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The Undefeated and Morgan State University announce journalism partnership

Research will focus on the image of black female athletes and the path of black coaches to the NFL

Serena and Venus Williams. The eight African-American players on the 2007 Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Every black player in the WNBA.

What do these women have in common? All are top-level athletes who have been vilified, demeaned or criticized at some point in the media and by the public for their appearance and performance.

The negative images of these women — and other popular black athletes — will be the focus of a symposium at the newly established Center for the Study of Race, Sports and Culture at Morgan State University on Oct. 18.

The symposium kicks off a yearlong journalism and research partnership between ESPN’s The Undefeated and Morgan State, the largest of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Later this year, the center will begin an examination of the pipeline for African-Americans to head coaching jobs in college football and the NFL.

Tuesday’s event will feature a panel discussion about the impact of unflattering portrayals of black female athletes. The panel members are Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in fencing, Kara Lawson, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in women’s basketball, and Lonnae O’Neal, a senior writer with The Undefeated. Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s His & Hers (and soon-to-be SportsCenter co-host), will moderate the panel, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the university’s Student Center Theater.

The Center for the Study of Race, Sports and Culture will facilitate lectures and research projects. They will be led by existing faculty at the university, as well as visiting journalists who will work with students on reporting programs, said DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, who will oversee the center’s programming and student outreach. The journalism school has 476 students currently enrolled. There are 25 full-time and eight adjunct faculty members.

“I don’t know of another type of program of this kind in the country — and certainly not with the kind of partnership that exists with The Undefeated and our school,” Wickham said. “This partnership is a major commitment not just to journalism, but to the discovery of information that is important to people of African descent. And that is similar to our school’s mission.”

The new center should be considered “an incubator that houses research and journalism work,” said Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Undefeated. “That’s something we want to support because that’s right in the space that our site happens to be in. Part of our overall strategy is about being involved in the lives of HBCUs.”

Strong academic research can help journalists “break ground around the understanding of images of the black female athletes, and how to document whether black coaches get the same opportunities as white coaches to get into the pipeline as head coaches in the NFL,” Merida said. “We want to know how you get to be head coach for a major conference or get to be recruited into the NFL as an offensive or defensive coordinator. It will be interesting to study that and see if we can break ground journalistically.”

Wickham, who is a former USA Today and Gannett newspapers columnist, remembers radio host “Don Imus’ reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as ‘nappy-headed hoes,’ or the critical references to the Williams sisters when they went onto the tennis courts with beads in their hair.”

“Even criticism of the kinds of clothing that black female athletes wear — all of these things will be put under a microscope, and we’ll try to figure out what impact that may have had on them and on their performance,” he said.

Wickham hopes to attract undergrad and graduate students from other schools within Morgan State (such as the School of Social Work) to participate in the center’s research. The first priority as a journalist “and at a journalism school is to seek truth and report it. I hope that our partnership … will do just that: to seek truth and report it.”

Jill Hudson is the senior style writer for the Undefeated. She is an evolved nerd, a caffeinated shoe fanatic, and a maker of long lists and perfect martinis.