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Examining race in sports media

Courtesy photo.

As a kid, Ron Thomas watched black Major League Baseball pitcher Satchel Paige overpower white sluggers with a 95 mph fastball nicknamed “Little Tommy.”

“Sports,” Thomas recalled believing, “was the one place where black people’s achievements couldn’t be denied.”

But a Sports Illustrated exposé on racial discrimination against black athletes, which was published when Thomas began studying at the University of Rochester, forced the young sports fan to reconsider. “I realized there was racism in sports and how virulent that discrimination could be,” he explained.

Thomas — a former beat writer for both the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants and 49ers and now the director of Morehouse College’s Journalism and Sports Program — is slated to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Sports Journalism from Sport in Society this summer.

As part of a panel discussion on Tuesday evening in the Cabral Center, he explored the relationship between sports, race and the media. Other panelists included Charles Fountain, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern; Justine Siegal, director of sports partnerships for Sport in Society; Boston Globe columnists Derrick Jackson and Adrian Walker; and Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson.

During the discussion, Walker noted the dichotomy between the way sports pundits describe the top two quarterback in this spring’s NFL Draft: black Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and white Stanford standout Andrew Luck.

“Griffin is described as a great athlete and Luck is the smart one,” Walker said. “We’re hearing those stereotypes already.”

Siegal, who became the country’s first female professional baseball coach when she joined the Brockton Rox staff in 2009, discussed media coverage of women in sports.

“Media outlets,” she said, “give me a chance to tell the story about how much women love sports.”

For his part, Fountain blamed sloppy coverage of New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin, the league’s first Asian-American player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, on the nature of the journalism industry. Last week, ESPN fired an editor for a phrase he used to describe Lin’s poor performance.

“Lin is the kind of story everyone in journalism wants a piece of,” Fountain explained. “If you rush to get the story out, thought and reflection are going to suffer.”

Tuesday’s panel discussion — cosponsored by Sport in Society, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute — was part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month.

Throughout February, Black History Month events have included film screenings, community engagement outings, musical programs as well as conversations about black history and culture. On Wednesday, seven African-American staff members who have served both the university and the O’Bryant Institute for at least 10 years received the Black Heritage Award, which recognized their “indomitable spirit and struggle on our behalf.” Next Tuesday, Northeastern will continue its celebration of Black History Month with an all-day event at the Cabral Center, which will feature music, art, food and various presentations and speakers.