Once livestream video footage of an Oklahoma high school sports announcer using a racial slur surfaced in March, Frank Bonner II had difficulty focusing on his coverage of Big 12 basketball that evening. Tweeting about Oklahoma State versus Baylor suddenly seemed trivial.
Still, the Tulsa World reporter persisted.
“When all that is happening, you’ve still got to get through the day,” Bonner said. “You’ve still got to be just as engaged into this basketball game as anything else. That type of stuff — it can be difficult to cope through, but that’s just the nature of it.”
Bonner, a Black man, understands how deeply racism can impact people of color, regardless of their status. It’s why, as the Oklahoma State athletics beat reporter, he made sure to write about the dichotomy of being a Black athlete in America: beloved in the sports arena, yet vulnerable to injustice outside of it.
Last May, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, Bonner couldn’t simply “stick to sports” in his coverage. Neither could Chuba Hubbard or other Oklahoma State athletes.
“I felt it was important to write (stories) to let people know that these aren’t just players who wear jerseys for the team that you root for,” said Bonner, a 2019 SJI alum. “As a Black journalist covering these Black athletes, I felt it was part of my responsibility to let that be known in the role that I was in.”
The lone Black reporter in the Tulsa World sports department, Bonner, said he’s thankful to have had an editor who checked on him and gave him the space to express how he felt during the onslaught of America’s renewed racial reckoning.
Matt Pepin, the sports editor for The Boston Globe, tried being that support for his reporters of color, too. First, he listened to their experiences, making individual phone calls to those who might have been most impacted by the events of last summer.
Pepin said these conversations and a staff-wide meeting dedicated to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion gave him insight into the plights of Black people and other people of color in America. The reckoning spurred a self-examination among the members of the Globe sports department and the institution itself.
“We looked at our own diversity,” Pepin said. “We looked at the diversity of what we cover and the stories we choose to do.”
Julian McWilliams, the Red Sox beat reporter for the Globe, said he outsourced one story he pursued because he didn’t feel comfortable publishing it without another Black reporter or editor looking at it.
“... To (the Globe’s) credit, they took a lot of ownership in that and have done a lot of different things from hiring Black editors that now read our stories … and started putting us in positions of power,” McWilliams said.
Among the new hires is former NABJ president Greg Lee, who previously worked at the Globe as a senior assistant sports editor, and now serves as the senior assistant managing editor for talent and community.
An in-house inclusion council that audits sources to track which voices reporters include in stories is another addition to the Globe newsroom. Pepin said the paper had made strides in diversity.
Bonner said he feels last summer’s racial reckoning and ongoing conversations about race have given sports journalists opportunities to tell stories about issues previously buried deep.
“Sports have had a lot of influence in the way the world has changed,” he said. “...These things happen in sports, so to act like they don’t is a disservice to our communities.”