Home Run King. As the San Francisco Giants slugger approaches
Henry Aaron's record for career homers, this probability seems
to be turning otherwise rational people upside down, as Bonds
has encountered an almost surreal level of hostility. The rage
was on full display this past weekend in Boston, where Bonds had
already made friends in 2004 by saying, "Boston is too racist
for me." (To read background on that particular tempest in
a Boston teapot, check out 'Barry Bonds vs. Boston' here.)
But the bellowing
fury directed at Bonds is hardly resigned to the good people of
Beantown. Outside the San Francisco Bay Area, it has become a
peculiar kind of national obsession.
always had its anti-heroes, but the antipathy directed at Bonds
by both media and "fans" has been of a different texture.
It doesn't just boo: it seethes.
they can't stand Bonds because they suspect - with the smug certitude
of having received holy writ - that he has used steroids. (For
a full discussion on the hypocrisy of anti-steroid hysteria, check
out my article, "The
Juice and the Noose.")
it is his "surly attitude," or "bad sportsmanship."
of the reaction to Bonds is simply bad old-fashioned racism. Not
since Jack Johnson has an athlete become the repository for so
much racial animus - and revealed broader gaps in Black and white
perceptions - as Barry Lamar Bonds.
when Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion,
his victory created a serious crisis in the "conventional
wisdom" about race. When Johnson told the world to go to
hell and openly consorted with white women, crisis became hysteria.
The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a "great
white hope" (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore
order to the boxing world - and the world in general. Former champion
Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, "I am
going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white
man is better than a Negro."
Bonds is today's Jack Johnson.
Like Johnson, he is a dominator
in his sport, a pantheon player...
He is also, like Johnson, someone
who plays with a mammoth chip
on his shoulder, a chip handed
down - as one writer put it -
'like an heirloom' from his father,
Bobby Bonds, a talented player
of the 1960s skewered by the media
and front offices for his own
pro-pride, pro-union politics.
In the weeks
before their fight, Johnson - in stark contrast to the standard
African-American posture of the day - was more than willing to
be heard. In a July 4, 1910, Philadelphia Inquirer story titled,
"Johnson believes hes Jeffs master," he
is quoted as saying, "I honestly believe that in pugilism
I am Jeffries master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate
this in the most decisive way possible... Let me say in conclusion
that I believe the meeting between Mr. Jeffries and myself will
be a great test of strength, skill, and endurance. The tap of
the gong will be music to me."
seem tame by contemporary standards, but at the time it was verbal
TNT. To say he was a white mans master a mere fifty years
after the formal end of chattel slavery was simply explosive.
wasnt merely despised: he was hated by one America and revered
- if not loved - by another.
A piece in
the Dallas Morning News titled, "Negroes praying for Johnson,"
reads, "Some others fear trouble if he [Johnson] wins and
are consequently boosting Jeffries... For the first time Independence
Day will be enjoyed as a real holiday by the Negroes tomorrow."
and Johnson finally squared off, the ringside band played, "All
Coons Look Alike to Me," and promoters led the all-white
crowd in the chant "Kill the nigger." But Johnson was
faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out
with ease. In an early incarnation of the information superhighway,
young children working as "telegram runners" ran through
city streets shouting out the progress after each round.
wrote in his autobiography,
25,000 people had gathered to watch the fight, and as I looked
about me, and scanned that sea of white faces I felt the auspiciousness
of the occasion. There were few men of my own race among the spectators.
I realized that my victory in this event meant more than on any
previous occasion. It wasnt just the championship that was
at stake - it was my own honor, and in a degree the honor of my
own race... The "white hope" had failed.
no idle boast. As the New York World wrote, "That Mr. Johnson
should so lightly and carelessly punch the head of Mr. Jeffries
must come as a shock to every devoted believer in the supremacy
of the Anglo-Saxon race."
has fallen into disfavor -
into very great disfavor.
The cause is clear: Jack Johnson...
has out-sparred an Irishman.
He did it with little brutality,
the utmost fairness and great good
nature. He did not 'knock'
his opponent senseless.
Apparently he did not even try.
Neither he nor his race invented
prize fighting or particularly like it.
Why then this thrill of national disgust?
Because Johnson is Black."
W. E. B. DuBois
But far more
important than respect gained from the New York World, was his
folkloric status in the Black community. As one spiritual sang,
an Grace, how sweet it sounds,
Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down.
Jim Jeffries jumped up an hit Jack on the chin,
An then Jack knocked him down agin.
The Yankees hold the play,
The white man pulls the trigger;
But it make no difference what the white man say,
The world champions still a nigger"
victory, there were race riots around the country - in Illinois,
Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington,
D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking
Blacks, and Blacks fighting back.
to a boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that
the U.S. had ever seen - or would see - until the 1968 assassination
of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Right-wing
religious groups immediately organized to ban boxing. Congress
actually passed a law banning boxing films.
Black leaders pushed Johnson to condemn African Americans for
rioting, and to toe the line. But Johnson remained defiant. For
this mortal sin - and a variety of venal ones - he faced harassment
and persecution for most of his life. He was forced into exile
in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman
across state lines for prostitution. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography,
"In the Ring and Out," as soon as he defeated Jeffries,
"From that minute on, the hunt for the white hope
was redoubled, and when it proceeded with so little success other
methods were taken to dispose of me.
Washington, the Black leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute
and believed that Blacks should abstain from any kind of agitation,
couldnt stand Johnson. He said with unvarnished scorn,
only say at this time, that this is another illustration of the
almost irreparable injury that a wrong action on the part of a
single individual may do to a whole race. It shows the folly of
those persons who think that they alone will be held responsible
for the evil that they do. Especially is this true in the case
of the Negro in the United States today. No one can do so much
injury to the Negro race as the Negro himself. This will seem
to many persons unjust, but no one can doubt that it is true...
What makes the situation seem a little worse in this case, is
the fact that it was the white man, not the black man who has
given Jack Johnson the kind of prominence he has enjoyed up to
now and put him, in other words, in a position where he has been
able to bring humiliation upon the whole race of which he is a
contempt for Johnson didnt stop him, however, from setting
aside a special assembly room at his Tuskegee Institute to hear
special telegraphic reports of Johnsons fights.
Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens
are the two most controversial
athletes in sports, do they have
an arrest between them?
What are they really doing that
makes them so polarizing?
They are urinating on some of our
Utopian ideas of sportsmanship."
Dan Le Batard
A far different
reaction to Johnson was articulated by Washingtons great
rival, W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois, a towering intellectual, was one
of the first to try to put the moralizing about "violence"
in sports - and the street violence associated with Jack Johnson
- in some sort of context. As he wrote in the Crisis, the organ
of the NAACP, in 1914,
today some brutality connected with boxing, but as compared with
football and boat racing it may be seriously questioned whether
boxing deserves to be put in a separate class by reason of its
cruelty. Certainly it is a highly civilized pastime as compared
with the international game of war which produces so many "heroes"
and "national monuments." Boxing has fallen into disfavor
- into very great disfavor. The cause is clear: Jack Johnson...
has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality,
the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not "knock"
his opponent senseless. Apparently he did not even try. Neither
he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it.
Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is Black.
is todays Jack Johnson. Like Johnson, he is a dominator
in his sport, a pantheon player: the only person in baseball history
with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases, a seven-time Most Valuable
Player, and eventual home run king.
He is also,
like Johnson, someone who plays with a mammoth chip on his shoulder,
a chip handed down - as one writer put it - "like an heirloom"
from his father, Bobby Bonds, a talented player of the 1960s skewered
by the media and front offices for his own pro-pride, pro-union
It is hardly
difficult to find sportswriters or sports fan blogs slamming Bonds
as a steroid using, foul-mouthed malcontent. But even players
have broken ranks to jump on his back. Boston Red Sox pitcher
Curt Schilling, a man with GOP senatorial aspirations, said, "He
admitted to cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes, and cheating
on the game." (Actually, none of that is true. Leaked grand
jury testimony had Bonds saying he unintentionally used a steroid
cream. The other two allegations are unproven.) It was so bombastic,
sports columnists and talk radio yappers criticized Schilling
and he was forced to offer an apology.
But the same
writers who slammed Schilling perhaps did so because he was taking
their shtick. The amount of media detritus hurled at Bonds boggles
Owens is a revealing
parallel. He has never been accused
of ingesting anything anabolic,
but still is torn apart by the press
for our entertainment. But it's the
comparison to Jack Johnson
that carries more than abstract
similarities. Like Johnson, Bonds has
also earned the ample attention
of the federal government
that has joined the media
in the Get Barry Brigade.
As Jeff Pearlman,
a writer for ESPN wrote,
Bonds is an evil man. A truly evil man. As a husband, he has cheated
on both his wives. As a father, he has been absent and indifferent.
As a role model, he has spit at autograph seekers and directed
kids to "f- off." As a Giant, he has held a franchise
hostage and refused to help teammates in need. As a blatant abuser
of steroids and human growth hormone, he has deprived the game
of integrity and turned its record books into mush.
one of the scant few African-American women with a high profile
voice in sports wrote,
you smite Barry Bonds before he breaks Major League Baseballs
all-time home run record? (OK, maybe smiting is a little extreme.
Could you conjure up some locusts every time he bats? Give him
a few boils? Crack a stone tablet over his head?) I know the Bible
says vengeance is your department. But might you consider speeding
Dan Le Batard,
a columnist for the Miami Herald, said something very incisive
about Bonds relationship to the media in an interview with
the remarkable sports blog The Starting Five:
got no use for us. Every step of the way we agitate his defiance
all the more. Every step of the way he has less reason to trust
us. Think about it this way. If Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens
are the two most controversial athletes in sports, do they have
an arrest between them? What are they really doing that makes
them so polarizing? They are urinating on some of our Utopian
ideas of sportsmanship.
a revealing parallel. He has never been accused of ingesting anything
anabolic, but still is torn apart by the press for our entertainment.
But its the comparison to Jack Johnson that carries more
than abstract similarities. Like Johnson, Bonds has also earned
the ample attention of the federal government that has joined
the media in the Get Barry Brigade.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man perhaps best known for losing
his Missouri Senate seat to a dead man while slobbering on the
Confederate flag, hosted a press conference to announce a forty-two-count
indictment against four men in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative
(BALCO) case. It was odd for the U.S. Attorney General to be front
and center, with the cameras on full blast. This was like shooting
a fawn with an AK-47 - a case of extreme overkill. The worst-kept
secret was that the case had nothing to do with BALCOs leader,
a former bassist for the band Wild Cherry named Victor Conte.
This was about BALCOs most famous client - Barry Bonds.
time the FBI has even approached players about wearing a wire
in an effort to get Bonds on tape admitting steroid use. The FBI
could then presumably prosecute him for perjury in the BALCO case,
where he said he unintentionally used a steroid cream.
argument is not that everyone
who is against Bonds is a racist
or anyone who believes in harsh
penalties for steroid use is a racist.
People are free to hate Bonds
all they want. But they should ask
themselves from where
all this animus springs.
who reported the story for MSNBC, called the investigation a "witch
hunt. Its not about cleaning up the game; its about
putting Barry Bonds in jail." He is right. Federal prosecutors
have made it all too clear that they want to imprison Bonds for
perjury, tax evasion, anything short of kidnapping the Lindbergh
baby. One writer cited an agent saying, "Hes our Capone."
cottage industry has become so bombastic, so disproportionate
to his alleged offenses, that it is having an ugly and divisive
effect on society.
an ESPN/ABC News poll released in May. Black fans are more than
twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break
Aarons record of 755 homers (74 per cent versus 28 per cent)
and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been
treated unfairly (46 per cent versus 25 per cent), according to
the poll. Black and white supporters of Bonds were then asked
why they believed that the slugger is so hated. About 41 per cent
of Black fans said suspected steroids use was the reason, while
25 per cent cited race and 21 per cent blamed Bonds "in
your face" attitude. By contrast, two-thirds of white sympathizers
cited the steroids issue, with virtually none mentioning race.
about the poll, Jemele Hill said: "Its too bad some
people are more concerned with race than right. Blacks have been
unjustly persecuted in the court of law and public opinion, but
supporting one lout doesnt erase, compensate [for] or change
But the Black-white
divide on Bonds is not about people being "more concerned
with race than right." Rather, it represents a visceral response
to the way Bonds has been subjected to criticism when white players
with reputations of steroid use havent gotten nearly the
heat he has. For instance, suspicions have swirled around future
Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens, but he hasnt come close
to receiving Bonds level of media and investigative scrutiny.
I have been
a guest on both mainstream sports and Black radio, and the Bonds
discussion is like visiting two alternate universes. Mainstream
radio is a veritable "I hate Barry" parade. Callers
typically deflect charges of racism by saying: "Were
not racists. We just hate his guts because hes a cheater!"
But on Black radio, I am sometimes seriously asked, "Do you
think Bonds will be physically harmed?" That Im asked
such a question points up how dangerous the atmosphere surrounding
Bonds march to history has become.
hay of the fact that Aaron has said that he himself would not
be there when Bonds breaks the record. As Hill wrote, "Hank
Aaron deserves better than to see his record broken by an unlikable,
arrogant cheater who has done nothing but heighten stereotypes
of Black athletes. He is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and the
best player of this generation - but he is not nearly the man
Aaron is, and should not surpass him in any way."
the case that Aarons refusal to be there is proof positive
that there is no racism - abject or otherwise - in their despising
the end of the day,
being a surly, press-hating,
arrogant sports superstar
has proven to be something
all-too-excused by media
conglomerates and fans.
But to be all these things and
also have black skin?
That clearly has remained
refusal to attend is more than a little ironic.
1974, Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves broke Babe Ruths
seemingly unbreakable home run record when he hit his 715th home
run off Al Downing. The racism that surrounded Aaron was off the
charts. In 1973, as he closed in on the record, the U.S. Post
Office reported that Aaron received 930,000 letters, the most
of anyone not named Richard Nixon. Much of it was in the category
of death threats. Samples read,
Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?" "Dear
Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to
hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth."
And so on.
This was not some bygone, pre-civil rights era but the 1970s,
right on the heels of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
later wrote, "The Atlanta fans werent shy about letting
me know what they thought of a $200,000 nigger striking out with
men on base."
finally broke the mark, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn didnt
show. Today Bud Selig - a close friend of Aaron - has given every
indication that he will follow in this proud tradition and not
be at the game when Bonds breaks the mark. Ironically, this is
happening right when baseball is wringing its hands over the historically
low number of African-American players - 8.5 per cent, the smallest
number since the days of Jackie Robinson. Torii Hunter, the All
Star Centerfielder for the Minnesota Twins, said in April that
maybe these two things were connected. "The one big, Black
face in baseball is Barry Bonds, and they see he is constantly
being scrutinized and he has never tested positive for anything,"
Hunter says. Black kids "think, That game is not for
worth noting that despite all the speculation, we dont know
why Aaron is refusing to be there when Bonds breaks the mark.
He wont say - although he hasnt been shy about doing
interviews where he makes clear that he will not attend.
brother Bobby Jr. took Aaron to task, saying,
does not even want to support Barry. Being a Black man going through
what he went through in the past and not supporting my brother,
it kind of makes me look at him like, "Are you serious, brother?
Are you serious?" Cut the steroids out, just look at my brother
as a human being. He stole bases, he ran, he caught the ball.
Its so hard to justify whats going on with baseball
and how theyre treating him.
decrying of Bonds has resulted - once again, as in the case of
Jack Johnson - in two decidedly different schools of thought.
Ive already cited the ESPN poll revealing a clear racial
divide on Bonds. A majority of fans - 58 per cent - think Bonds
should be in the Hall of Fame. Thats ten points higher than
a similar poll conducted last summer. Among Blacks, 85 per cent
think Bonds belongs in Cooperstown, compared to 53 per cent of
we live in different times than the days of Jack Johnson. Stadiums
dont play, "All Coons Look Alike To Me" when Bonds
goes to the plate. And as I have written before, the Bonds obsession
in the media and among fans is not purely about bigotry run amok.
Envy, rage, grudges, and anger combine to make a gumbo of resentment
(Pearlman and Jemele Hill for example have both written some excellent
antiracist sports articles.)
is not that everyone who is against Bonds is a racist or anyone
who believes in harsh penalties for steroid use is a racist. People
are free to hate Bonds all they want. But they should ask themselves
from where all this animus springs. Almost a century ago, DuBois
said of Jack Johnson, "Of course some pretend to object to
Mr. Johnsons character. But we have yet to hear, in the
case of white America, that marital troubles have disqualified
prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down,
then, after all, to this unforgivable blackness."
At the end
of the day, being a surly, press-hating, arrogant sports superstar
has proven to be something all-too-excused by media conglomerates
and fans. But to be all these things and also have black skin?
That clearly has remained unforgivable.
here for more.
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain,
Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is
also the author of "The Muhammad Ali Handbook" (MQ Publications)
and has also gotten himself a blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports,
which he invites you to visit. His book, "What's My Name Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States," is also in stores.
You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing
says: "I love writing this column but can only
continue with this work if people buy the books. We have a lot
of mouths to feeds in this house (and about three of them are
you believe in progressive, iconoclastic sports writing please
pick up a copy of Welcome To The Terrordome. If you believe in
being part of a project to "tear down the Terrordome,"
pick up five and give them to the apolitical sports fans in your
life. The only way ideas like this spread are from the bottom
up. Any questions, feel free to hit me back at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other articles by Dave Zirin:
The Meaning Of The Sports Spectacle
Clown Prince Of Bizarro World
No Scapegoats: The Other Side Of Hip-Hop
(co-written with Jeff Chang)
The Greatest Anti-War Protestor
Pimping Mike Tyson
Pat Tillman's Brother Breaks His Silence
The Passing Of Peter Norman
When Fists Are Frozen
Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey
Hey Guys, It's Not A War
Using Soccer To Kick Iran
Why Did Pat Tillman Die?
Why Pat Tillman's Parents Are No Longer Silent