Racism Matters: A Note on Madison Bumgarner

I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to write something on the Kaepernick Kontroversy, which has graciously extended itself into its fourth week for me without any reward. I’ll try to have that up this week. For now, though, I have an opportunity to write something both pithy and timely for once, so here I go.

Madison Bumgarner got himself in trouble again tonight. For those who don’t know, the Giants pitcher has a history of getting angry at opposing players for all kinds of trivial, even indiscernible reasons. He’s the kind of player known as a “red-ass,” one who treats every game event with adolescent intensity and generally makes himself unpleasant to be around.

However, in the last couple of years, a number of people have suggested a pattern: a lot of the players Bumgarner has gotten in yelling matches with have been Black and/or Caribbean, a pattern laid out by Bill Baer in a post from May of last year. Probably unwisely in the context of that discussion, Baer left off a number of incidents that Bumgarner has had with white players—Ian Kinsler, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday, Wil Myers, even the umpire Joe West. (I believe some of these happened since Bill’s post last year; I haven’t checked the dates.) All in all, there’s plenty of material for those who want to argue that Bumgarner (who is from the South) is racist, and plenty for those who want to argue that he’s just an equal-opportunity asshole. This is the kind of thing—a thorny question on a controversial topic, seen through the eyes of sports partisanship—that is just about guaranteed to lead to mature and thoughtful discussion online.

So during tonight’s game, when he started yelling at Yasiel Puig after they had a staredown, instigating their third such encounter, the Internet had a field day:

I would like to use my considerable clout in the world of sports commentary to suggest that we should not make jokes of this kind.

Here’s my thing: racism matters. That means, when it happens, it should be called out, and that includes not only incidents that are overtly racist (a player uses a racial slur) but also those that may fit racist patterns (a player seems to have a predilection for seeking conflict with Black or Latino players). A lot of sports tropes, especially in baseball, are racially charged—everything from “natural athlete” to “showboat” to “plays the game the right way”—and they should be identified as such when they occur in word or deed, even though a lot of people, earnestly or disingenuously, will claim not to know what we’re talking about.

However, the other implication of “racism matters” is that we should treat accusations of racism seriously. If we’re going to accuse someone of racism, we should commit to it, not play it for laughs. A sentiment you read a lot online—about this, about all kinds of things—is, “Jeez, people get so mad when you call something racist.” Well, being racist or not is a big deal! It should evoke strong feelings! You cannot simultaneously send the message that racism is a serious problem, possibly our society’s most serious problem, and that calling someone a white supremacist is the kind of roll-off-your-back humor that only a pedant would get mad about. This should not just be grist for the meme mill.

It also shouldn’t be a matter of team partisanship. Yes, the people who are most likely to defend Bumgarner are Giants fans like me; anecdotally, the people who are most likely to jump on the idea that he’s a racist are Dodgers fans. This is a bad state of affairs. It’s one thing for us to judge steroids, or diving for a foul, or whatever, based on what uniform the perpetrator is wearing; I’m not in love with that inconsistency either, but it’s unavoidable (I’m just as guilty as anyone) and inconsequential. But reducing racial animus to just one more needle to wield against opposing teams and their fans—”STERRR-OIDS!” “RAAAAA-CIST!”—dilutes it absurdly, and insults the efforts of those who actually work to fight it.

And finally, because accusations of racism are consequential, we should care about getting them right. I don’t know if the list of white folks Bumgarner’s been mad at is long enough to defuse the idea that he’s a racist. I personally think, given the seriousness of the charge, that we should be good sabermetricians and treat this as a case of small sample size, but I also recognize that my Giants fandom inclines me to say that anyway. However, what I do strongly believe is that that list of white players, pedantic though may seem, is vital to include in this discussion, if it’s a discussion we’re going to have, because we should want to know whether or not Bumgarner really is racist. Yet when people question the premise, they just come across as desperate apologists, and are treated as such:

Baumann’s reaction to the Giants fans he’s talking about is absolutely understandable: people who defend others—particularly celebrities they admire—against racism or sexism or other isms really are being disingenuous a lot of the time, including many Giants fans in this discussion, so it’s fair that people would be leery of such defenses. Yet they’re a necessary evil of having this conversation in the first place. The one-way ratchet, where calling someone racist is fair game but defending someone against a charge of racism is not, may seem to redress the very real power disparity between those who enforce or tolerate white supremacy (who have lots of power), and those who fight it (who have very little). In fact, it does the opposite. It sends the message that these claims won’t stand up to scrutiny—that, again, they are not being made seriously. The message is, “If you don’t think there’s anything racist going on, I’m certainly not going to try and convince you otherwise.” This doesn’t persuade anyone; on the contrary, it inoculates them against persuasion. Sure, almost no one gets persuaded online anyway, but isn’t it worth making the attempt, if for no other reason than to prove that you take the subject seriously?

As I’ve suggested earlier, while I’m thrilled that the Internet has allowed progressive sports fans and commentators to find each other, that clannishness does present a serious risk of self-satisfaction. Let’s define ourselves, not just by our willingness to criticize racism in the sports we watch, but by our willingness to care about it—enough to debate and discuss it, enough to feel it. Joking about racism is a way of protecting ourselves from actually having to face the discussion squarely. Let’s deny ourselves that comfort.

Image credit: NLCS 8 by csulb gal is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Second Post at BP Wrigleyville: Tommy La Stella and Sugar

I’m pleased to be able to link to my second piece at Wrigleyville: a post looking at the Cubs player Tommy La Stella—who is trying to decide whether to continue in baseball following a demotion to the minor leagues—through the lens of the independent baseball movie Sugar, about a Dominican pitching prospect struggling to make it in American pro baseball. Admittedly this is a pretty esoteric premise for a blog post—you have to either be familiar with both La Stella and the film or willing to learn—but I’m proud of it and I hope you’ll check it out! If you want background on La Stella, the Grant Brisbee piece I mention in my post is a great starter, and Ken Schultz’s Wrigleyville piece anticipates mine very well. The movie unfortunately isn’t available for digital rental, but if you like sports movies I recommend it—I personally didn’t like the film, but it’s worth seeing simply because it’s so different from other movies in the genre.

I also have some work planned for here as well—a piece on Tim Lincecum’s fading career, and a piece (finally) on the Olympics—so watch this space for those.

New Post at BP Wrigleyville: The Cubs in the Age of the Auteur GM

I’m thrilled to announce that Baseball Prospectus’s Cubs site, BP Wrigleyville, has invited me to write the occasional Cubs-focused blog post for them! My first effort, The Cubs’ Curse in the Age of the Auteur GM, looks at how the presence of a genius GM, in this case the Cubs’ Theo Epstein (formerly of the Red Sox), reduces the focus we give to the team itself, and how that may, for some non-Cubs fans, lessen the impact of the Cubs’ first championship in over a century, just when it’s most likely to finally happen.

There’s another blog post to be had about the experience of writing for the fans of a team when you’re not one of those fans, but first I’ll have to see how this one goes.


Chapman, Reyes, and Redemption

For the first time, Major League Baseball has a policy allowing it to suspend players who commit domestic violence, whether or not they are convicted in criminal court, a policy that the NFL shares. Since December, two players have been punished under the new policy: pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired a gun at their home, and shortstop Jose Reyes, who allegedly grabbed his wife by the throat and threw her into a window. Neither was charged with a crime—Chapman wasn’t arrested, while Reyes’s wife refused to cooperate with the investigation—but both were suspended, Chapman for 30 games and Reyes for 52.

On the one hand, this policy is a vital step forward for baseball in its treatment of women (see below for why I think so). On the other hand, the existence of a formal policy heightens a question that seemingly all sports fans have to consider at one time or another: what should our relationship as fans be to players who commit terrible crimes? Before Reyes and Chapman there were Albert Belle and Barry Bonds, Francisco Rodriguez and Josh Lueke, as well plenty of violence against women in other sports (Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice, Kobe Bryant), and that’s not even considering those who committed violence generally (Ray Lewis, Matt Bush, Hope Solo). When sports leagues simply ignored these cases, the sense of hopelessness led to a muted reaction even from fans who abhorred the players’ continued careers. Now, though, as players are beginning to receive (admittedly light) punishments in their sports, fans have more to think about regarding our stances towards such players—especially when those players are on our teams. And of course, both Chapman and Reyes had new major league teams waiting for them when their suspensions were over.

There have been two great pieces on this question recently—one by Mets blogger Maggie Wiggin, expressing her dismay with Reyes joining the Mets, and one by Giants blogger Grant Brisbee, expressing his desire that the Giants not trade for Chapman. Building off of their work, here are some questions I want to explore regarding the appropriate reaction when players commit violence, especially violence against women:

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Why don’t we give the championship to the team with the most wins?

On May 28, the Golden State Warriors’ season looked to be on the verge of coming to an end. The consensus favorites to win the NBA Championship—they had won 73 games, the most in NBA history, beating the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls—the Warriors were now losing the Western Conference Finals three games to one, on the road against Oklahoma City, down five points at the half. A win would keep their championship hopes alive; a loss would bring the season to an end. “Either way,” I wrote on Facebook—I’m a Warriors fan—“this has been an incredible season and nothing can detract from that.”

It’s exactly what a loyal fan is supposed to write, but I knew it was a lie; the only honest statement would have been, “…nothing can detract from that, except the Warriors not winning the championship.” Like everyone else, I knew perfectly well that to set the record for wins in a season and then fail to win the championship would completely change the tenor of the Warriors’ season: from a historically great team, the greatest team in NBA history, to a historic disappointment, a historic underachievement. No one would ever bring up their dominance of the league without adding that, when it really mattered, they had blown it.

And yesterday, that’s exactly what happened. After making that comeback against the Thunder, after leading the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers three games to one, the Warriors withered in the face of an unprecedented performance by LeBron James, scored no points in the last four-plus minutes of Game 7, and finished the season as runners-up. And, as I had known would happen, the reassessments of the Warriors’ greatness began immediately:

The Warriors’ loss completes a remarkable trend: in the four major American sports leagues, none of the record-holders for most wins in a season won the league championship that year. In baseball, the 2001 Seattle Mariners; in hockey, the 1996 Detroit Red Wings; in football, the undefeated (until the Super Bowl) 2007 New England Patriots; and now, the 2016 Golden State Warriors.

Why do we do it this way? After a team has outperformed all the others, why do we make it pass through a playoff gauntlet against those same vanquished teams in order to be crowned champions? The actual facts of the answer are pretty prosaic: in the early days of baseball and football in the United States, you had multiple leagues competing to be the preeminent professional league in that sport. When a minor league came to rival the main one—the American League reaching parity with the National League in baseball—or a larger league absorbed a smaller one—the NFL merging with the American Football League—it made sense to simply have a playoff between the winners of the formerly independent leagues, who wouldn’t have faced each other during the regular season. And today, with thirty teams in each league, the entertainment and financial incentives to make the championship open to more teams via a playoff makes the idea of moving away from that system a non-starter.

Still, it’s worth noting that this is not the case all over the world. The top-flight European soccer leagues handle their league championships straightforwardly: whatever team is at the top of the table at the end of the year is the champion, period. The leagues do have knockout tournaments, like England’s League Cup and Association Cup, but these include all the teams in the league, the highest and the lowest, and are independent of the league championship. Sometimes the championship is high drama—in 1989, Arsenal won the English championship over Liverpool on a last-minute goal in the last game of the season—and sometimes it’s settled weeks before the end of the season. But it’s always definitive: if you win the most games, you’re the winner.

I can’t lie: as a Warriors fan, I find that cold rationality pretty attractive right now. The Warriors this season won 73 games; the Cavaliers won 57, in what is widely thought to be the inferior conference. Why should four points in one game—an in-and-out three-pointer here, a missed free throw there—cancel out the 16-win difference between them?

It doesn’t make sense. But of course, if sense is what you’re after, you shouldn’t be following sports in the first place, and if what sports fans wanted most of all was the unambiguous knowledge of who’s the best, track and field would be the most popular sport in America. The possibility of a lesser team beating a greater one in the playoffs has given us some of the greatest stories in sports: the “Miracle Mets” beating the powerhouse Orioles in 1969; David Tyree’s catch to help stun the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII; and—I’ll grudgingly admit—LeBron’s superhuman block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 on Sunday. Uncertainty is bad for settling the quantitative question of superiority, but it’s great for storytelling. The victory of scrappy, hard-luck Cleveland, a city with an unpromising economic outlook and no championships in over fifty years, over the Bay Area, a tech boomtown with money to burn and major sports championships in each of the last two years, wouldn’t be possible without the equalizer of the playoffs.

The reason the playoffs aren’t going anywhere is that they’re so lucrative, but the reason we fans love them so much is that they’re democratic. By pure happenstance, the major American sports leagues—pure hypocrites when it comes to the question of American values—have managed to embody one of the most central and elusive tenets of the American Dream: the idea that the underdog has a real shot. What the playoffs offer to fans is possibility—often desperate, sometimes absurd, but real nonetheless.

Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson

A couple preliminary notes about Muhammad Ali’s legacy before I get to my topic:

1. It seems indisputable that almost anyone you might care to name on the list of the most important athletes in history is bound to be nonwhite. A white athlete, devoid of larger symbolism, has very little opportunity to influence anything outside the athletic arena; Babe Ruth had a tremendous impact on the game of baseball, and even on sporting culture generally, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a way he changed the world in the manner of a Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, or Muhammad Ali. The only exception I can think of is Billie Jean King, but her impact seems a bit more complicated to me: while she surely made a difference in the public perception of women athletes and women in general, we’ve made little progress on the cause she was most directly fighting for—women’s sports having an equal seat at the table with men’s sports—and her accomplishment is soured somewhat by the revelation that Bobby Riggs may have thrown the match.

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Leicester City and the Fan’s Gamble

I was in England on a study abroad program from 2001 to 2002, but I squandered my chance to cultivate an interest in English Premier League football [i.e. soccer]. Aside from a field trip to watch Oxford United, a third division club, draw 0-0 against someone or other, all the soccer I watched was World Cup matches, which offer entertainment that is immediately thrilling but mostly lacks the history and complexity of league play: when the US beat Portugal, it was a thrilling upset, but it wasn’t another chapter in the rich history between those two teams, or countries for that matter. It’s similar to how, a legal drinker for the first time, I failed to take advantage of all that great English beer and just drank Stella Artois and Kronenbourg and continental lagers like that. Not bad, you understand, just a kind of unsubtle experience that gets pretty limiting if it’s all you consume.

Consequently, I didn’t pick up any of the soccer discussions that were no doubt swirling around me all year…except for one, at a university karate tournament in Edinburgh (yes) between a competitor from another team and his two coaches. I don’t remember the guy’s name—only that he absolutely demolished me in the sparring competition, which he went on to win—but it came out that he was a Leicester City fan, and from the way his coaches were ribbing him I could tell that they were having a bad season. (Indeed, they finished at the bottom of the league, with a record of 5-13-20, and were relegated—i.e., sent down to the second division* for the following season.)

*The “second division” was actually called, confusingly, “First Division,” since the Premier League is technically separate from the Football League, but for clarity I’m going to call the one right under Premier “second,” and below that “third,” etc.

“You won’t be laughing next year!” this Leicester fan vowed, then caught himself: “Well, in two years, when they’re back from relegation.” Which they were, for one season. Then they went down to the second division, for four more seasons, after which they went down again, to the third division, for one season. Then back up to the second division, for five seasons, before finally returning to the Premiership. That takes us from 2002, when I overheard this exchange, to 2014—twelve years, of which Leicester were in the top flight for exactly one.

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