Is the antipathy directed toward Barry Bonds racially motivated? That question has long received attention, and the focus on that issue by sports media has, of course, only intensified as Bonds has approached and now tied Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time home run list. Discussions of race and sports are contentious. To a significant degree, this is due to defensiveness, especially emanating from sports talk radio, but also from the journalists and commentators who cover sports. This defensiveness derives from a sense that if you say, for example, that race plays a part in the hatred directed against Barry Bonds, it must mean that you are being accused of being a racist. Furthermore, talking about race in connection with Bonds must mean that the Bonds critic is simply regarded as disliking Black people. We live in an era when very few people will openly admit such direct racial prejudice. Consequently, if race is understood to mean outright bigotry, most people are going to heatedly deny that any such motive informs their opinion. The result, typically, is an un-illuminating discussion of racial matters. But, it’s possible to view race as playing a more subtle role in shaping attitudes toward Bonds.
On Donny Deutsch’s The Big Idea, a show which appears weeknights at 10pm on CNBC, Bonds and race received a wide-ranging hearing this past Thursday. In ways both witting and unwitting, Deutsch and his impressive array of guests showed why this issue can be hard to see clearly. One valuable feature of the program was that Deutsch’s interlocutors articulated a broad spectrum of views we’ve been hearing about Bonds over the years, from supporters to detractors alike.
The Big Idea is not a sports show, though Deutsch is obviously a serious fan, and he has done other sports-related shows before (though, based on my limited viewing of the show, Deutsch’s main interest seems to be with sex-tainted scandal). On the Thursday show, Deutsch asserted that the fact that Bonds is public enemy number one (a point not in dispute) has nothing to do with race. Instead, it’s attributable to three factors:
a known cheater
2) he’s always been surly with the media
3) he’s a spoiled superstar
Deutsch particularly repeated the first two points throughout the show and insisted that it can’t be a racial thing with Bonds because there are plenty of Black superstars that America has loved, including Derek Jeter (more on him later), Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Characteristic of Deutsch’s tone was his assertion that: “Why is race the issue here? It’s not the issue here…this guy is a jerk, that’s the issue.”
Deutsch’s first guest was John “Spider” Salley. The former Piston and current regular on the Best Damn Sports Show argued that race was a factor and that people have always disliked Bonds. He argued: “people didn’t like Barry Bonds before the steroids thing – now they think they have something to hang their hat on.”
In so many words, Salley claimed that it was too simple to look at race per se. Instead, it was perceptions of who White America deemed to be safe and unsafe. When Deutsch compared Bonds unfavorably to Derek Jeter, Salley had this to say about Jeter: “guess what, he’s the safest, most walking over egg shells guy I have ever seen…” Salley pressed the point by later comparing Jeter to Allen Iverson: “they look at Iverson and see braids, tattoos, his diction and say, oh man, that’s one of those guys who can one day rob me and they look at Jeter with those nice green eyes and light skin and doesn’t intimidate ‘em.”
In this context, Deutsch’s formulation clearly oversimplifies the issue. Pointing out that the public has embraced the likes of Jeter, Woods and Jordan doesn’t rule out the possibility that race is a factor in judgments of Bonds. What it does suggest is that Black athletes (Woods and Jeter are both mixed race) can achieve universal acclaim, but in order to do so it’s probably best for them to be as uncontroversial as possible. Jordan, in particular, has been repeatedly criticized within the Black community and among other political activists, for refusing to take stands on key issues, including Nike’s labor practices, but it’s also hard to imagine Woods raising a black-gloved fist after holing a winning shot at the Master’s or Jeter doing the same after a pennant-clinching home run.
Though his name did not come up on Deutsch’s show, David Robinson is iconic in this regard. Robinson is Black, of course, but I think it would be relatively uncontroversial to describe him as “safe.” A soft-spoken, deeply Christian former naval officer, demonstrating with every fiber of his being and public persona his respect for and deference to core American institutions, Robinson was the very embodiment of a yes-sir, no-sir athlete. Deutsch is right – to hate a guy like Robinson because of race, you would have to on the “lunatic fringe,” as he described out-and-out racists throughout the show. But Bonds shows no such deference. He has been surly with the media. He seems neither to like nor respect what they do, and has never been able hide his contempt. Does it follow from Bonds’ stance toward the media that race explains their unmistakable dislike for him? Not necessarily. There’s nothing inherently heroic about acting the way Bonds has often acted, leaving his steroids use aside. But, it’s not inconceivable that a major sports media that is 99% white might relate especially poorly to certain Black athletes, especially those not inclined to presume that everyone is on the same side of either the sporting enterprise, or the larger cultural divides in American society.
There is a predominant perspective among media types about athletes – that they are privileged, that they ought to be thankful for their privilege and that their cooperation with the media signals players’ respect for the games, the fans that have so enriched them, and the media that serve as fans’ representatives to the athletes. This is one reason why the media are often so concerned with athletes who “respect the game.” Because respect for the game is a shorthand way of saying that athletes know their proper place and that they will cooperate with a media that has the power to make or break how the larger public evaluates ballplayers’ standing within the game. Bonds plays this game notably poorly. Maybe it’s because he’s a jerk. Or maybe it’s because he knows the media aren’t really interested in who he is as a person, only that he use his superhuman gifts for the benefit of the public spectacle of which he is a part. Bonds has often said he wants to just play and go home. Maybe that’s because he does not want to be treated like a circus freak. And, what if, as a proud Black man, Bonds also knows that Blacks have long been valued only for their Black bodies and their physical exertions, and not for any deeper, more human qualities they might possess. Maybe, from Bonds’ perspective, the media that cover him bristle at his being uppity in his refusal to play along, precisely because he knows that their professed interest him is only as a freak show, not as a real person and that, as a Black man aware of his racial heritage, Bonds especially bristles at this sort of treatment. Bonds has always been described as sensitive. Is it inconceivable that his sensitivity is rooted in a subtle, racially tinged dynamic with the media that Bonds won’t, or can’t, ignore? If this set of motives and dynamics is, at the very least, plausible, is it still obvious that race plays no role in how the media filter has conveyed the image of Bonds to the wider public since he became a high profile athlete?
One guest on the Big Idea, Dave Zirin, made clear that the predominant media perspective on Bonds is a white, as opposed to universal perspective. Zirin’s been doing a distinctive brand of sportswriting for a small newspaper in Prince George’s county Maryland for nearly a decade, and has his own column and website, Edge of Sports. In the past two years, with the publication of his book, What’s My Name Fool (which I will review in a future post),a politically informed critique of sports in America, Zirin has achieved a wider audience, and now writes regularly on sports for The Nation. Zirin has long argued that the Bonds issue is a race issue. On Deutsch’s program, he observed that there are two different Americas. In White America, Zirin argued, where people call Scott Wetzel on Sporting News radio (Wetzel, a long-time Sporting News radio host shared a panel with Zirin and the Reverend Jesse Jackson on The Big Idea after Salley was on) maybe people think it’s “ignorant” even to inject race into the conversation about Bonds. But, Zirinargued, on Black radio stations where he’s often interviewed, people are scaredfor Bonds, and see what happened in Houston (when Astros’ relief pitcher Russ Springer buzzed Bonds four times before hitting him Wednesday night, then being ejected to a standing ovation) as an extension of the race-inspired hysteria of a supposed Katrina-induced crime wave hitting Houston (where many Katrina evacuees ended up). For Zirin (who is White) this perspective on Bonds, of a beleaguered icon of a beleaguered race, never gets aired in mainstream sports media.
More emphatically than Deutsch, Wetzel categorically dismissed the validity of race in discussing Bonds. His contention: that people hate Bonds because he’s a liar, plain and simple, and Americans hate liars. Wetzel somewhat convolutedly asserted as evidence of Bonds lying the fact that Bonds has never denied or answered directly questions about his steroid use. On cue, Reverend Jackson pointed out that lying can’t be universally scorned in America, since President Bush lied about Iraq and got re-elected for his troubles. Wetzel’s dislike of Bonds was palpable. He argued that Bonds took steroids because his legacy was going to be as a choker in the postseason, so to get the extra edge, he started using the stuff. This is a novel theory, one unremarked upon in the otherwise copiously documented new expose of Bonds’ drug use, Game of Shadows, which makes clear that Bonds’ decision to use steroids after the 1998 season resulted from his jealousy over the McGwire-Sosa home run race. Wetzel’s contention drips with character assassination – that when it mattered, Bonds never came through, which diminished all of his accomplishments, however legitimate and, being the fraud he is, Bonds needed to do something about that. Of course, Wetzel’s argument also makes clear what he thought of Bonds prior to Bonds doing steroids and “lying” about it, supposedly the only reason people dislike Bonds. And, that raises questions about Wetzel’s adamance concerning whether race influences popular perceptions of Bonds.
But, perhaps the most revealing moment of the evening came toward the end of the show. Deutsch counted down five sports personalities who have gone wrong (cable media aside: everyone, it seems, from Deutsch to Paula Zahn is now ripping off Keith Olbermann’s The Countdown these days). Number two on Deutsch’s list was Randy Johnson who Deutsch described as a“jerk.” Deutsch said that Randy has always been surly with the media (a “white version of Bonds”) and that while his sullen personality may have been OK when his ERA was two, now that his ERA is over five his “Barry Bonds personality is catching up to him.”
Earlier, Deutsch had said that “most of America now roots for excellence” and then, in an apparent non-sequitur asked rhetorically “if Barry Bonds had been a likeable guy all these years…wouldn’t we have rooted for him, too.” (non-sequitur because what does excellence have to with likeability?) But, in case you missed it, Deutsch has just asserted, without realizing it, that two surly guys have been subject to two different standards of evaluation. On the one hand, the “white Barry Bonds” and his unpleasant attitude were tolerated as long as he was great. On the other hand, the real Bonds’ lack of likeability meant that he was never going to get favorable treatment from the fans even when he was the epitome of baseball excellence and before there was any whiff of impropriety about his performances.
In other words, this is not about excellence or likeability in a vacuum. It’s about something more. You can decide for yourself what that is. But, there’s a black box here (pardon the term) whose existence most of the sports media, especially the mainly white media, simply won’t acknowledge.