NAHJ sports task force will emphasize mentorship and support for journalists of color

Iliana Limón Romero  holds up a copy of the Orlando Sentinel’s 2014 football preview section she helped produce. COURESY OF THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

A Latina had never before been named as sports editor at a major newspaper in the United States until 2018, when Iliana Limón Romero became the first to take on that role at the Orlando Sentinel

“I was not as intimidated stepping in. I was more frustrated that it existed,” Limón Romero said about this gap in representation. “It was less about being intimidated and more about just really wanting to push for change.”

Now the deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times, Limón Romero has nearly two decades in sports journalism. Being the first Latina to rise through the ranks meant there was no one who came before her to help her navigate the field, which has long been dominated by largely white, male voices.

Iliana Limón Romero, right, is joined by Alicia DelGallo during an Orlando Sentinel soccer video segment.

In May, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists announced that Limón Romero would join with Joe Rodriguez, a bilingual sports broadcast journalist, to relaunch the dormant NAHJ Sports Task Force in an effort to spur the change Limón Romero said she hopes to see in the industry.

The initiative will offer mentorship to sports journalists at various stages of their careers and help circulate career opportunities to Latinos in the field, NAHJ officials said.

“What we’re trying to do is essentially become that bridge between Latino journalists and a lot of these mainstream organizations,” said Rodriguez, a veteran of the sports industry who has had more than 15 years of experience working as a producer for companies like ESPN, Fox Sports and Telemundo. 

Earlier this month, the issue of systemic racism and how it factors into sports journalism came to a head at ESPN.

Sideline reporter Rachel Nichols was benched earlier this month after The New York Times reported that Nichols, who is white, made disparaging comments last year about her colleague Maria Taylor, who is Black, questioning why the network had picked Taylor to cover the 2020 NBA Finals. Nichols said Taylor had been selected because ESPN was “feeling pressure” to diversify.

The incident, some journalists said, shed a light on some of the ongoing issues faced by sports journalists of color. For some early-career journalists, like Adrian Romero, a student at the University of Houston, the fallout has forced them to rethink their career plan.

“The corporate media world seems more and more like something I don’t want to be a part of,” he said. “I think for me personally, my dreams … can still be accomplished, but I’m kind of realizing I might have to forge a different path rather than relying on landing a job within the ‘big’ media companies.”

The NAHJ Task Force, and the organization as a whole, are supporting efforts led by the National Association of Black Journalists in addressing issues of diversity and inclusion at ESPN. NABJ leaders have requested a meeting with Disney, which owns the sports outlet.

“We have to continue the dialogue and call out inequality when we see it,” Limón Romero said. “To recognize that there are some issues with a lot of media outlets, not just ESPN, where middle senior management just is not diverse and doesn’t really understand how to deal with these issues.” 

Marcos Breton, opinion editor for McClatchy Newspapers in California, said throughout his four decade-long career, he has seen efforts to diversify staff and coverage at media outlets thwarted by high-ranking professionals.

“In my experience, it was the well-liked, well-respected white senior journalists who often are the ones who prevent diversity from happening,” Breton said. “I had mentors who were Latino, and who were white as well, but you still ran into obstructionists who had power.”

This is not the first time NAHJ has tried to get its sports task force off the ground.

NAHJ Executive Director Zita Arocha said past sports initiatives did not live up to their full potential because the brunt of the heavy workload fell solely on the shoulders of one leader. 

“It’s difficult to carry such a large amount of responsibility when it comes down to one person,” Arocha said. “For years, there was one chair, but this new evolution should create longevity and consistency for our sports programming.”

With new leadership roles, Limón Romero and Rodriguez hope to offer more sport-focused resources for journalists that extend beyond the annual conference. 

“This was an opportunity to change that by providing more sports-specific sessions,” Limón Romero said. “We want to use this platform to amplify and support the work of Latino sports journalists and hold outlets accountable for their lack of representation.”

Marc Ray is a senior at the University of Houston, where he studies broadcast journalism. As an intern for Houston Public Media he covered a range of issues, including sports features and election stories. He covered the 2020 protests against racial injustice in Houston for El Gato Media network and is completing a video internship for AARP. Reach him at mray [at] theventureonline [dot] com and on Twitter @marcraysports.

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