White Noise and the Black Athlete

“Throw at his head! Throw at his head!”

The egg-shaped man in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, who looked like he would be sitting behind a desk by morning, continued the arrhythmic chant as those around him chimed in. They were all pleading to see a 95-mph fastball hit a man in the temple, and felt that their demand was righteous.

The player they wanted to see put down was, of course, San Francisco Giants baseball star Barry Bonds, and it is hard to say what was more shocking: the call for his beheading or the near-collective rapture at the thought.

One guy yelled, “Hit his knee! End his career! Please! I will name my kid after you!” A friend of mine who was attending this game and relayed this story almost got into fisticuffs for the crime of wearing a Giants cap.

This may have happened in Milwaukee, but it’s not the story of one city and one set of fans. It’s a continual happenstance in almost every baseball stadium not named AT&T Park. As Bonds marches undeterred toward that 756th homer, and the title of all-time home run king, the volume on the vitriol is being raised to disturbing heights.

Some say they can’t stand Bonds because they are beyond certain–even in the absence of a positive drug test–that he has used steroids. Others say it’s his “surly attitude” or “bad sportsmanship.”

Of course, legions of athletes have been suspected of using performance enhancers. And if you want to find a “surly athlete,” well, just visit your nearest locker room.

But Bonds has become a peculiar kind of lightning rod, the weight of an entire statistically dubious era resting on his shoulders. And much of the reaction–much of the “white noise” that follows him from park to park–has the feel of something uglier than the typical, something akin to racism.

* * *

THERE IS a stubborn insistence that this is utter nonsense–as if our dual national obsessions (racism and sports) somehow live in isolation from one another. The anti-Bonds furies speak with the self-righteousness of a bizarre social movement, and claim to be unsullied by the lowbrow emotions of bigotry.

My argument is not that everyone who is against Bonds is a racist, or that anyone who believes in harsh penalties for steroid use is bigoted. A person can hate Bonds and spend weekends performing in a James Brown cover band, with all proceeds going to the United Negro College Fund.

But those who wish harm on the man–who cheer at the thought of a grisly, career-ending injury–should ask themselves what is driving the seething rage that accompanies far too many of the boos.

I was on a talk show recently where I raised the issue that racism remains a factor in the Bonds brouhaha. The response took me off guard–I was asked whether I had ever measured the man’s head.

Please ponder the question for a moment. I was asked whether I had physically taken a tape measure and wrapped it around Barry Bonds’ head. When I assured the host that I was neither Bonds’ personal haberdasher, nor someone who approached athletes with tape measures, he grew belligerent: “His head! His head! Why won’t you talk about measuring his head? It’s the proof he’s used steroids! The size of his head is the smoking gun!”

It was hard to tell whether this was sports radio or an insane asylum. Admittedly, the difference is often slender, but the quickest way to send a member of the Get Barry Brigade over the edge is to raise the specter of bigotry.

There is a useful historical comparison to Bonds in Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Like Bonds, Johnson was a dominator of his chosen profession, a person whose skills threatened to master and even overwhelm the sport.

Like Bonds, Johnson was not a political person, but became a figure of enormous political symbolism. Like Bonds, Johnson never tired of telling those who doubted him that there was a certain part of his anatomy they could smooch. Like Bonds, Johnson faced a divide in perceptions, with much of white America wanting him vanquished and much of Black America wanting him to get his due.

Consider an ESPN/ABC News poll released in May. Black fans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Hank Aaron’s record of 755 homers (74 percent versus 28 percent), and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46 percent versus 25 percent). And the press–still stubbornly white–holds Bonds, like Johnson, to a standard far different than his non-Black contemporaries.

The towering African American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois attempted to analyze exactly why Johnson was the repository for so much revulsion. His words have an almost humbling contemporary echo: “Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is Black.

“Of course, some pretend to object to Mr. Johnson’s character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of white America, that marital troubles have disqualified prizefighters or ballplayers or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all, to this unforgivable Blackness.”

The question we need to pose is why so much anger, so much visceral, throbbing fury, is directed at Barry Bonds–and why do we in the bleachers or at the bar so casually accept it? If we ask the question, we will begin to get at some less-than-comfortable answers.

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com


DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.