My time as the only black journalist covering Mississippi State’s women’s basketball
|Note from the Editor
Unfortunately, for women of color in sports journalism, Amber’s experience is all too common. I started out in the field as a news reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. It was a ruthless environment. But it was exciting, and I loved it. Interestingly enough, years later when I started writing about women’s basketball, I experienced hostility like I’d never experienced in D.C. It was bizarre. The staffers in the office the late Jesse Helms, an unrepentant racist and homophobe, were friendlier than some of my “colleagues” in sports journalism.
The unfriendliness of the old boy’s network of sports media trumps that one of Beltway politics in some respects. For me, it was an eye-opening experience to have people, respected journalists even, look right through me when I would greet them in an affable manner or ask a simple question.
As people of color continue to build our own media outlets in the industry, hearkening to pre-desegregation days when there were scores of thriving newspapers in the black community because we needed to tell our own stories, things will get better. Until then, Amber’s story brings to mind the French cliché: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That is unacceptable.
As the president of Mississippi State’s NAACP chapter, an at-large member of the National Association of Black Journalists, and chief journalist of MSU’s Diversity Center, I always receive a puzzled look when people realize I cover women’s basketball, like I’m throwing them for a loop. Poet? Makes sense. Writer? Spot on. But sports journalist? A curveball. Then I realized why. To them, I don’t look like one.
I’m not the typical face you see in the white-male dominated field sitting on the Humphrey Coliseum’s press row. On media row, eleven spots are filled: ten with white, male bodies and then my chocolate-skinned self, adorned with carrot orange curls, always standing out. My existence poses a question.
How is it being the only black journalist covering Mississippi State women’s basketball and other sports at the school?
Being the only black reporter for the team is as real as it gets in sports. I observe. I interview. I go home. I do the work. Typical journalism.
But how does it feel?
Uninviting. Cold. Confusing. Lonely, but my presence has taught me things comfort never could.
The peculiar experience started January 23, 2016 during a men’s game. It was my first time covering college basketball. After a 7-0 run spearheaded by star guard Malik Newman, I caught myself mumbling Mississippi State’s fight song under my breathe during a time out.
“Hiiit the line and tote the-”
“Hey!” A hefty, dark-haired man yelled, like I wasn’t sitting next to him. “Yeah, uh, I know you’re young and this is your first day and all, but you can’t sing or talk when you’re down here! No singing, yelling. Nothing. You got that? Understand, kid? Glad you’re having fun but it’s completely unacceptable.”
It felt like my Pentel .07 pen ripped through my heart. I didn’t think a word for the remainder of the game while he snickered and laughed with the other media members, loud enough to reach over the sell-out crowd cheers and school band.
And that’s when it began.
The other media members interacted with each other. Their conversations were fun. They had context and meat to them about the history of Mississippi State. I sat with them with my plate and team info packets.
“Hey everyone!” I’d say loudly over the chatter.
No one lifted their head to even acknowledge me. They went on about one’s obsessions with WWE Smackdown and another’s intricate details about a brewing Ole Miss scandal.
“My name is Amber!” My small hands reached out for a handshake. “What’s your name?”
I would try my hand at a few sarcastic jokes about different teams and coaches. I’d attempt introducing myself to other journalists. I spoke to everyone when I’d walk in. Nothing. The Southern hospitality didn’t appear anywhere. I remember asking for a stat sheet during volleyball coverage, and Tyler, one of the student assistants gave it to me with his back turned to me. He didn’t halt his conversations to ask me what I needed, like the assistants do to most journalists. I was shunned but I didn’t know why, or what I did.
I thought it was my age. There was no way this bright-eyed Yankee fresh from a BWI flight could know a lick about the SEC. Then other young journalists started appearing for deeper coverage during NCAA tournament time. They were embraced and welcomed with handshakes, questions and colorful tips to help improve their coverage. My co-worker at my first job, Taylor Rayburn, made friends though we both started at the same time. He was a white male who received a lot more networking opportunities and inclusion.
I thought it was because I was a girl. I walked into the baseball press box and they were asking Annie Costabile, a reporter who replaced Will Sammon, about her work, and things related to her journalism career. I had one black coworker last season for women’s basketball. They didn’t speak to him either.
Then a year later during baseball season, the no-talking rule was only applied to me as all the media members chatted during timeouts and sang popular songs. MSU baseball player outfielder Elijah MacNamee’s walkout song was Ookay’s “Thief.” They’d throw their hands in the air and sing riffs of the saxophone. I’d sit there blankly, wondering if I made a move to include myself, I’d be crucified and kicked out the media’s boy band club.
I got accustomed to thinking I was the ugly stepsister of the group. Too young for respect and credibility. That is, until I went to Dallas for the Final Four in 2017. There, I met other journalists who were warm, welcoming and understood my negative experiences.
I received introductions to journalism greats like Doug Feinberg, Mechelle Voepel and my current Editor, Cheryl Coward, who eventually offered me employment as a beat writer for the Washington Mystics for Hoopfeed.com. Karintha Wheaton-Styles, a Howard journalism graduate, had the most impact. She recalled her time as being the only black journalist in Oklahoma on a golf resort. She cited her experiences with discrimination to soothe my sorrows.
“They treated me like I didn’t exist,” she explained. “I say that to say this: People aren’t going to always like you, so do the work.”
After the end of the college basketball season, I found myself at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington, D.C. during the summer. Cheryl’s opportunity did more than give me a writing space and my first job covering professional sports, but connected me with a diverse set of media members.
They welcomed me with open arms and hugs. They embraced my naiveté and educated me. They were the helping hands I had longed for and needed. Wisdom from great minds like Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Famer Mel Greenberg and CoSIDA president Rob Knox to journalists like Lindsay Gibbs, Jasmine Brown, Princess Street, Diamond Jones, Misha Brown, and Finest Magazine’s Wilson Tarpeh Jr. carry me in my short career and will impact me for years to come.
Out of my four years here at MSU, four people have talked to me: Adam Minichino, Gene Swindoll, Steve Robertson and Danny P. Smith.
Minichino and I connected after my editor Dalton Middleton worked for him too. Through that network, Minichino began training me as a journalist and our relationship developed into a mentorship. I also worked for Gene’s publication, Gene’s Page. Steve is a friend of Gene’s and created content for Gene’s Page as well. Danny is a genuine good guy.
The demand for media diversity holds my personal truths in it. Mississippi State media did a number on me. I didn’t feel welcomed, so why would I perform like I was in a comfortable environment? If I wasn’t being listened to, why would I talk? If I said “excuse me” to walk through the slim chair aisles and a media member didn’t move his thick legs even after I’d ask, why would I want to get up and go get anything?
I had trouble focusing because of the chattering ruckus. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask questions. I wasn’t even talking to coaches and players. I’d shut down at work, tweet, write a 400-word recap and jet. No features. No extensive research on any subjects. No true engaging journalism.
Maybe I’m a victim of an all-male, all-white groupthink, but this experience taught me more than being included ever would. Some clubs of media weren’t made for me. The laughter, coy, sly jokes and historical contexts, I had to learn it all indirectly. I had to see the visualization of journalism ethics. I didn’t have anyone show me the ropes or ask questions or write features directly, but alienation strengthened my journalism.
It taught me to be alone. Work alone. Eat alone. Interview alone. Write alone. Thrive alone. Being the only black reporter emphasized the importance of being self-sufficient in this field. I must do the work. I must conduct interviews. I must write these stories. Because I must succeed.
During my four years of covering women’s basketball team, I’ve felt myself enjoying journalism. The hustle and bustle. The chuckles to myself while MSU womens’ basketball head coach Vic Schaefer glares at referees. I’ve discovered I’m a lot funnier than I’m credited for sometimes. My “lonely” ways gave me time to fall in love with journalism repeatedly and strengthen my work.
The worked led to me earning the school newspaper’s Sports Writer of the Year award (I treated it like a second place handshake to the sports editor position I applied for that year). The work helped me earn a trip to New York for The Nation’s Student Journalism Conference. The work provided me everything I came to get. The work blessed with me with connections all throughout the East Coast and gave me the opportunity to keep working, growing and shining.
Being the only black reporter solidified my knowledge of how the world works if you are a black woman while still coming out on top by any means necessary. The sports media world may not embrace me at times, but that’s not my problem. I cannot carry the burden of my existence. I can only celebrate it. I’m just a young, black journalist from Maryland looking for opportunity and hungry for a story and a well-written one.
Sometimes being the only black reporter makes me feel appreciated. People send me cute snaps of me working or walking to my seat on the floor. Members of the Starkville community tell me they enjoy my pieces about their high school football teams. My classmates admire my work and my professors praise me too.
Now, I feel validated on my own. I know my presence for those who see me clearly is a force to be reckoned with in sports media. My presence shows the positive possibilities of diversity in journalism and I’d like to think my name and work has reached into rooms I haven’t walked into yet. I feel confident knowing my time here wasn’t wasted.
Alienation fed my purpose and passion. I feel comfortable now. Being the only one lets me know that my calling is to write for all. I’m so glad my uncertainty in places never meant for me, didn’t interfere in my resolve to get what’s for me.
Being alone means doing work and thriving alone. In my book, being the only one means I’m the chosen one.
That’s quite alright with me.