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Baseball, race, and the work yet to do

After Adam Jones’ treatment in Boston, where do we go from here?

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MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

I started this article wanting to write about Adam Jones. Namely, the way he was treated by Boston Red Sox fans, and the history of racism among baseball fans, commentators, players and ownership. I wanted to write about how the New York Yankees dragged their feet past the color line, choosing not to integrate until eight years after Jackie Robinson first suited up for the Dodgers. I wanted to write about the hypocrisy of the team and it insistence on history, while underselling stories of players like Elston Howard.

I wanted to write about why and how fans allow themselves to treat players the way they do, hurling slurs they would never say in person, tweeting disgusting insults, and throwing peanuts, bananas, and beer cans at players of color. I wanted to write about how the problem is pervasive and ubiquitous, affecting hockey players in Europe, baseball players in Boston, and soccer players from Brazil.

I wanted to write about how analysts can racially tinge their comments by implying that black players are too emotional and don’t play “the right way”, even when they dominate their opponents. I wanted to write about the intersection of racial bias when it comes to black Latin players and the complications of combining race, nationality and language bias. Specifically, about the differences in perception of players like Yasiel Puig vs. Jose Abreu.

I wanted to write about all of this, while still finding a way to wrap it all back to the Yankees. I couldn’t, however, for the same reasons I think a lot of people find it impossible to discuss race: my own whiteness. To quote Orioles manager Buck Showalter, after Jones was harassed (emphasis is my own):

"I can't sit here and profess to know how Adam feels; I've never been black. I'm not going to sit here and try to act like I know. I can tell you how it makes me feel. Only thing I got on him about was he didn't let me know. I wish he would have let me know. It's not the only place that it happens. In our society, I am not surprised. It is unfortunate, and it is sad, and it is like a disease."

In one shot, Showalter outlines everything wrong with trying to write about race as a white man. It’s hard to give context to a situation I’ve never found myself in without sounding like I’m ignoring or erasing the voices of people of color.

I’ve played competitive sports my whole life, hockey and baseball. I’ve received my share of trash talk, but never have heard a racial slur directed at me. The same would not be said by a black athlete. How, then, can a white man even begin to understand the daily aggression and hate that athletes of color face every day?

Incidents like what happened this week to Jones pervade society. While nobody seems to ever admit to behaving like this, or even knowing someone who would behave this way, inevitably it’s the fans in the seats who are hurling insults and worse at players of color. Worse still, it’s the friends, company, and fans around these people who enable this behavior by remaining silent when these things happen.

I believe that if you’re sitting in a section with a fan who begins harassing a player over their race, you have an obligation to alert security or an usher, and make sure that person is ejected. Objects thrown at players are almost universally the peak of harassment, not the beginning. A harasser taunts a player for a variety of reasons, before escalating to racially degrading a player, and then sometimes physically harassing them.

This is the pattern that Jones faced, Hyun Soo Kim faced, and Anson Carter faced. If you feel angry or disgusted by what happened this week in Boston, you can take real action by ending the enablement of this behavior at games you attend.

The other way you can fight this kind of prejudice in baseball is by amplifying the voices of athletes of color. One of my most profound baseball memories is the April 29, 2015 Baltimore Orioles game, the Game Which No One Attended. At the peak of the Freddie Gray protests, Major League Baseball and the city of Baltimore agreed to have the game between the Orioles and Chicago White Sox take place. They restricted fans from entering the ballpark, however, and moved the start time up five hours to accommodate a city-wide curfew.

This restriction was put in place to keep fans at home, away from the possibility of being harmed in the middle of such unrest. What I remember most about what should have been an innocuous 8-2 Orioles victory was the exemplary job media, especially local media, did highlighting the opinions and voice of Baltimore’s black players. Jones has always been known as a tremendous leader and ambassador of the game, for players of all races. I vividly remember him having the opportunity to give his thoughts on the Freddie Gray protests, seemingly unchecked by management or ownership.

Allowing athletes the autonomy to make their own comments is something that many owners, coaches and front offices shy away from. Athletes are trained to speak in short clichés, emphasizing the performance of teammates, and the hard work yet to do. This effective muzzling of intelligent, perceptive human beings only makes it easier for people to see athletes as unfeeling robots designed to perform for our amusement. That kind of dehumanization leads to nearly universal harassment.

Giving all athletes, but especially athletes of color, proper platforms to voice their opinions gives autonomy back to the individual. It also reminds us that they’re humans with unique insights and opinions. Andrew McCutchen’s beliefs about the cost of minor league baseball and the resulting chilling affect on black youth playing the game comes to mind. So too does CC Sabathia’s thoughts on college scholarships. There’s so much value in amplifying athletes of color.

It’s never easy to write about race, and the road to defeating prejudice is long and winding. But the work starts with recognizing and celebrating the individuality of athletes of color, acknowledging the unique struggles they face, and being aware of the intersections of bias that we all must confront.