Kevin van Valkenberg wrote about “white privilege” for the Undefeated. It raises an interesting discussion. White privilege is a clear issue within the media. It is a clear issue outside the media, particularly in the criminal justice system.
Van Valkenberg poses Ryan Lochte’s initial media treatment as a clear example of this phenomenon. He justifies it with a counterfactual, asserting Lochte received a greater benefit of the doubt and more sympathy than a black athlete would have in an analogous situation.
Try to imagine, just for a second, what the world’s reaction would be if a black athlete got drunk, urinated in public, destroyed some property, then concocted a story in which he bravely stood up to someone with a gun who was attempting to rob him and his friends.
Then, when his whole story fell apart, ask yourself if it would be brushed off as an example of a “kid” making a relatively harmless mistake or become fodder for countless jokes.
It’s tough to disprove a counterfactual, or provide a precise parallel example for this. But, we have had sort of similar situations arise with prominent non-white athletes. It’s not clear those stories support Van Valkenberg’s contention.
Josh Shaw, a safety for USC in 2014, suffered two high ankle sprains after jumping from a second floor balcony. Both the media and USC bought Shaw’s initial claim, that he had leapt from the balcony to rescue his 7-year-old nephew drowning in a pool. It later emerged Shaw in fact leapt from the balcony because a neighbor had called police while he had an argument with his girlfriend.
The situation played out similarly to Lochte’s. The media bought the initial story peddled by official sources. Then facts contradicted it. It became a running joke on Twitter. Then it drifted away. Shaw became a Trojan player again and later a Cincinnati Bengal. Lochte will doubtless just be “12-time Olympic medalist” at some future date.
The major difference in Lochte’s coverage was not his race. It was that the media made the same mistake twice. First, the media bought Lochte’s account without looking into it. Then, media bought Brazilian officials’ perhaps equally flawed account without looking into it.
Media members also ran with Manti Te’o’s story about his dead girlfriend throughout his Heisman campaign, despite not being able to verify said dead girlfriend existed. That story lasted until Deadspin exposed it the following January.
Race is a societal construct. One could quibble about how much a devout Mormon Notre Dame linebacker reads as “non-white.” But, it played out similarly to Lochte. The initial story was bought. It became a running joke when it was exposed. The incident, beyond embarrassment, was not that significant for Te’o. His poor combine performance had far more to deal with him falling from the first round. His NFL career has been unclouded.
It’s hard to say Lochte was not the beneficiary of white privilege. Because, just as you can’t disprove a counterfactual, you can’t disassociate Lochte from essential facets of his being. He’s white, which carries privilege. So does him being an American. So does him being a prominent athlete.
Lochte, as Van Valkenberg asserts, gets far more benefit of the doubt than “Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner.” But, so would LeBron or Carmelo. They are famous athletes.
I can’t say what was unconsciously motivating NBC or how and whether treatment of a black Olympian would have been different. But, the simplest explanation for what happened is NBC bought the same story other media outlets did.
The Olympics isn’t a sports or a news product to NBC. It’s an entertainment product. NBC doesn’t do negative or hard-hitting Olympic takes, unless it’s about villainous Russian dopers. NBC had the access to Lochte. They had a clear motive: to deploy it in the best possible manner for NBC. Ratings boost for the Today Show. Big forum for Billy Bush, rising star NBC just called up to the Today Show.
Then NBC realized this was serious, then doubled back with Matt Lauer. Then, well, the flaws embedded in someone’s story are always far easier to spot in retrospect.
Discussing white privilege is healthy. But, a better jumping off point than Lochte would have been the column about Gabby Douglas Van Valkenberg mentioned as an aside.