SBD/Issue 142/Sports Media

Ombudsman Says ESPN's "Black Magic" Earns Worthy Praise

In her latest contribution as ESPN Ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber discusses the net's "Black Magic," and wrote the documentary in March garnered the most mail and "drew only praise." The two-part, four-hour documentary on the early contributions to civil rights and the game of basketball was called by viewers "superb," "awesome," and "the best sports television I can recall." Its ratings were the highest ever for an ESPN documentary. Schreiber: "History lessons don't always make compelling TV, but the deft weaving of rare archival footage and intimate, in-depth interviews with black pioneers of the fast game seems to have struck a chord with viewers." One viewer wrote, "I haven't learned so much watching TV in years!" Schreiber noted such "spontaneous outpourings of praise are rare for any endeavor, but when it comes to ESPN's coverage of race and sports, I had grown used to a very different kind of feedback." Schreiber: "From my earliest days on this job, I noticed that whenever race was introduced into the discussion of sports ... I would receive mail accusing ESPN of fueling or even creating racial divides in an attempt to drive ratings or page views."

BACKLASH: Schreiber noted the "most recent incidence of fan aversion to racial topics surfaced in my mailbox only days after it had been flooded with delighted responses to 'Black Magic.'" Schreiber: "I read message after message from angry readers demanding that [ESPN's] Jemele Hill be fired for her March column suggesting" Cavaliers F LeBron James be "more careful with his image." Hill wrote that she saw a resemblance to King Kong and Fay Wray in the March cover of Vogue featuring James and supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Schreiber wrote many readers "accused Hill of 'inflaming racism' and 'setting the country back.'" Hill, who is African-American, said, "I can guarantee you that when I write a column critical of black people -- when I talk about how the black community should not make a martyr of Michael Vick for going to jail -- readers do not see it as a racial setback. ... But when I flip the coin and ask the mainstream to take a look at themselves, then I'm setting racial progress back."

FINAL THOUGHT: Schreiber wrote, "It should not take an elaborately researched two-part, four-hour, commercial-free primetime documentary to remove the rancor from the discussion of the intertwined history of sports and race in America. Columnists should not have to face 'fire her' campaigns for trying to connect the dots between past and present. ESPN should not have its motives impugned every time it falls short of perfection on racial matters. The bar is set too high. The only alternatives are to clear it or take the lumps trying. Walking away from it is not an alternative" (, 4/13).

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