Is Barry Bonds the object of a racist witch-hunt? Over the last week I have had to publicly argue this issue against some of the finest minds of my generation (all right, John Rocker and Jose Canseco). In addition, I have duked it out on talk radio, sports radio, email chats, and various blogs. The dominant argument I hear repeatedly, whether from Mr. Rocker or Mr. Liberal Blogger, is that I am an idiot if I think that the Bonds steroid-mania is all about bigotry run amok. Unfortunately that is not my argument.
To be clear:
I don’t think that everyone against Bonds is a racist. I don’t think every sportswriter who wants Bonds punished is a racist. And I certainly don’t think anyone who believes in harsh penalties for steroid use is a racist. One can hate Barry Bonds and also spend Sundays singing “We Shall Overcome” with the Harlem Boys Choir before reading select passages from Go Tell it On The Mountain. But to argue that race has nothing to do with the saga of Barry Bonds is to practice ignorance frightening in its Rocker-ian grandiosity.
Of course you can always simply agree with San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan, CEO of Safeway Supermarkets and anti-union zealot, who believes that it is a remarkable sign of racial progress that Barry Bonds is flayed before the public. Magowan said, “I don’t believe this is a case of racism. In fact, I think this shows how far we’ve come. If the media brought this up 20 years ago, they would have been considered racists.”
Now that’s progress. The media can be as racist as they want without being called on it.
The fact is that racism smears this entire story like rancid cream cheese on a stale bialy.
First and foremost, there are the death threats. USA Ttoday reported yesterday that Bonds is being deluged with letters that threaten his life, many with overtones about as subtle as a burning cross. Today I was on a tremendous radio show out of Cincinnati called The Buzz, and we were deluged with calls by older African-Americans who recalled with chilling clarity the trials of Henry Aaron. When Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s home run record, the death threats came rolling in. Now that Bonds is just six behind Ruth’s 714, the slurs are returning 32 years later like a white power Halley’s Comet.
Dr. Harry Edwards, the famed sports sociologist, recently said, “The same animosity and resentment that Hank Aaron suffered through when he broke Babe Ruth’s record has been exacerbated because of the cloud of steroid suspicion. This is a visceral response to a black man (passing) Babe Ruth.”
Then, there is the way the media is covering this. There is no question that Bonds has spent his career treating the press the way a baby treats a diaper. But Bonds is not the first athlete to sneer at a reporter or two. In fact Mark McGwire was a notoriously surly personality who was presented to us like a grinning Paul Bunyon. It’s not who you are, but who the media tells us you are. When it comes to Bonds, the press has called for everything but a big scarlet S on his chest, all of which has the appearance of a hellacious double standard. When a prominent ESPN talk show host says, “If [Bonds] did it, hang him”, the perception is that this is little more than a railroad job of a prominent and outspoken African-American superstar on the precipice of Ruth and Aaron’s records.
This is why Louisiana State University professor Leonard Moore can say with sincerity, “White America doesn’t want him to (pass) Babe Ruth and is doing everything they can to stop him. America hasn’t had a white hope since the retirement of (NBA star) Larry Bird, and once Bonds passes Ruth, there’s nothing that will make (Ruth) unique, and they’re scared. And I’m scared for Bonds.”
Finally there is the Major League Baseball establishment itself. This week they took the extraordinary step of forming a commission to “investigate and root out steroids in the game” led by former Senator George Mitchell.
But the probe is already being derided as a sham. How seriously would we take an investigation into Iraq’s missing “weapons of mass destruction” if it was headed by Dick Cheney? Would we accept an examination of racial profiling if it was led by John Ashcroft? Of course not. It would be a farce. And so it is with Senator Mitchell in charge. Mitchell is on the board of the Boston Red Sox. He is also chairman of The Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ESPN, the main national broadcast partner of baseball. In other words, he has an actual material interest in keeping the spotlight off the owners, including what they knew and when they knew it, and keeping it on the players. Particularly Barry Bonds.
According to one writer with a serious pipeline into the commissioner’s office, Richard Justice, the investigation is “Totally [aimed at Barry Bonds.] He is the number one player going for the most hallowed record… There may be other names that come out but this is all about Barry Bonds… Bud wants the prescription, well more than perception, that he is doing this the right way…I promise you he will not get the chance to break Hank Aaron’s record. I will be willing to bet you. I think Henry Aaron and Bud Selig will be grilling brauts in Bud’s backyard.”
In other words, this is all smoke in our eyes, blurring the fact that this really about getting Bonds out of the game before he passes Aaron. Is this racially motivated? The question is too simplistic. The fact is that Bud Selig is deflecting criticism off the owners by putting the heat on the most prominent player in the game who happens to be Black. Whether this is conjured up in some back room or not is beside the point. MLB owners seem willing to sacrifice Bonds if it keeps Congress and the public off their backs. This is why some prominent baseball people are loudly speaking a word rarely said in the world of sports: race.
All-star Minnesota Twin Torii Hunter, another of baseball’s dwindling African-American superstars, called the investigation “stupid.” “They can say what they want, but there’s no way they would launch an investigation if Barry Bonds was not about to break Babe Ruth’s record,” Hunter said. “It’s so obvious what’s going on. He has never failed a drug test and said he never took steroids, but everybody keeps trying to disgrace him. How come nobody even talks about Mark McGwire anymore? Or (Rafael) Palmeiro (who tested positive for steroids in 2005)? Whenever I go home I hear people say all of the time, ‘Baseball just doesn’t like black people.’ Here’s the greatest hitter in the game, and they’re scrutinizing him like crazy.’ It’s killing me because you know it’s about race.”
Dave Steward, a former 20 game winner and front office exec who now is an agent, said to one reporter, “People keep talking about how he’s not supposed to keep hitting homers and doing phenomenal things because he’s 40-plus. Well, Roger Clemens is 40-plus, too, and nobody ever brings his name up. Why not? Is it because he’s white?”
Matt Lawton, who unlike Bonds has tested positive for steroids, said, “If (Bonds) were white, he’d be a poster boy in baseball, not an outcast.”
None of this means that any critique of Bonds is inherently racist or that there doesn’t need to be some way to deal with performance enhancers. It means that the overheated rhetoric needs to cease. It means that if baseball decides it doesn’t want steroids in its game, and wants to “clean up its own house” it should realize that it is cheap, gutter politics to focus on one person as if that person is the root of all anabolic evil. They should realize that in the current climate, it emboldens a racist fringe. If they don’t realize it, we sure as hell should.
A couple years ago, Bonds said, “This is something we, as African-American athletes, live with every day. I don’t need a headline that says, ‘Bonds says there’s racism in the game of baseball.’ We all know it. It’s just that some people don’t want to admit it. They’re going to play dumb like they don’t know what the hell is going on.”
That is absolutely right. It’s not defenders of Bonds who are putting race on the table, but whether you are a Bonds supporter or not, all anti-racists need to take it off.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “‘What’s My name Fool?’“: Sports and Resistance in the united States. He is speaking at the conference Socialism 2006, June 22-25, in New York City, with Etan Thomas and Toni Smith. See www.socialismconference.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org