Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How Once-Proud Sports Illustrated Stooped to Race Baiting for Attention

Race relations is a serious conversation that we must have in this country.

Race baiting is a serious problem that we must stop in this country.

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It saddens me beyond belief to lump the once-venerable Sports Illustrated with the Internet trolls of the world. But, here we are.

It didn’t need to be this way.

Over the summer, there were three singular athletes dominating headlines in their pursuit of feats thought impossible. Jordan Spieth won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, which had not been completed in men’s golf in a century. Serena Williams won the first three legs of the Grand Slam, which had not been completed in women’s tennis in 27 years. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, which had not been completed in horse racing in 37 years.

The debate on who had the greatest single year seemed to fade by October, after Spieth and Williams merely had transcendent seasons. American Pharoah, of course, lifted horse racing to heights not seen in four decades.

I’m sure you’re thinking right now – how does any of this lead to race baiting? That’s where Sports Illustrated comes in.

Leading up to the announcement of its Sportsman of the Year, Sports Illustrated held an online poll. Horse racing fans, presumably energized by its first “Sportsman” award nominee in at least 40 years, made a mockery of the poll. American Phaorah won with nearly half the votes. Of the 12 finalists, only Usain Bolt received fewer votes than Serena Williams.

Let me be very clear – Serena Williams is a very deserving winner of this honor. If SI had simply put Serena on the cover without an online poll, no one would bat an eye. But they did not. They, once again, used Serena’s body and image against her.

It was only a few months ago that Serena’s body shaming reached an all-time high when the New York Times wrote a lengthy piece on how other female tennis players could look like Serena, but choose not to. The piece was roundly criticized by nearly everyone, including the aforementioned Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated knew that Serena Williams’ body had been compared, unfavorably, to that of male athletes. Sports Illustrated knew that American Pharoah won the fan voting and horse racing fans were dying to get their hands on another SI cover.

SI put Serena Williams on the cover. Why? Because it will sell. Sports Illustrated has positioned the debate as Serena Williams versus a horse. Guess how the world reacted?

As I am typing this, NBC Washington went into break asking that very question – “Is a horse more deserving than Serena Williams?” – while Jim Vance, a legendary anchor, sighed heavily in the background.

It doesn’t matter that Serena won. It doesn’t matter that American Pharoah lost. It matters that Sports Illustrated purposely pitted Serena Williams against American Pharoah.

The social media backlash – ill-informed as ever – was fierce and swift. To most, the comparison of Serena Williams and American Pharoah was unsightly, at best. In today’s racial climate, it was an uconciousnable decision. Sports Illustrated set this entire thing up and are basking in unprecedented attention for an award that has the same cache as an ESPY, if that.

The Los Angeles Times, in attempt to capitalize on the sporting debate, tweeted out a poll for Serena vs. American Pharoah. This being 2015, the LA Times became a flashpoint for an online race discussion, as if the newspaper had purposely put the two together.

Sports Illustrated deserves all the scorn in the world for racing to the bottom with other journalistic outfits. There was no reason to pit Serena against a thoroughbred. They didn’t need the online voting, and they certainly did not need to tout the success of Pharoah in said poll for weeks.

It was a setup, plain and simple, and everyone fell for it. The horse racing crowd complained their voices – and by proxy, their sport – were being ignored. The ‘social justice warrior’ crowd picked up on the racist overtones of placing Serena in competition with a horse.

While the big loser here in Sports Illustrated, a final death knell in a painful journalistic spiral, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem in sports media. Sports Illustrated couldn’t just announce Serena as a winner. It couldn’t celebrate her for everything she accomplished this year.

Instead, it played upon a nation’s raw feelings about race and the feminine ideal to drive attention. It was a disgusting display of the type of race-baiting journalism we’ve come to expect and loathe. It has no place in 2015’s sports media.

I hope the retweets were worth it, Sports Illustrated. You’re now on the same level as Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. Enjoy the company down there.  

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