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June 06, 2006

Bias, Baseball, And The Burden Of Proof

In Slate, Richard Thompson Ford looks at what baseball can teach us about discrimination and racism:

Barry Bonds officially "broke" Babe Ruth's home run record over Memorial Day weekend. I put "broke" in scare quotes because, of course, that record hadn't been in one piece since 1974, when Hank Aaron broke it. Some baseball fans didn't want Aaron to break the Bambino's record—he received threats and hate mail from bigots who wanted to send black players back to the separate and unequal Negro Leagues.

More than 30 years later, with Bonds nearing Babe Ruth's career record, as many fans jeered as cheered. Bonds reports receiving threats and hate mail on a regular basis. And the press has not exactly written love letters. Is Bonds as much a victim of racism today as Aaron was in 1974? Anti-discrimination law offers a way to think about the question.

I can't help but be reminded of those moronic VW Jetta commercials in which an obviously ethnic person unfairly "stereotypes" a white guy. The commercials are meant to be amusing, but I find it a bit jarring to watch someone with a huge chip on his shoulder take violent offense at perfectly innocent remarks. I'm often left wondering whether the subliminal message (that perhaps the offense is more perceived than real) is an intended one?

Surely not! That would be racist.

Ford dissects a Supreme Court case in which a woman who admittedly performed well on the job, but had an abrasive and combative personality, sued for gender discrimination after being fired. Her employers cited her lack of 'interpersonal skills' as the reason for her dismissal. Even with a fairly clear-cut legal test in place for finding discrimination, however, the Court issued a split decision that perhaps reflected their personal biases as much as any ambiguity in the facts of the case:

As the split on the Supreme Court suggests, even the most experienced umpires can't agree on how to resolve such issues. The split also suggests that the differing answers involved the justices' personal ideological divisions as much as factual ambiguities. Just as sports fans reflexively back their favorite team on close calls, when the facts surrounding a claim of racism are inscrutable or ambiguous, people tend to fall back on ideological predispositions. Saying Bonds is a victim of racism becomes a way of saying racism is still a serious problem in our society. Saying he's just bellyaching becomes a way of saying too many black people are playing the race card.

Team spirit is good sport at the ballpark after a few beers, but it's foul play when it comes to race relations. So, I'll to try to resist my home-team liberal reflexes and call the Bonds controversy as I see it: I think racism remains a serious social problem, but I don't see much evidence of it here. When a black person is treated badly for no good reason, it's reasonable to suspect the reason was race. But this inference can't be justified when there is a good reason; then we need some other evidence that bias was a significant factor—like the evidence that partners at Price Waterhouse said Ann Hopkins was too "macho" and needed to be more feminine. And we don't have that kind of evidence here.

Bonds is right to say that blacks "go through a little more" because some people are racists: Hank Aaron was deluged with explicitly racist hate mail and death threats and needed police protection in the dugout as he closed in on Babe Ruth's record. No doubt some of those bigots are still out there, and unfortunately, new ones have been spawned since. Things have improved since the 1970s, but we haven't beaten racism yet. However, this general observation can't be enough to support a specific claim of bias in this case, just as workplace sexism generally wouldn't have been enough to support Ann Hopkins' claim that Price Waterhouse discriminated against her. Without more to back it up, the claim that Bonds is a victim of racism is just speculation. We can't assume that anytime a black person is treated badly we can or should blame racism—especially when he's done something to provoke the abuse.

Normally in a court of law, the party bringing suit must prove their case, with the defendant being assumed innocent until sufficient facts have been presented to prove his guilt. Thus it should stand to reason that when someone throws the race card, the burden of proof rests with them.

Yet so often in our society, subjective "feelings" and perceptions of bias are given equal weight with facts that suggest one or more perfectly rational explanations, other than racism. And all too often, as in the Duke lacrosse case, past "race guilt" is used to infer a present motive for specific offenses. This kind of "profiling" would be utterly abhorrent if it were used against a minority defendant.

The interesting question is why we are so willing to use an unacceptable tactic when the shoe is on the other foot?

Posted by Cassandra at June 6, 2006 12:12 PM


I'm not well read on this subject of Bonds, but I do know that allegations have been thrown out, which haven't been adequately addressed, of steroid use/abuse.

I think that's fueling Bonds' newfound unpopularity, the notion that he may have, "cheated," to achieve what he has. Not racism.

Perhaps someone better informed on the subject could elaborate???

Posted by: JannyMae at June 6, 2006 01:00 PM

You're right - Ford makes precisely that case: that there are other reasons to be dismayed at Bonds' breaking the record again.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 01:04 PM

I doubt that Barry has taken "steroids", but there is a good chance he might have taken Human Growth Hormone (IMHO), which would not be detectable in any blood or urine tests. I heard a professional weight-lifting trainer discuss this one night on some radio talk-show, describing some of the evident physical symptoms of taking HGH. Contrary, Ken Griffey Jr. (a friend of Bonds) insists that Bonds did it all with weight-training and has never taken 'perfomance enhancing substances'. Is Griffey stupid, a liar, confused or is he right?

Irregardless, Bonds is one of the greatest players of the last 20 years.
At his peak, he was great in all the so-called "five tool categories": He could hit for average, hit with power, run (steal bases), field and throw (one of the best left fielders EVER; he constantly used to cut off balls that were hit down the left field line for a double and throw out the hitter going into second base).

It's just he has the charm and personality of bad tempered shark, at times.

Contrary, Henry Aaron was one of the nicest people ever to step onto a baseball field, and was a great offensive player (leads many or near the top of the all major offensive statistics), but only so-so as an outfielder. He played a lot of baseball in an era when pitching was dominant (the 1960's, up to 1969 when they lowered the mound). The notoriety of the run at Ruth's HR mark changed him, however, and now he is a rather bitter man.
And the fact he has so little honor in baseball is perhaps the saddest thing of all.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 6, 2006 01:23 PM

And the fact he has so little honor in baseball is perhaps the saddest thing of all

Well I agree with you there, Don. But that so often seems to be the case in life.

The better a person treats others, the less they seem to be appreciated. And I have never understood this about people, and I never will.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 01:30 PM

As an Atlantan, I can only say that the man is loved and respected here, his home.

All I can about Bonds is that he has the classic look of roids. Compare his output in HRs and look at his pictures over time. Did he lift weights for those face muscles he seemed to pick up? No. Moonface is a side effect of roids.

I'm not saying he did it. Just saying.

Oh, and he is a jerk.

Compare: Ruth's drugs? Whiskey and hot dogs. And he was a great pitcher, too.

Posted by: KJ at June 6, 2006 01:59 PM

An Atlantan?

Is that someone from Atlantis?

*running away*

Posted by: Cassandra at June 6, 2006 02:07 PM

Griffey, from what I hear, is one of the bigger jerks in the majors. He's just smart enough not to be one in public.

He very well may honestly believe that Bonds is clean. But if it turned out he was covering, it wouldn't surprise me either.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at June 6, 2006 02:53 PM

The symptoms ascribed to HGH:
Eyebrow ridges
gaps between your teeth (jaw-gums growing and expanding, after adolescence!)
enhanced muscle bulk (of course)
Yeah, his face is fuller and rounder than it was in the early '90's, but again he's years older, too.

If you look at Arnold Swarzenegger in his bodybuilding days, he exhibited the same symptoms, and he has admitted to using "performance enhancing" drugs. Lyle Alzado took HGH late in his career (and life) and it helped to kill him because it accelerated the growth of an undiagnosed brain tumor.

Steroids or HGH can't help you hit a Major League fastball, but it can help you hit it farther. Bonds has to have had his urine tested for steroid residue, and apparently he has tested "negative".

In my observation of Griffey Jr. (since he's been with Cincinnati), he is usually pretty soft spoken and personable with most people (unlike Bonds, to his own detriment). His parents are also pretty nice people. I personally think he's being naive about Bonds, but they are peers and friends (sort of), so he feels obligated to speak up for Bonds.
But most (pro) athletes can come across as jerks to us normal folks some times just because they have to be very self-confident, or get eaten alive!

Posted by: Don Brouhaha, just a fan at June 6, 2006 04:51 PM

"The Hammer"had class and Barry Bonds is just plain crass!as was mentioned earlier,The "Bambino"didn't juice himself up to play ball;his only juice was whiskey and hotdogs.He and the Hank Aaron also knew how to treat their fans,but,he doesn't!He needs a Lobotomy to bring him back down to earth with the rest of us.

Posted by: Lisa Gilliam at June 6, 2006 08:21 PM

I don't follow soccer.

Posted by: Cricket at June 6, 2006 08:29 PM

A lot of the dislike for Bonds today (mine included) has little to nothing to do with his race or his personality. It has to do with his rampant use of dodgy substances to up his power numbers.

Baseball is a funny sport. Fans can forgive a whole lot, but what they can't forgive are offenses against the game itself. That's why lots of us find the idea of Pete Rose in the Hall to be appalling. It's why some of us, after the ridiculous All-Star Game Tie and other examples of Selig Jackassery don't much follow the bigs anymore and have moved on to following their minor-league squads.

What Bonds spent years doing was making a mockery of the game itself. Instead of being a game of skill, fortune, and hard work, Bonds made it a game of using the right combination of chemicals and leaning on the natural talent he's always had. He took a shortcut to the home run records, unlike Ruth or Aaron, thanks to his infamous "the cream and the clear" and that's something that folks like me can't forgive.

And it doesn't matter one whit what color he is.

Posted by: Jimmie at June 6, 2006 10:36 PM

The performance enhancing drugs that Barry Bonds is alleged to have taken, are supposedly designer variety, that are not detectable in drug tests.

I feel sorry for him, if the allegations are false, as he will live under the cloud for the rest of his life, and on into baseball history, for no reason.

However, if the allegations are true, he deserves to live under that cloud.

Posted by: JannyMae at June 6, 2006 11:54 PM

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