ESPN: Did ESPN Exploit Martin Luther King and the African-American Athlete?

Dexter RogersCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2011

ESPN hosted a round table discussion in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia yesterday.  The discussion focused on the African-American athlete and the legacy of Martin Luther King. 

Movie director Spike Lee, ESPN journalist Mike Wilbon and Jalen Rose were on hand.  Former Miami Hurricane football coach Randy Shannon and WNBA basketball player Marion Jones were present. 

Also, attending were the Chairman of The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports Dr. Richard Lapchick and Kentucky Wildcat basketball coach John Calipari.

There were several telling moments which transpired during the 2-hour long discussion.  Wilbon was surprisingly candid when talking about the impact of race in sports.  Wilbon stated, “Race plays a factor in everything.”

Dr. Richard Laphick suggested despite the advances we still have a ways to go.  Lapchick stated the landscape of the media needs to change which will better diversify coverage.  He noted 94 and 88 percent of the Sports Editors and Columnists were white.  Obviously more parity is needed in the media.

Spike Lee made excellent points regarding capitalism and the lack of an African-American presence in the media.

Despite the telling remarks overall the evening lacked substance and direction.  King’s message was about societal inclusion and change: What exactly was ESPN’s message with this panel discussion?

Certainly it wasn’t about continuing the legacy of King because there was no message on how to keep his dream alive moving forward.

The panel should have focused on what needs to be done in order to covert King’s dream of being judged by the content of one’s character on a consistent basis.

In my opinion ESPN utilizing their vast sports platform was like a two-edged sword: They are bringing well-deserved to King’s legacy but ESPN provided nothing in the way of rectifying the ills that still exist in society and sports.

Wilbon stated race plays a factor in everything.  The atmosphere was conducive to state the latter because it was King’s day but what about the rest of the year?

How often has Wilbon utilized his platform to speak out King’s holiday celebration?  

Granted, ESPN has provided African-Americans more opportunities than most mainstream newspapers and magazines.  Sites like Yahoo Sports, Sporting News, Fanhouse, and have very few African-American journalists compared to ESPN.   

Based on studies ESPN put forth during last nights program suggests networks are guilty of providing inequitable coverage between African-American and white athletes.  The studies showed whites athletes are covered more favorably in the media than African-Americans.

ESPN has certainly benefited from the African-American athlete.  They’ve benefited from providing opportunities of legitimate employment yet they’ve simultaneously have taken advantage of African-Americans to some degree.

ESPN were the ring-leaders in breaking the Michael Vick case two years ago.  The coverage was so persistent one would have thought Vick was the second coming of Charles Manson.

I remember when Plaxico Burress was handcuffed walking from the Manhattan court room after he was sentenced to two-years in prison on a weapons charge.  ESPN repeatedly showed Burress walking to an awaiting car while handcuffed to cement the negative image in our minds.

Then there’s Ben Roethsliberger.  ESPN initially failed to promptly report on Roethlisberger’s sexual assault case in 2008.  We still hear nothing of it today.  Last spring Roethlisberger was accused again of sexually assaulting a 20-year old college co-ed in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Where’s the coverage ESPN?

In my opinion Roethlisberger was protected by ESPN and the rest of the sports media.  Even though Roethlisberger was not charged some believe he received a pass and should have stood trial.  I am one of those who believe the latter.

Listen to what I had to say on CNN in late 2010.

ESPN’s poll even showcased how Roethlisberger was protected far more than the likes of Barry Bonds, Michael Vick and LeBron James.

Unlike Tiger Woods, Roethlisberger was not forced to give a lengthy speech and apologize for his actions.  Big Ben was in the media protection program and kept out of harms way.

Woods was hammered in the media even though he was not charged with a crime.  He was an unfaithful husband just like Brett Favre.  Favre—another golden boy like Roethlisberger—has gotten has received a pass as well.  

Outside the Lines aired a program in celebration of Veterans Day.  It focused on Major League Baseball and those who served during World War II.  Surprisingly this particular program did not feature or show one African-American on the show.

Jackie Robinson served his country during World War II.  Robinson also broke the color barrier in 1947: How can ESPN have a program about World War II and Americas’ Favorite Pastime and not mention Robinson?

I wrote commentary title ESPN, Veterans Day and the African-American Experience.  I let me my feelings be know regarding the omission of African-Americans on that particular program.

An ESPN Senior Publicist read the commentary.  They responded with the following statement: “First, I wanted to say thank you for tuning into ESPN’s weeklong salute to veterans last week. I know that your story was centered around the specific Outside the Lines segment, but I wanted to point out that we did include people of all ethnic backgrounds and genders throughout the week, including several African Americans.

The Publicist continued, “We will continue to incorporate diversity in our Veterans Week coverage in the future as we strive to do each and every day. Again, thank you for tuning in.”

Last year ESPN’s Mike Greenberg of Mike and Mike in the Morning referred to MKL on his birthday as Martin Luther “Coon” King Jr.  Some chalk it up to a slip of the tongue while some thought he meant it.

I wrote to ESPN Obudsman Dan Ohlmeyer.  I expressed my concern about Greenberg’s comments because I felt the situation should have been addressed.

I was not dignified with a response.

The apparent verbal slip-up was a big enough deal where Greenburg issued the following: “I just came home from the Knicks game and found out about the mess that was created by my garbling a sentence on our show this morning; I apologize for not addressing it sooner.  And I'm sorry that my talking too fast - and slurring my words - might have given people who don't know our show the wrong impression about us, and about me."

Greenberg continued, "I feel horrible about that, because nothing could be further away from who I am and what our show is about. I would never say anything like that, not in public, or in private, or in the silence of my own mind, and neither would anyone associated with our show, and I'm very sorry that my stumble this morning gave so many people the opposite impression.”

Since Greenberg made his comment on the air he should have apologized on air.

It is interesting how ESPN can sweep Greenberg’s blunder under the rug yet a year later hold a celebration in King’s honor.

While ESPN’s overall actions are noble regarding MLK’s holiday I simultaneously feel the network has exploited his legacy the same way Glenn Beck did this past summer. 

Beck held his farce on Washington upon the hollowed ground where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  Beck claimed he wanted to “restore America” back to the days of old. 

Then ESPN holds their discussion at Ebenezer Baptist Church to talk about the legacy of King and the African-American athlete

Let’s be clear, I am not bashing ESPN.  I watch ESPN daily and I actually love the network.  But I cannot allow my subjectivity as a fan to cloud what I see professionally.

In my opinion once the dust settles in the coming days this will mark an opportunity for ESPN to cleverly mask the inequitable coverage it provides African-American athletes.

Don’t like what I have to say?

How about asking the athletes?


Athletes, particularly the African-Americans, have very little to say beyond the mundane.

Today there are no more Muhammad Ali’s, Jim Brown’s, Curt Flood’s, or Bill Russell’s to speak out.  Today we have Kobe Bryant, Tiger Wood, and LeBron James: In terms of activism the latter athletes are simply non-existent.  They remain silent on controversial issues where their activism can stimulate change.

What’s the use of celebrating King’s legacy when most African-Americans with platforms are afraid to carry the movement forward?

Had it not been for the likes of MLK these athletes would not have the opportunities they presently have. 

King died at age 39.  He was assassinated for attempting to make a difference in the lives of others: How can the African-American athlete in good conscious remain silent when noise is still needed?

Though I did not thoroughly embrace King’s method of bringing about change I totally respect what he stood for.  Any man who is willing to die for what he believes in is to be commended. 

Yesterday ESPN gave the impression of being at the forefront for change on King’s holiday.  To certain degree that is true but once the euphoria subsides, the network will commence providing inequitable coverage of the African-American athletes like Michael Vick and protect whites like Ben Roethlisberger.

King had a dream that one day everyone would be judged based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It seems ESPN—along with other outlets—provides coverage at times that has been predicated more on color rather than character and content.

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    Iconic Sports Illustrated Writer Deford Dies at Age 78

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    Iconic Sports Illustrated Writer Deford Dies at Age 78

    Tyler Conway
    via Bleacher Report