Lately, I have been wondering what it is like to win a sport award named after a notorious racist.
Every year in December a panel of professional journalists award the Lou Marsh Trophy to Canada’s top athlete. This award, first handed out in 1936, remains one of the most anticipated events in Canadian sport because it is given to any athlete in any sport, whether amateur or professional, male or female.
With the criteria being wide open and with journalists at the helm, it is no surprise the recipients are household names. Past winners include Wayne Gretzky, Donovan Bailey, Catriona LeMay Doan, Mike Weir, Adam van Koeverden, Steve Nash, Christine Sinclair, Carey Price and Bianca Andreescu.
The recipients are always “honoured and humbled,” as soccer-star Alphonso Davies said earlier this year after finding out he was named co-recipient of the 2020 award with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs. Sometimes their contributions extend well beyond the sporting field.
Duvernay-Tardif, a graduate of McGill University medical school, let it be known on Twitter in July 2020 that he was opting out of playing what remained of the 2020 NFL season to work in a Montréal long-term care facility, writing, “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport that I love. If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”
We know a great deal about these athletes. Take a few minutes to Google their names and see what comes up. But what do we know about Lou Marsh, the person whom journalists and sports fans revere every year through this award?
Marsh, who was born in 1879 and died suddenly in 1936, was not only a prominent athlete and referee, he was also one of Canada’s leading sports journalists. He spent nearly 40 years as a writer and editor for the Toronto Star, teaching readers how to appreciate sport and the athletes who took part in them through his immensely popular column called “With Pick and Shovel.” Given that he shaped four generations of readers and made sports journalism in Canada a viable career, it makes sense that his colleagues, then and now, want to honour his pioneering role in the field.
Other parts of his biography require more thought, since Marsh, like most professional journalists, was a paid content producer working for a private corporation. His job was to attract and retain readers for the Toronto Star, which he did by weaving together compelling narratives that tapped skilfully into the hopes, fears, aspirations and prejudices of Canadian settlers, turning white supremacist discourses in sport into an art form.
In other words, Marsh spent his career energizing racist sports journalism. In doing so, he was following the conventions that his contemporaries had adopted, who were also in competition to attract readers and sell hard copy. He was merely reproducing conventional racist thinking through sport.
It is understandable that few people would know this about Marsh. Reputable resources often use “colourful” instead of “racist” to describe his reporting style. This not only deflects our attention away from Marsh’s racism, it undermines broader attempts to address racism in sport more generally by suggesting it is harmless rhetoric. What is more, only a small handful of researchers have taken the time to investigate just how hostile his sports reporting was, which means this information is not widely known.
Opinions and attitudes
Consider the nightmare that Tom Longboat must have lived through. He was the famed Onondaga runner from Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., who dazzled the world with his athleticism in the early 1900s. Marsh knew Longboat and had even coached him in 1907 and 1908, two of his best running years.
As a journalist, Marsh frequently wrote about the legendary runner, praising him in one sentence for this athleticism while upbraiding him in another for his supposed wayward Indian ways. Sometimes he relied on common stereotypes about Black people to describe how Longboat was feeling, such as when he described Longboat to his readers as “smiling like a coon in a watermelon patch” in a Jan. 4, 1909, article.
Other times, Marsh claimed that Longboat needed tight control and the help of white trainers for him to reach his potential. It would be disingenuous to say Marsh was Longboat’s supporter or friend. We would need to ignore his racism in order to do that.
There were many more victims than Longboat, though that is the best known story. Historians Don Morrow and Kevin Wamsley devote several pages in their textbook, Sport in Canada: A History, dissecting Marsh’s reporting style. They note that he was equally caustic towards Chinese, Black and Jewish athletes. His racism, though maybe not widely known, is well documented enough to be taught to college and university students throughout Canada.
We may never know what Longboat thought about Marsh or about the way he was represented in Marsh’s newspaper column. Yet it is not hard to imagine what Longboat went through, trying to maintain his culture and his composure while navigating the complex and tricky sports media terrain in a country fixated on erasing Indigenous people from the map.
Marsh, for all the damage he has done, is a historical figure we can learn from, but he is not someone who should be honoured. Not in sport or anywhere.
His journalistic style no doubt influenced generations of readers and reporters, which helped to normalize practices we see in sport today. These include racial slurs and taunts directed at athletes, the preferential marketing of athletes that have the right “look” to appeal to mostly white consumers, and the microaggressions that racialized athletes experience daily, to name a few common practices. This does not include the deeper ways in which racism is embedded in Canadian sport, such as the implicit bias that ensures white people are more often viewed as a natural fit for leadership positions in sport.
Where does this leave us? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to name the award after an athlete, coach or builder who step-by-step moved through sport’s complex terrain in spite of the racism they faced? Maybe it should be named after someone who raised other people up instead of tearing them down to make a name for themselves and earn a living.
If (and hopefully when) Marsh’s name is retired from this trophy, maybe it will be replaced with something that speaks to the positive values that Black, Indigenous and other racialized athletes bring to sport. Maybe then it will be the honour the journalists would like it to be.