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The Spanish spreading up through Major League Baseball

The Spanish spreading up through Major League Baseball

Posted by PanamericanWorld on March 30, 2017

Millions of Latino fans in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America will be rooting for their favorite players at MLB, many of whom are coming from places like Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. But Spanish-speaking fans, millions of whom watch Spanish-language broadcasts of baseball games, will have little idea of the lingering challenge some Latino players in the States have long faced: inadequate language support from the minor and majorleagues.

Much of the issues surround the inability of the Latino players to meaningfully communicate with the press. This can be the result of simply not speaking each other's language, a barrier in how cultural norms affect the use of language, or from poor reporting on Latino players.

One such incident of lackluster coverage happened last year when Brian T. Smith from the Houston Chronicle wrote an article on the struggling performance of Carlos Gómez during his season with the Houston Astros. Gómez, born in the Dominican Republic, speaks English, but not with native proficiency. When Smith quoted Gómez as saying, "For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed," the mangled language sparked a backlash about how the media can sometimes cover players in a way that demeans their intelligence or leaves them embarrassed.

Adrian Burgos Jr., a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in Latino and sports history, says there is a history of English-language media being insensitive in the coverage Latino players have received in the past. "The practice of poking fun at the accents that Latino players used has been a traditional exercise of the English-language press," Burgos said. He says they tend to highlight the accents and fail to adequately convey the ideas that Latino players are trying to express.

When the backlash against Gómez quotes began, freelance writer Britni De La Cretaz wrote an article pointing to the lack of diversity in newsrooms as contributing to the lack of sensitivity from both Smith and the editors who did not address the grammatically-poor quotes before publishing the article. De La Cretaz pointed to The 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card which concluded that more than 91 percent of sports editors and 85 percent of reporters are white.

"For me, what's important is talking to journalists in the community and trying to make sure that I am respectfully representing people," De La Cretaz, who does not speak Spanish, said about covering these players. "I think the responsibility there lies with newsrooms and that's kind of part of the problem, too," she said. "Since I'm a white writer, who is writing and my editor is a white editor there's a huge blind spot there."

According to the 2014 AP report, there has been an increase in people of color in sports newsrooms, but most of the progress can be attributed to the diversity found at ESPN. For instance, if the male columnists of color employed by ESPN were removed from the total number of sports staffers at the over 100 newspapers and websites AP reviewed, the percentage of columnists of color would drop from more than 17 percent to three percent.

Significantly, ESPN has dedicated major resources to its Spanish-language viewers and, by extension, to the coverage it gives Spanish-speaking athletes in general.

Freddy Rolón, vice president and general manager at ESPN Deportes, oversees the network's business and television's more than 4,500 live hours of Spanish-language content every year. "When we look at the marketplace for the Hispanic audience, we see actually growth in both the English side and the Spanish-language side. And we're seeing a big growth in the overlap as well with the bilingual audience," he said.

Rolón points out that while the bilingual market is growing, Latinos tend to gravitate towards the Spanish ESPN Deportes network for sports like fútbol, soccer, and English ESPN for American football despite the complex overlap in the bilingual audience. That, Rolón says, is the result of each English or Spanish side of the network having cultivated more expertise through a longer history of covering the two different sports.

But covering baseball is complicated, in large part because of its astronomical popularity in and equally important fan bases in the U.S. and Latin America. "When you speak about baseball, it speaks to Latinos on both sides of their being," Rolón said. "There's a question of identity and how that is mixed between your country of origin and the country that you are part of and you live in. That is very much a fabric of baseball."

Rolón says when ESPN Deportes launched in 2004, they found a "huge void" at the intersection of Spanish and baseball that was not being filled. This gap in Spanish coverage led ESPN to realize there was an opportunity to get that coverage from the reporters to bleed into the English programming. "By getting more candid conversations with the players, by letting them open up a little bit more because we're talking to them in their native languages, we got better stories and we were better at serving fans because we could tell them things they might not have heard if they were just looking at it from an English-language lens," Rolón said.

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