Confidence or Thuggery? A quick look at avoiding double-standards in journalism writing

In the wake of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship game, the question of double standards emerged as a major plot point.

During LSU’s 102-85 defeat of Iowa, Tiger star Angel Reese made the “can’t see me” hand gesture toward the Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark as a form of trash talking. Clark had made similar gestures throughout the tournament toward opposing players.

In one case it was deemed “confident” and “self-assured.” In another case, people decried the “lack of sportsmanship” and “thuggery.”

If you can’t guess who got which critique, here’s a clue: Clark is white and Reese is Black.

William Rhoden, a distinguished author and sports journalist, broke down the entirety of this situation on Andscape, drawing on prior examples of this throughout athletics:

On Sunday, Reese simply gave it back to Clark. Many neutral observers and Clark’s fans were not pleased and played the sportsmanship and class card. Double standards: When we do it, it’s bravado. When you do it, it’s crass. When we play hard, it’s gritty. When you play hard, it’s thuggery.

I saw this this firsthand in the 1980s with John Thompson’s Georgetown team. They were routinely cast as villains and thugs. We saw the same thing with UNLV’s great teams of the 1990s. When UNLV played Duke for the national title in 1990, Duke’s players were cast as “choirboys” while UNLV players were cast as villains and thugs. Then, of course, there was Michigan’s Fab Five which, critics say, introduced hip-hop elements into basketball.

Now that the women’s game has grown and African American women continue to become increasingly prominent, the same stereotypes are emerging: Black women portrayed as rough-and-tumble street fighters, their white counterparts as stalwart, heady competitors.

And let’s not even get into the whole history of Don Imus and his “nappy-headed hos” review of the Rutgers women’s basketball team…

We’ve talked about this kind of thing at length a few years back when stories had framed women based on their gender identity first and their accomplishments as an afterthought. We also touched on the issue of race and framing of athletes back when Brian Flores launched his discrimination suit against the NFL.

As a brief reminder here to journalism students, consider the following issues when including descriptors or making word choices in ways you might not initially consider:

WOULD YOU USE THE DESCRIPTOR OF THE SITUATION WAS REVERSED?: One of the key ways to determine fairness in language or description is to turn the tables and see if it still works for you. My favorite example comes from Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” in which one of his teammates notes that he wouldn’t mind the papers referring to him as “the black first baseman” if only they would refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.”

The same is true of descriptions like “the female mayor” or “the woman CEO” and so forth. Feminist scholars have long noted the incongruity in language as to how men and women are described. A few common pairings include:

    • Women are “pushy” while men are “assertive”
    • Women are “bossy” while men “take charge”
    • Women are “stubborn” while men are “persistent”

Calling attention unnecessarily to an attribute that you wouldn’t flip the other way is clearly an indicator that you might want to rethink that descriptor. I can’t remember seeing headlines about “the white quarterback” or “the male company president” and I bet most of you can’t either. Same thing with references to a “straight wedding” or a “cis gender politician.”

I can’t imagine someone calling Caitlin Clark a “thug” for her trash talking, but I know that word showed up in a number of discussions involving Angel Reese. That’s clearly part of the problem.


DOES THE TERM HAVE A LOADED MEANING?: I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone described as “a looter” or “a rioter” and had a positive reaction to that person. Those terms carry with them some negative baggage.  Conversely, I’ve seen an array of meanings ascribed to the term “clowning around” that range from bright and happy to racist.

A few years back, I remember seeing an analysis of the term “unskilled labor.” In a post on this term, someone noted that all labor is skilled. If you took Bill Gates and stuck him with a road construction crew, he would be as lost as can be. If you took Jamie Dimon and put him in charge of a Naperville McDonald’s during lunch rush, he would probably end up with a crowd of really angry people and some severe grease burns. The term “unskilled labor” is meant to diminish the value of what certain people do and thus make it easier to discount them or pay them less.

We could go on for days, but the point is that language matters in how we tell stories and how we frame the characters in them.

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