One would think that a president pardoning a black boxer for a “racially-motivated injustice,” would be cause for much rejoicing in the ranks of the socially concerned sports media.
However, it appears one would be wrong to think that.
On Thursday, President Trump officially pardoned Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. As Breitbart’s Charlie Spiering notes, “Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines ‘for immoral purposes’ while he had relationships with white prostitutes. Jackson fled the country to escape prison but returned in 1920 to serve his sentence, spending ten months in prison. He died in a car accident in 1946 at the age of 68.”
President Trump proudly announced his decision to the press during an Oval Office ceremony.
“I am taking this very righteous step,” Trump said. “I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history, and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion, legendary athlete, and a person that, when people got to know him, they really liked him and they really thought he was treated unfairly as a human being and unfairly as a champion.”
Yet, despite the president’s historic action in correcting the shameful, racist mistreatment of a black fighter convicted for the crime of being a good fighter while having sex with white women. The media outside the Oval Office paid scant attention to President Trump’s correction of the racial record.
Perhaps most noteworthy was the deafening silence coming from those who either questioned Trump’s racial politics, or called him an outright racist in the past.
For example, ESPN’s Jemele Hill made national headlines after calling Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter:
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
Trump’s pardon of Johnson should have been welcome news to Hill. Possibly even suggesting to her that she may have it wrong about the president. Yet, a search of Hill’s Twitter timeline on Thursday night revealed no such statement. In fact, Hill didn’t so much as reference Trump’s pardon of Johnson.
Nor is Hill alone, a search of Twitter traffic using the search words “Jack Johnson,” revealed little in the way of commentary from the sports media. In fact, the search went hundreds of tweets deep before finding a tweet from FS1’s Shannon Sharpe:
This is like giving a person flowers when they’re dead. Nice gesture, but Jack Johnson doesn’t actually benefit. https://t.co/6SmTcovUyu
— shannon sharpe (@ShannonSharpe) May 24, 2018
Unfortunately, Sharpe chose the one time Kurt Eichenwald said something beneficial, to weigh-in with something singularly unhelpful. Johnson’s pardon was about righting a wrong committed by our country, as much as it was about clearing Johnson’s name. The fact that Johnson isn’t alive to experience it is sad, but ultimately not the point.
ESPN’s written coverage of the Johnson pardon appeared lacking as well. The network’s early report about the pardon merely consisted of an Associated Press wire. Coverage on the network’s boxing page included a video of the White House ceremony and another report contributed to by the AP.
The only extensive, original coverage of the pardon came on ESPN’s Undefeated page. A site which frequently covers social issues involving race. There, Jesse Washington appeared to give the president some credit for the pardon. Noting that Trump had acted on Johnson’s behalf where former President Obama had failed.
However, it wasn’t long before Washington turned on Trump, citing reports that the president had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct and assault. Washington then took aim at Trump’s cabinet, taking Attorney General Jeff sessions to task for “reviving policies on criminal charges that disastrously and disproportionately packed American prisons with blacks and Latinos.”
Regardless, the point is that no matter what was said, the Undefeated is a relative backwater on the ESPN network. The president’s action was certainly worthy of more coverage than a six paragraph article on a neglected corner of ESPN’s site.
And if they can’t show proper recognition of a truly good act that helps clear a man’s name and address the racist wrongs of the past, one might get the impression that ESPN cares a lot more about politics than it does about race.
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter @themightygwinn