In Defense of Felipe Alou
So you say you wanna be a racist? Put down that burning cross! Rip up your white hood! Throw away your CD of "Trent Lott’s Favorite Negro Spirituals!" The quickest way to be branded a racist is to stand up to racism. Just ask San Francisco Giants’ manager Felipe Alou.
Last week, KNBR’s Larry Krueger called the Giants a team of "brain dead Caribbeans." Alou straightened his spine and said, "Hell no." In the ensuing storm, Krueger was canned. Now Alou, in the eyes of a whole strain of the sports industrial complex, is the bad guy and Krueger has morphed into Mario Savio with gravy stains: a free speech martyr sacrificed on the altar of "political correctness."
When Krueger got the boot, Alou was sympathetic but remained firm . "I feel bad about people being fired. It wasn’t my intention, but I didn’t start it and I took a stand. I want people to understand that [racism] is a social issue. I want to make people aware of that so they will know that in the United States, it won’t be tolerated."
But it is the 70 year old manager’s anti-racism that is meeting with a tide of intolerance. The mainstream media has called Alou called "divisive," "venomous," and even "Machiavellian." In one theory oozing its way through talk radio, Alou has masterfully used the uproar to draw attention from the Giants’ hideous season. The real students of Machiavelli, however, are those who have reframed the debate to be about Alou instead of the issues he was striving to bring to light.
As Chuck Carlson in the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote, "Felipe Alou’s bizarre reaction has only hurt his case for racial sensitivity in this country[I]n this instance, Alou looks like an overwrought bully who may need his own course in sensitivity training. Should Krueger have said it? Of course not. It was a dopey comment said for a cheap laugh and it’s done a thousand times a day in a thousand different placesthe truly strange part of this story is how Alou has reacted."
Carlson is absolutely right that racism raises its ugly head "a thousand times a day in a thousand different places." But to him and his ilk, injustice is the tolerable status quo. To actually speak out is "truly strange" and "bizarre." It’s like George W. Bush sneering at Cindy Sheehan for ruining his vacation.
Krueger meanwhile has been called a "sacrificial lamb" destroyed by "political correctness." Gary Radnich, a San Francisco television sportscaster said, "Felipe Alou got rolling, got a head of steam up, and in this politically correct world, you don’t get a second chance any more."
Another wrote that Krueger is being railroaded because he is some kind of populist hero. "KNBR is the Giants’ flagship station but Krueger’s opinions aren’t always popular with the suits and ties. It makes you wonder if the Giants are trying to rid themselves of their most outspoken critic."
This is simply a rotten, red herring. The issue is not whether Alou "went too far," but the banal, persistent, thudding reality of racism in the United States. Every day, on both sports and talk radio, gallons of spew are projected across the airwaves. Every day we condition ourselves to just ignore it, absorb it, and move on. Alou, to his eternal credit, refused to play that game.
He stood tall and attempted to shine the brightest light possible on some deeply ugly ideas. One of his points that has his detractors in a lather was when he called Krueger a "messenger of Satan." Asked if he didn’t think the statement about Satan was too harsh, Alou explained: "I didn’t call him Satan and I never would. I said he was a messenger of Satan, because his message was a message of division. We should be past all that after so many years."
I was asked on sports radio if the Satan remark was somehow "worse" than the statement about "brain dead Caribbeans." The feeling was that Alou was somehow "meaner" than Krueger and therefore worthy of equal contempt.
Once again, this goes back to having the most basic understanding of what racism is and is not. Racism is not about hurtful words, bruised feelings, "political correctness," or refusing to call short people "vertically challenged." Racism is about power. To be Latino in the United States means living with a bullseye on your back. In California, it means living in a state where the Republican governor welcomes an armed militia to hunt you down at the border. In New Mexico, it means Democratic Governor Bill Richardson declaring a "state of emergency" to appeal for the National Guard to stop "the flood" of "illegals." Right now, anti-immigrant fear-mongering is political gold. Alou referenced this racist renaissance when he said, "We’re not out of the woods yet, and the thick wood is coming." To ignore the "thick wood" means to invite a knock on the head. Our hope for the future lies in doing exactly what Alou did: calling out racism as loudly and sharply as possible, without regret and without a pause. As Alou’s friend, Hall of Fame slugger Orlando Cepeda said, "Trust me, you have to fight. When people are wrong, you’ve got to let them know it."
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.