An ESPN viewer poll finds less tolerance for talk about racism than for racist talk
By Alec Yoshio MacDonald, IMDiversity.com Special Contributor
August 6, 2005 – I have a little anecdote I’d like to share with you. It involves a couple of All-Star basketball players, an inquisitive newspaper columnist, a radio talk show, and a washed-out relief pitcher. And it illustrates a seriously unfortunate trend in the world of sports, one that I’d like us all to take a look at.
At the end of the National Basketball Association’s regular season earlier this year, sportswriters from across the country voted to determine the league’s Most Valuable Player. The two front-runners for this award were Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash and Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal. Both men had proven themselves more than worthy of the honor, and since they play very different positions on the court, straight statistical comparisons had an unhelpful apples-to-oranges kind of feel. The choice was by no means clear cut, and when Nash won out in the end, plenty of contentious debate ensued.
Adding his voice to that debate, The Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard used one of his columns to pose the question:
“How much of this has to do with race?”
The column went on to draw attention to the obvious fact that Nash – like nearly all of the people who voted for him – is white and O’Neal is not. Most of what followed was more questions, more observations, and a handful of hypothetical situations. Le Batard never attempted to answer his first question, he merely pushed readers to consider it for themselves.
His words ended up earning him his own candidacy in another, less prestigious election than the one he was writing about. A couple days after his Herald column ran, he was nominated for a “Just Shut Up!” award on ESPN’s nationally broadcast Mike & Mike in the Morning radio show.
The award in question is handed out every Tuesday. The hosts offer a shortlist of people from the world of sports who, in the past week, have said or done something deemed to be offensive. Listeners then vote by phone or through the Internet to choose the individual who most needs to – as the award’s name indicates – shut up.
Whether or not Le Batard should have been included on the ballot at all is highly debatable. There is little doubt, however, about one of his fellow nominees from that week.
Most sports fans know John Rocker as the fireball-throwing closer who, while with the Atlanta Braves half a decade ago, made a number of comments to a reporter at Sports Illustrated that disrespected most of the minority groups who live in the city of New York. Although his career was just beginning to take off when the magazine brought his comments to light, the subsequent negative press reversed his fortunes. His slow professional decline was marked by a number of trades and an inflated earned run average before shoulder surgery took him out of the majors in 2003. This summer, he started a comeback bid with a minor league team on Long Island, where, naturally, he was not received with the warmest of welcomes.
What put Rocker into the running for Mike & Mike’s dubious award that same week as Le Batard was his take on the fallout from the Sports Illustrated article. What he said, exactly, was: “I’ve taken a lot of crap from a lot of people… Probably more than anybody in the history of this sport. I know Hank [Aaron] and Jackie [Robinson] took a good deal of crap, but I guarantee it wasn’t for six years. I just keep thinking: How much am I supposed to take?”
Le Batard vs. Rocker, then, boiled down to whether fans wanted to censure:
Guess who the fans said they didn’t want to hear from? Well, it turns out they prefer to listen to someone complain about how tough it is to be racist, rather than to think about racism itself.
This is the trend I want us to look at: Why do people shy away from talking about race, particularly in the world of sports, where it is harder to ignore? Race issues are everywhere in that world, but all too often people take pains to avoid acknowledging them. But we need to keep in mind that they will continue to exist, and become more problematic, if we aren’t willing to say anything about them.
Guys like John Rocker aren’t going to go away if we keep telling guys like Dan Le Batard to shut up.
Keeping all this in mind, I am writing a few columns about race and sports as part of an IMDiversity.com special feature this month. I hope they get you thinking a little bit, and I hope we can produce some dialogue about some important topics. We might even find a few answers – if we let ourselves listen to the questions.