brains and bodies of black and white players. When these writers attempt to present objectivity, the racism of the culture comes out in full force. Let it serve as yet another reminder: the language we use is critical. If we care about reversing these trends, those who wield the language must pay attention not just to what they think their words mean, but how these words have been used historically as well.