Some of you may have noticed that I stopped talking about my brackets ten days ago. That's because mine sucked. I had Texas A&M going to the Final Four; not a bad pick, but they went out in the Sweet Sixteen. Ditto for Pitt. (that was a dumb pick). I had UNC going to the Final Four and I still can't believe they're not. That leaves me with one final four team - Florida - about as easy a pick as there was in the tournament.
Thanks to Katie for sending me along an interesting article by Tim Marchman of the New York Sun. The Sun is a wacky paper, but Marchman is a terrific sportswriter. On Friday, he offered a take on why baseball receives so much scrutiny about steroid use compared to basketball and football. One key reason, according to Marchman, is relatability:
At root, the reason is probably that every male fan thinks on some level he's a ballplayer. Few watch a strong safety hauling down a running back and think, "I could do that," but it's easy to watch a ballgame and think that if you'd tossed the pill around in your backyard a bit more often when you were younger, you could take the mound at Shea Stadium. I'm a small guy — 5-feet-10-inches, 160 pounds — and Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Mariano Rivera, and Tim Hudson, to name a few, aren't much bigger than I am. David Wells is a few months away from turning 44 and has struggled with gout and diabetes, and he's still a damn good pitcher. Young, old, skinny, fat, fast, slow — anyone, it seems, can play baseball. This isn't, of course, true. Baseball is the most difficult of the major team sports. It seems true, though, and a lot of baseball's appeal is tied up in this perception.
Marchman also suggests that this story has an important racial component to it:
All of this is especially true when comparing baseball to football and basketball for another reason — race. The percentage of black players in the majors today is around 9%. In the NFL, the number is around 65%; in the NBA, 80%. That matters. Go into any sports bar or listen to any call-in talk show, and you'll hear people talking incessantly, passionately, about racial grievance. They often do so in code ("I can't stand it, these players with the hipping and the hopping and the rap music and the gangs"), but you can't mistake the visceral hatred of end zone celebrations, baggy shorts, and so on for anything but a fear of or fascination with young, aggressive black men.
Football and basketball are played mostly by young black athletes with whom the middle-age white men who account for most of the audience for team sports have nothing in common, and this has a lot to do with why no one cares about drug use in those sports. If the phrase isn't by now completely discredited, you might call it the soft bigotry of low expectations. Doubly alienated from the athletes, fans of the sports, many of whom view the players as no different than gang members, aren't outraged by drug use because they don't expect anything better. Baseball's different. People don't find the players threatening. One may as well say it — the sport is culturally white and middle class in a way football and basketball aren't. Partly for this reason, baseball players are more widely expected to conform to ethical norms by its fans.
Marchman isn't breaking new ground in his assessment of the code by which race still figures so prominently in sports discourse, but this is a particularly eloquent formulation of how it works.
There's one very large hole in Marchman's argument, though: Barry Bonds. By Marchman's logic, the White players in baseball ought to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than African Americans. And, of course, white players, like Mark McGwire, certainly have been treated harshly in recent years by sportswriters, culminating in McGwire's getting crushed in this year's Hall of Fame balloting. But, no player in any sport has been as condemned, vilified, demonized and hung in symbolic effigy the way Barry Bonds has. And, I would argue that Bonds' treatment speaks to a larger point: that professional Black athletes are not, in general, held to a lower behavioral standard than White athletes. It's true that no one has much to say about performance enhancement drugs in the predominantly NBA. But, on every other count, basketball players are repeatedly condemned for their myriad real and perceived attitudinal and behavioral transgressions. All one needs to do is consider the difference in how the national media covers an NBA fight (as rare as they are) and how they cover fights in the virtually all white NHL.
Marchman may be right that fans don't care as much about how the hardbodies of the NBA and the NFL came to be because those are consistent with stereotypes about physically over-developed African Americans who, as Marchman notes, dominate those leagues. But, it's hard to argue that fans don't pay any mind to the ethics and character of African American athletes. Whether you think it's warranted or not, Barry Bonds is without a doubt public enemy number one in baseball. And, when it comes to the major sports leagues in America, it's hard to deny that the NBA is public enemy number one.
I think Marchman is onto something when he argues that baseball's perceived accessibility sets it up for a different standard of judgment than other sports, though I've argued before that the power of the baseball players union has a lot to do with fans' and commentators' anger at baseball's drug policy. But, I think he's off base in his understanding of the racial dimension of the issue.