Rush, by the Numbers
The face of "social concern"?
By John R. Lott Jr.
Is it possible to even discuss race in sports, let alone anywhere else?
This past week provides little hope. Whether Rush Limbaugh's comments
on Donovan McNabb were "racist," there is a general agreement that he
was factually wrong, that Limbaugh did not know what he is talking
about. Yet, what is the evidence?
Limbaugh readily admits that it was just his opinion that "the media
has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." But his
critics allowed no possibility for uncertainty, calling his comments
"ignorant" or worse. As National Public Radio put it: "Rush was able to
turn a complete lack of understanding of football into a cross
burning." Even the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial disagreeing
with his statements on news coverage.
A couple of stories compared McNabb to another quarterback, such as
Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, whom many apparently regard as just a so-so
quarterback. But no one has tried to compare the news coverage of any
two quarterbacks, let alone generally between black and white
quarterbacks in the NFL.
To measure positive news coverage, I quickly put ten research
assistants to work on a Nexis search, which is a computerized search of
newspaper stories across the country. They looked at the coverage
received by the 36 quarterbacks who played during the first four weeks
of this season. (The articles were from the day of their first game to
the day after their last game during the period.) To try to make the
categorization of news stories objective, 23 phrases were picked to
identify positive descriptions of a quarterback and 23 phrases for
negative ones. Positive phrases included words such as "brilliant,"
"agile," "good," "great," "tough," "accurate," "leader," "intelligent,"
or "strong arm." Negative phrases included "overrated," "erratic,"
"struggling," "bad," "weak arm," or "mistakes." Obviously the media
involves more than newspapers, but this is measurable and it is not
clear why newspapers would be so different from the rest of the media.
We then identified news stories where these phrases appeared within 50
words of a quarterback's name. Each story was read to check that the
phrases were indeed used to describe the "quarterback" and to make sure
that the word "not" did not appear before the different phrases.
Depending on whether positive or negative words were used to describe
the quarterback, stories were classified as positive, negative, or
falling into both categories.
The evidence suggests that Rush is right, though the simplest measures
indicate that the difference is not huge. Looking at just the averages,
without trying to account for anything else, reveals a ten-percent
difference in coverage (with 67 percent of stories on blacks being
positive, 61 percent for whites).
We also collected data by week for each of the first four weeks of the
season on a host of other factors that help explain the rate at which a
player is praised: the quarterback's rating for each game; whether his
team won; the points scored for and against the team; ESPN's weekly
rank for the quarterback's team and the opponent; and whether it was a
Monday night game. In addition, I accounted for average differences in
media coverage both in the quarterback's city and the opponent's city
as well as differences across weeks of the season.
Accounting for these other factors shows a much stronger pattern. Black
quarterbacks' news coverage is 27 percentage points more positive than
whites. And that difference was quite statistically significant — the
chance of this result simply being random is the same odds as flipping
a coin five times and getting heads each time.
The quarterback ranking, scoring, winning, and higher-ranked teams
playing against each other all increase the percentage of positive
stories. For example, each additional point scored by the quarterback's
team raises the share of positive news coverage by about one percentage
point. Being in the only game played on a particular day lowers the how
positive the coverage was by about 12 percentage points, as more
newspapers outside the home area cover the game the next day.
The media's interest in the number of black quarterbacks can also be
seen in other more explicit ways. Last season, out of 217 news stories
discussing the race of professional quarterbacks, 194 mentioned whether
an individual quarterback was black, only 23 if they were white. By
contrast, for running backs and receivers — where the ratio of blacks
to whites is even more lopsided with blacks dominating — discussions of
a player's race are virtually nonexistent. Only 6 stories mentioned
that running backs were black and 10 that they were receivers, and the
numbers discussing that they were white were 4 and 7 respectively.
These numbers also help address another possibility: whether newspapers
write such supportive articles on black quarterbacks to encourage more
racial diversity on the field. Yet, a preference for diversity doesn't
seem to explain the data. In positions where whites are
underrepresented they do not receive even a fraction of the extra
attention that blacks do as quarterbacks.
If indeed skin color results in significantly more positive coverage,
doesn't that imply that the media, not Rush, might be racist?
Presumably the media feels that coverage is justified, though it could
mean that the press has too low expectations of blacks.
Hopefully the furor over Rush's statement will help us understand the
media a little better. The evidence indicates that there is a lot to
explain. The current fact-free name-calling hardly shows that sports
have come to grip with race.
—John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,
is the author of The Bias Against Guns. The significant contributions
of Brian Blase and Jill Mitchell helped make this study possible. The
data used in this piece is available at an excel file. See the 10/7 post for this information. The regression and mean data output is also available.
Posting from my web site:
10/7/03 Was Rush right about the media coverage?
National Review Online runs a piece of mine that examines Limbaugh's statement that "“the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” For those interested, an excel file with the raw data is available for downloading. (If this data is reused, please provide a clear statement about where you obtained it.) The regression output can be seen here.
The simple weekly averages by quarterback show some difference. During the weeks when quarterbacks played about 67 percent of the news coverage for black quarterbacks was positive and about 61 percent of the coverage for whites was positive. Including all weeks (including when quarterbacks didn't play and even weeks before some started to play) narrowed the difference to 64 percent for blacks to 60 percent for whites. The regressions with fixed effects show a much more pronounced difference with a gap of 27 percentage points.
Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack
Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been
added to Nexis:
There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting
duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for
general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use
increase from 2 to 3 now.