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September 5, 2012

Baseball Therapy

Is There Really Racism in the Broadcast Booth?

by Russell A. Carleton

Last week, in Atlantic magazine, two researchers published the results of a study with a very unsettling conclusion: there is subtle racism at work in the broadcast booth in Major League Baseball. The idea that Caucasian players are more often praised for being "gritty" and "scrappy," while African-American, Hispanic, and Asian players aren't similarly lauded, isn’t a new one. For the first time, someone decided to put the hypothesis to an empirical test.

I used to teach Intro to Psych, and when we got to the part of the class on subconscious vs. conscious behavior, I would use racism as an example. I'd start off class with a simple instruction: "Raise your hand if you are a racist." Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand. And truthfully, I believed that my students abhorred the idea that they would treat someone differently on the basis of their race. I'm guessing that if my audience were a gathering of MLB broadcasters, the results would be the same. And I’d believe them too.

The problem is that human behavior is influenced by much more than conscious thought. A person’s behavior can be influenced by cues that they don’t even recognize are there. This is the reason that the business of advertising exists. Companies spend millions on figuring out the proper shade of yellow to use in their ads, despite the fact that there’s nothing about the color yellow that should make a product more or less appealing. A lot of these messages are passed along through simply living in a culture. Some of these messages are delivered directly, some indirectly, but they are there.

A baseball-related example of how this might affect behavior: picture yourself walking on a lovely summer afternoon and seeing someone walking the other way whom you don't know and who is wearing a Red Sox hat. What can you reasonably conclude about this person by virtue of the hat? Not a lot, really. There's a higher likelihood that s/he was born in or around Boston or lives there now. But, I bet somewhere in your mind, you mumbled a few other words. "Bet you got that hat in November of 2004..." Maybe something a little more vulgar. Don't believe that the hat is affecting you? Now, pretend that it's a Twins hat and see how your thoughts change.

What if our behatted stranger stopped you and asked for directions. Would you treat her/him any differently? Maybe. Maybe not. But hopefully you can see that your thinking is different, based solely on an ultimately irrelevant hat, and that that might lead to differences in behavior. This is the sort of discrimination that the article in The Atlantic is talking about. It's not overt and may not be perceptible in an instant, but over time, it builds up.

Critiquing Methods
The authors of The Atlantic article were kind enough to send their raw data over to Colin Wyers and me, and Colin and I ran some secondary analyses (which is a nice way to say we were playing around with someone else's data set.) There were a few methodological issues that needed to be ironed out (we re-ran their data as a logit regression, rather than an OLS), but in general, the variables that they had previously found significant stayed significant. None of the "race" variables came out significant, but players who were short got lots of compliments while players who were born outside of the United States and Canada were less likely to get an "attaboy."

There are some technical limitations that the authors’ data have that I wish weren't there. A single week is a rather short time period, although given the labor that goes into coding one game, I understand why they stopped there. However, it means that each player was seen by only three sets of broadcasters. (In the week, each team played two series, so his team's broadcasters and those of his two opponents.) To really dig into these findings, some sort of paneled or hierarchical model or GEE is needed to break apart the effects of individual broadcasters, and that would require a much larger sample size to work. There were a couple of other issues to note. For example, the authors didn’t control for what happened immediately before the comment was made (did the player just make a boneheaded play?) But as a preliminary investigation into the subject, the data that they present are pretty good. They showed a lot of hustle and grit in putting this together.

The real innovation in this study was the use of qualitative coding as a data set. It's something that has been woefully under-used in sabermetrics. The authors talk about how they took one week in August 2011 and watched 200 broadcasts of games listening for when announcers discussed players in terms of their intangibles, rather than just how many "nice plays" each player got. As someone who has done qualitative coding before (not in baseball), I can appreciate what an undertaking this was. Not only do you have to watch the game, but you have to strain to listen to it to make sure you hear everything that the announcer said. Try it for an inning tonight.

I think one of the reasons that qualitative coding has been under-used in sabermetrics is—as the authors point out—that it is equal parts art and science. In this case, the data are what the announcers say about the players. If we were looking to see how many doubles a player had hit, there's a well-established definition for a double, but there will always be an element of subjectivity in deciding whether what an announcer says is positive or negative. Some things are obvious, but what of the announcer who says that Smith "gets the most out of his talent." He has at once said that Smith is a hard worker (positive) and not very talented (negative). There are a thousand little quibbles that can be made with any qualitative project of this sort, but to dismiss the findings outright is foolish.

My main concern with the methodology is that the authors focused only on what was said by the broadcasters, ignoring what they might have held back. The coders paid close attention to which players received comments and then coded whether they were positive or negative. Figure that in that week in August, most of the 750 players who are on a major-league roster played at least one game. Yet, the majority of players had nothing at all said about them, positive or negative.

There are plenty of ways to be a racist, sadly. One is to actively hurl insults and slurs at someone. It's a really good way to get fired. Another—and this is what the authors of the study argue is happening—is to be quick to point out the negatives for one group and the positives for another.

But what about the sins of omission that can happen? Suppose that a player has worked hard all his life. Everyone around the game knows it and everyone, even people on other teams, admires him for that work ethic. This would make a fantastic tidbit to share on the air for a broadcaster. But what if a broadcaster simply swallows that and says... nothing. And what if he seems to omit the good things about one group and not another? On the flip side, what if a player is lazy and a jerk, but a broadcaster doesn't bring that up?

Of the comments that were made and logged in the data set, half were about Caucasian players, 29 percent were about Latino players, and 20 percent were about African-American players. (There were a grand total of four comments made about Asian players, which, as the authors observe, isn't much of a sample size.) MLB players in 2011 were 62 percent Caucasian, 27 percent Latino, and nine percent African-American. It seems that announcers talk about African-American players at a greater rate than might be expected by simple demographics, and less for Caucasian players. (These findings hold even after taking out Jim Thome and Carlos Zambrano, whom the authors noted got a lot of press that week; Thome for hitting his 600th career HR, Zambrano for a clubhouse blowout.) In fairness, the comments on African-American players were no more or less positive than the rest of the sample, but it seems that broadcaster in general felt just fine rendering opinions on African-American players, but were more tight-lipped about Caucasian players. This may be an un-answerable question, but what were they holding back?

Still, the variable that emerged as significant was not specifically the player's race, but whether he was born in the United States (or Canada, which I guess was annexed by the United States for the purposes of this study). While 87 percent of the comments that players born in the United States and Canada received were positive, only 77 percent were positive for those born in other countries. Again, most of the comments for both groups were positive, and within a single game, the difference might not be obvious. But if there's a fan base that can understand the difference that 10 percentage points makes, it's baseball’s. That's the difference between a .200 hitter and a .300 hitter.

The Meaning
Is there racism in the broadcast booth—or, given the variable that emerged from the analyses as significant, nativism? First, let's be aware of the emotional charge of such terms. I am loathe to apply them casually. I would instead suggest that if we are going to point a finger at the press box, we might note the three fingers pointing back at ourselves. It is a sad fact of life that there are a lot of discriminatory attitudes that are part of American culture. I would argue that one way to become a better human is to identify these and stamp them out, but I have to admit that I haven't conquered them in my own life.

Let me suggest that the other variable that emerged as significant in these analyses, the height of a player, can shed some light on a topic that is less emotionally charged. Height, especially among men, has cultural assumptions that go along with it too. Height is the second-most lied about fact in personal ads (erm, shall we say "marital status" is no. 1). Why would a man lie about something that has nothing to do with the goal of a personal ad, which is to find a partner for a happy and satisfying relationship? (For the record, I'm 5'11". And married. And I like long walks on the beach at sunset.) Granted that in the context of playing baseball, height may have its advantages, but why are short players given credit as having such an amazing work ethic when just about everyone who reaches MLB worked hard to get there?

If we're going to say that there is racism and/or nativism in the broadcast booth, let's be honest about what we're really saying. There is racism and nativism embedded in American culture, and it's hard to eradicate. Broadcasters bear the responsibility for addressing this in their own lives, the same way that I am responsible for addressing it in mine, and it looks like neither one of us has been completely successful. The data that have been presented here are preliminary, and there are some counter-hypotheses that can't be fully ruled out because of that. But for all the flaws that can be pointed out in this study, I think the greater danger lies in using those flaws to ignore what it suggests and pretend that we all still don't have work to do.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Baseball,  Racism,  Broadcasting,  The Atlantic

43 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Sharky

Very nice work, Russell. Appreciated the careful consideration of a delicate topic. Well done!

Sep 05, 2012 04:11 AM
rating: 4
 
snerze

If this type of "racism" is all we have to worry about with regards to bias and merit, then we're in pretty great shape. Personally and from my perspective, this seems silly to me. That we even address such subtlety shows how anti-racist we are as a culture and should be more lauded than any hidden, mysterious "racism".

Sep 05, 2012 05:32 AM
rating: 2
 
Behemoth

Except that when the people concerned are interviewing for a job, then it matters because one person is more likely to get a job than another. When the person concerned is a judge it matters, because one person will get a harsher sentence than the other, and so on.

Sep 05, 2012 07:58 AM
rating: 7
 
djwells

Bill James wrote about this years ago regarding Whitaker and Trammell. Here's a qukc test- Who is MORE deserving of HOF votes? Now, with that, go to Baseball Reference and compare their HOF scores.

Sep 05, 2012 07:00 AM
rating: 0
 
Sean

Does this factor in position? A shortstop-to-shortstop comparison would be better.

Sep 05, 2012 08:47 AM
rating: 1
 
djwells

Frankly I forget to be perfectly honest with you. I'm sure BR.com lists methodology behind James' numbers.

Sep 05, 2012 13:11 PM
rating: 0
 
cdt719

The two are similar enough in value I don't think it's evidence of overt racism. They're only separated by a few points of WARP by most calculations. Bobby Grich is very similar to Whitaker and had a similar lack of HOF voting support, so I'd guess it's more of a positional thing than a race thing.

Sep 12, 2012 20:53 PM
rating: 0
 
stephenwalters

Excellent analysis of the article, Russell -- thanks. One thing worries me about qualitative coding, though. We're using it in this case to measure unconscious bias. Is it possible that such unconscious bias afflicts those who are doing the coding? As I understand it (and I apologize if I'm in error here -- I've never done this type of data-gathering) they're devising criteria for classifying comments, and then they're interpreting spoken words according to these criteria. In addition to your insight that they can never measure what was NOT said, I wonder how much, say, subtleties in tone of voice affect the classifications and results. In short, I'm not sure this tool is up to this task.

Sep 05, 2012 07:03 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Yeah, that's another problem with qualitative analysis. Because there's no standard definition of what you're looking at, there's all sorts of room for bias in creating that definition (and then implementing that code.) There are ways of increasing rigor (inter-rater reliability, which the researchers do not report on...) but it's always lurking in the background as a research methodology problem.

This is the sort of research that isn't fun to sit with. There are a lot of what-ifs. I'm also convinced that learning to live a bit more with that uncertainty would push the field of Sabermetrics further.

Sep 05, 2012 07:38 AM
 
eliyahu

"They showed a lot of hustle and grit in putting this together."

That line demonstrates 110% effort. It's also damn funny.

Sep 05, 2012 07:17 AM
rating: 11
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Thanks. I giggled when I wrote that.

Sep 05, 2012 07:39 AM
 
draysbay
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On Monday, Michael Kay said, "Upton pops it up." Which is all well and good, except the batter was Desmond Jennings. There was never an apology or even owning up to what was said and I find it despicable. If you don't think that racism exists in the booth then you're not watching many games.

Sep 05, 2012 07:36 AM
rating: -10
 
pbsenerchia

Because you've done a study, and announcers misidentify (and fail to correct such misidentification) black players more than white players? I just heard the same thing happen with two white players in a game, so obviously the (white) announcer was racist. Give me a break.

Sep 05, 2012 08:15 AM
rating: 6
 
BrianGunn
(439)

Despicable perhaps. Then again last week I heard an announcer refer to Jared Hughes as Jason Grilli (with no apology or owning up to his error), so there might be more variables at play than your example suggests.

Sep 05, 2012 10:19 AM
rating: 2
 
cdt719

It took me about three years to get it into my head that Jonny Gomes was a white guy, but I'm pretty sure I'm not racist. Perhaps people just don't pay attention to the Rays, including their own fans.

Sep 12, 2012 20:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Ken Arneson

"Suppose that a player has worked hard all his life. Everyone around the game knows it and everyone, even people on other teams, admires him for that work ethic."

Suppose that a player doesn't speak English very well. How would such a player get to be known by English-speaking broadcasters for his work ethic in order to be praised for it on broadcasts?

Can you separate out the linguistic barrier from any other sort of "nativisim" from the data?

Sep 05, 2012 07:39 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

That was actually brought up in some of the original critiques to the Atlantic article. I suppose that work ethic can transcend the language barrier (you can watch a guy work out/take extra grounders/etc.) But there is something to be said for this. Suppose you have broadcasters who don't speak Spanish and miss a player who does A LOT to lead in the clubhouse... because they don't understand what he's saying. In this data set, there's no way to pull that apart.

Sep 05, 2012 07:44 AM
 
Ken Arneson

Well then I agree that it's really unfair to jump to conclusions about what the data means. How is this different from what makes people like or dislike other people in general?

We like people who talk to us over those who don't. We like people who are tall more than who are short. We like people who are good-looking over those who are ugly. We like people who are extroverts more than those who are introverts. None of those things *should* matter in evaluating job performance of any kind, but they do.

Sep 05, 2012 08:01 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

I'd imagine this would be minimised by eliminating comments which refer to things like clubhouse leadership or whatever, and focusing on those that refer to effort on the field, which can be discerned by watching the game.

Sep 05, 2012 08:09 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Yeah, but announcers gonna announce.

Sep 05, 2012 08:24 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

The short answer is "no." What you would need is some measure of English proficiency, which isn't in the data the original authors sent us and is probably impossible to collect without significant levels of cooperation from some MLB-associated entity.

Sep 05, 2012 07:44 AM
 
Karl Barth

Living in Philly, my first reaction to your comment was "Carlos Ruiz." You could canvas all 2 million people in greater Philadelphia and probably not find anyone who isn't on board the Chooch train. His work ethic is lauded regularly by the team in the booth and the fans loved him long before he discovered the ability to hit this year.

I know I'm just picking one example but I think the announcers are pretty good about praising hard workers in every major league franchise. Jose Altuve, anyone?

I am not belittling the question of non-English speakers at all. I think it's a valid thing to investigate. But for whatever reason, Hispanics particularly seem to be respected for the effort they expend. I couldn't comment on the Asian imports, because I don't get a chance to see local broadcasts of NYY, BAL, LAD, SEA, etc, where they have been on the roster for years.

Sep 05, 2012 07:52 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

Nobody said that the announcers thought all Hispanic players were lazy. I'm going to suggest that a competently carried out study is more likely to be correct than your impressions here.

Sep 05, 2012 08:04 AM
rating: 3
 
lmarighi

Jose Altuve is not a great example there, because he is also the shortest player in MLB, and the study also found that short players are much more likely to be lauded for hard work, grit, etc. than tall players, so there are a couple of intertwined variables there.

Sep 06, 2012 02:08 AM
rating: 1
 
Tarakas

Interesting article. There are all sorts of implications and factors here, though. For example, much of our behavior is culturally influenced, as is what we value in behavior. I find it likely that US players will more often display traits valued by US culture than players born in other countries.

This becomes obvious in other contexts. In a business meeting in Japan, who would Japanese business people most likely view as displaying the most appropriate business behavior, other Japanese business persons, or a business person from the US acting in a typical US fashion?

Other factors may be due to a selection bias. For example, perhaps MLB tends to, everything else being equal, not value short players. So in order to make up for MLA's bias against short players, successful short players have to work harder than other players to overcome this bias. So in general, due to this bias, short players would have to be harder working to make the majors. So the announcers would merely be accurately noting a difference in personality when they talk about hard working short players.

Sep 05, 2012 09:27 AM
rating: 5
 
handyarrow

Excellent article, very deftly written.

Sep 05, 2012 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
JoshT

Very interesting follow-up to a very interesting article. I think the whole study (and your contrasting point about overt and subconscious racism) points to the fallacy of the "If we pretend race doesn't exist, then racism will go away" argument that many make and which Stephen Colbert parodies all the time. But the overall point you make is that racism and nativism is a society problem, not a baseball problem is right on, although it does no one any good to pretend that baseball is somehow apart from society in this area.

It would be nice if someone followed this study up with another one that addressed some of your concerns but as you wrote, that's a major undertaking. I'd be especially interested in a comparison of Hispanic players. It's always been my sense that American-born and raised Hispanic players like Jason Vargas or Ricky Nolasco get treated differently than similar players from Latin America like Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez. Ability to speak American-accented English would play a role there, as would just the "English" first names of the American players. Would also be interesting to see if there's a difference with someone like Carlos Pena, who was born in the DR but grew up in Massachusetts.

But like you said, that's a major undertaking. I wouldn't know where to even start with the coding of that.

Sep 05, 2012 10:10 AM
rating: 0
 
jstnbsn

Reminds me of The League episode when they talk about sportscasters using terms like "class act" and "firecracker". Astute observations from a comedy haha.

Also, awesome article. Very interesting subject to analyze.

Sep 05, 2012 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
jamiedodd7

Reminds me of a classic Onion headline (accompanied by a picture of Wes Welker): "Fan Favorite White".

Sep 05, 2012 10:56 AM
rating: 3
 
eighteen

You keep using that word. I do not thnk it means what you think it means.

"Racism" is not prejudice, nor rudeness, nor ignorance, nor discrimination.

And there are not "plenty of ways to be a racist." There are many ways in which racism can be manifested; but there's only one way to be a racist, and that's to meet the definition of one.

Not that I disagree with the premise (though to the author, it's an assumption) that racism may exist in the broadcast booth. But this article suffers from the same sloppy reasoning and loose terminology that impairs most of the discourse about race in this country.

Sep 05, 2012 11:03 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

What IS racism?

Sep 05, 2012 20:30 PM
 
eighteen

Yeah, like it's not in the dictionary. Please.

Sep 06, 2012 13:27 PM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

Ok, except I found this "the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races" on WordNet. You'll note it includes "prejudice," something you specifically ruled out.

Racism isn't nearly as simple as you'd like it to be.

Sep 06, 2012 13:30 PM
 
eighteen

For all my bitching about loose terminology impeding the discussion, I was guilty of it myself. Which I guess proves my point, albeit unintentionally. I'll restate:

Prejudice, etc. isn't racism.

Or, to put it another way, racism may be a species of prejudice; but not all prejudice is racist.

As to racism not being "simple," I think the concept itself very straightforward. If you meant identifying, preventing, and dealing with it isn't simple, we agree.

Sep 07, 2012 01:41 AM
rating: -1
 
Ted Duffield

Interesting related issue that came up in SF recently. Someone (a talk show caller I believe) criticized Jon Miller (who is fluent in spanish) for using "adios pelota" when spanish speaking players hit home runs. I couldn't disagree more, but it shows how these things can be subject to varying interpretations.

Sep 05, 2012 11:17 AM
rating: 1
 
Patton1941

Did the data provided by the study authors differentiate between how the announcers discussed players on the home team versus how they discussed players on the road team? If so, it would be interesting to see whether announcers resort to coding more with players they are unfamiliar with as opposed to announcers they see regularly. This could also apply to rookies versus veterans and teams within the same division.

Sep 05, 2012 12:58 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Those data could be parsed...

Sep 05, 2012 13:05 PM
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I appreciate the desire to be precise in terminology. Here, I use "racism" very broadly, and I can appreciate that, for some, too broadly.

I recognize that attributing the results to a bias is an assumption, but it's at least a reasonable one. The methodology provides direction, but not precision. Still, it's the best that we have right now.

Sep 05, 2012 13:03 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

Racism is a funny thing in that any given act may be seen as racism, even though it might be from an understanding of which latent racism encouraged.
Two examples.
1) A few summers back, I was at a wedding party in NYC at a fancy Central Park rooftop. Most of the crowd was white. One couple in particular was not. The male of this couple was dressed very formally, with a vest and bow tie. Most of the guests, this being summer, were dressed nicely, but informally. At least one other (older) guest assumed that the black man was a member of the staff. His wife assumed racism. Me, a Canadian (nationalism), tried to reassure her that the presumption was due to his attire. Thoughts?
2) My wife has a friend (in Toronto) of Mexican/Filipino heritage. Her husband is Caucasian. They have three young boys, all handsome kids and all epidermically resembling their Father. They live in a very upscale part of Toronto. She has often been stopped in the street by random bystanders commenting on the cuteness/handsomeness of the kids and asking her if they are hers (even after also pointing out that they look like her). Some believe that these well-to-do white folk assume that white-looking kids can't belong to this pretty ethnic-looking woman, even if there is a facial resemblance. Racism, or just stupidity?

Sep 05, 2012 14:14 PM
rating: 2
 
outdoorminer

I always thought there was a subtle - or maybe not-so-subtle - racist component to how writers and broadcasters treated Eric Davis. To me, Davis' frequent sacrifice of his body to make plays in the field was reminiscent of Fred Lynn and Pete Reiser, two players no one ever accused of not giving 100%. But it always seemed that media mentions of Davis' injuries had an undercurrent of "underachieving/malingering" to them, and I always felt that was because of his skin color rather than any actual behavior on or off the field.

Has anyone mentioned the accusations thrown J.R. Richard's way before his stroke?

Sep 05, 2012 14:34 PM
rating: 7
 
Ashitaka1110

Just a thought, but has anyone else noticed that, many times, African Americans especially, are viewed as more naturally talented and athletic than Caucasians? I wonder if that might subconsciously play into it. To me, "gritty" and "scrappy" are often used to complement a player like, say, Jeff Keppinger, who is tough, professional, gives great effort, but no one would confuse him with a tremendous athlete like Stanton or Trout. I think it may, at least partially, be similar to why there's "no such thing" as a crafty right-handed pitcher; you always hear words like "crafty" or "sly" attached to soft-tossing lefties with good command and pitchability skills, but righties with similar skills are never called that. When a guy like Beltran or Griffy or Hanley etc. makes it look so easy, I think subconsciously you don't think of them as hustling or grinding as much as other guys who have to run into walls and basically play at 150% all the time just to keep up.

Sep 05, 2012 16:12 PM
rating: 3
 
Brian Cartwright

When I first read the article, one of the things I thought of was "does the player deserve the comment?" which didn't seem to be considered, but here I can connect that with Russell's comment about what might not be said. We might need to establish the player's reality, comparing that to how it's described (accurately, inaccurately, or ignored). Language might be an issue on how well the announcers get to know the players personally (not saying socially, but as in interviews or around the clubhouse or field).

I checked the photo I have of Russell, Eric Seidman and myself, and Russell is slightly taller than my 5'9", so I'll accept his claim of 5'11".

Sep 05, 2012 19:14 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I really am 5'11". And married.

And we need to do another StatSpeak reunion.

Sep 06, 2012 09:21 AM
 
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