Playing gotcha with misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and any other form of discrimination can do a disservice to the actual harm that it causes.
Al Campanis’ 1987 Nightline debacle was actually a fascinating discussion on systemic racism. Much of that was due to Ted Koppel putting on a journalistic masterclass while conducting that interview. Not only did he exhibit a thorough understanding of systemic racism, but he also set the tone from the moment he didn’t let Campanis dodge his first question — “Mr. Campanis I know it’s noisy there in the Astrodome, but let me try my question again. How long was it before other people on the team began to treat [Jackie Robinson] as a human being? Began to help him as a human being?”
Campanis concluded his response with this sentence: “After a while, when someone helps you win a ball game, you get to accept him very readily.”
It’s fairly well-known what happened. Campanis sabotaged his career. He questioned Black people’s capacity to work as lead executives and even their level of buoyancy.
The way that Koppel, and Roger Kahn, used Campanis’ prejudice to shine a light on systemic racism — while on live television — was both impressive and informative. It provided a couple of moments where Koppel even took his own industry to task for its track record in hiring Black people in positions of power.
Still, the Los Angeles Dodgers had to fire Campanis as general manager, and he elected to resign before they dropped the hammer. He didn’t simply make a racist comment, he articulated a racist state of mind.
Former Niagara Falls columnist Jerry Sullivan attacked his own career in a similar way, except for his remarks were against women, and there were no Koppel and Kahn to at least make his prejudice educational.
Sullivan wasn’t on a nationally-televised program on Monday. He was being filmed in a basement, behind a card table, next to a person wearing sunglasses and a sweater cap indoors. A viewer — Amy — didn’t think that night’s show was very good and she expressed that opinion in the comments. Sullivan’s response: “The worst fans really are the women. They don’t get critical journalism. They just, they all wanna be cheerleaders.”
Sullivan apologized on Tuesday. Campanis apologized the day after his Nightline appearance. And just like Campanis, Sullivan was out of a job. He was let go by the Niagara Gazette, the Lockport Union Sun, and WIVB-TV.
After taking a serious hit to his income and reputation, Sullivan got defensive. On Wednesday, he took to Twitter to spill out his bonafides on how many stories he has written about women and girls from DI basketball to high school golf. He ended the tweet with what he thought was the perfect button, but in reality, he ended up stating exactly why he needed to leave.
“It’s sad that due to one stupid comment, many of these types of stories, which go largely ignored in local media, will go untold.”
The reason why women’s and girls’ sports do not receive the coverage that they should is that many people either believe personally what Sullivan said on that podcast, or that the majority of people who consume sports content hold that viewpoint. A large part of systemic sexism and misogyny is the belief that women aren’t interesting, and that they don’t think critically. They think emotionally.
Campanis’ statements on Nightline showed that he bought into the belief that Black people are inferior in tasks that don’t involve physical labor. It’s a systemic problem in the private workforce, which is why Black people have such a hard time finding their footing in that world, which leads to wealth inequality and a host of other problems.
At face value what both Campanis and Sullivan said is highly offensive, but they took it a step further. They audibly perpetuated a system that causes harm to people. That is why an apology was not enough in either case and separation was necessary.
For Campanis that wasn’t the end of his story.
While Black participation in baseball has been in decline for most of the last 35 years, there have been a handful of Black people hired in leadership positions. The MLB hired professor/activist Harry Edwards after Campanis’ firing to help get more Black people involved in leadership roles. Campanis reached out to Edwards who then hired him. It was Campanis who brought the name Dusty Baker to Edwards’ attention.
Sullivan has “women’s sports advocate” listed in his Twitter bio. If he truly goes down that path maybe he can find his way back into working in media. But the first step in that long journey, is realizing that he did far more than simply make a stupid comment, he gave a destructive system energy.