Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Racism where you least expect it

In case you don’t know him, Gary Sheffield is a major league baseball player. He’s one of those guys who has the athletic ability to be among the best players in the history of the game but through the years he has displayed an attitude better suited for a maximum security prison. He exhibits all of the personality traits that demonstrate a great deal of insecurity.

Gary has been talking out of his ass since he came into the league. He’s a liar and a cheat (he has been linked to steroids and human growth hormone). He’s a selfish jerk obsessed with personal success even at the expense of his team. Everywhere Gary has played people have been impressed with his ability to hit a baseball and disgusted with his inability to say anything intelligent. Still, Gary’s recent comments about the dominance of Latin players are far beyond the conventional limits of stupidity.

It’s important to note that Sheffield is black. This wouldn’t be important if Gary didn’t make it such an issue. Gary’s one of those guys who would set a kitten on fire and blame the negative reaction on racial bias. Gary makes race an issue in every discussion. He realizes that people don’t like him and he assumes that it is because he is black. This is because he assumes all black people are jerks just like him. That’s probably because his friends, like Barry Bonds, are jerks too.

Some concern has been expressed over the dramatic decline of black players in major league baseball. The study began innocently enough…with Asian players making such a splash people were curious to see how the demographics of the game have changed. They were stunned to see that the percentage of African American players is almost half of what it was 25 years ago. The percentage of white players is smaller as well but not enough to cause concern. Of course the number of Hispanic players has increased.

Most people believe that the decline is because fewer African American kids are playing baseball. Cities aren’t keeping urban parks up, inner city schools aren’t offering sports, youth leagues are suffering from a lack of funds and volunteers…all of these reason make sense. It’s also possible that more black kids are drawn to sports such as basketball where financial rewards are immediate. LeBron James had a 100 million dollar shoe contract before he graduated high school while top baseball prospects have to prove themselves at the major league level before they can ink a big contract. Then you have the Nintendo effect: more and more African American kids are playing their games from the confines of the living room couch.

Gary Sheffield doesn’t buy any of that. He believes that racism is to blame. Black players are being forced out of baseball by cheaper immigrant labor.

Gary Sheffield explained that Hispanic players do what they’re told and endure more disrespect than a black player would tolerate. To hear Sheffield tell it, there are hundreds of black players with superior playing ability sitting at home because some Mexican player is willing to be humiliated and take less money. Sheffield claims that his race is not going to take such treatment. His race demands to be treated with respect and that is a concession that managers are not willing to make.

This is offensive to everybody. First of all, Hispanic players are not playing for less money. Two of the highest paid players in the league have names ending in “z” and one of them, Manny Ramirez is notorious for not following orders. He’s not necessarily a combative jerk but he’s definitely aloof and his attitude is sometimes problematic for managers. Manny gets a pass because his behavioral issues aren’t malicious. He’s just weird. Moreover, nobody’s trading performance for obedience with him; Manny’s getting paid all that money because he’s the best overall hitter in the game. Ramirez, even with his quirky behavior, is a much better player than Sheffield. Period.

When it comes to sports race is rarely an issue anymore. People want wins often at any cost. Players are paid far more than they’re worth and teams put up with more nonsense from those players than they should. Gary Sheffield’s entire career is a classic example of that. He’s one of the most overpaid players in the game and arguably the biggest jerk in the league. Nobody’s replacing him with some Hispanic player who will smile and do what he’s told. It’s ironic because if there is one black player in the league who should be replaced with a mediocre Mexican it’s Gary Sheffield.

The people who should be most offended by these comments are African Americans. Clearly Gary Sheffield believes that his behavior is typical of his race. He actually thinks that he is a positive black role model. In Gary Sheffield’s world a black man who respects authority as it relates to his job is an Uncle Tom and a black player who puts in extra effort without being paid extra money is a sell out.

Sheffield typifies the type of athlete American fans love to hate. He’s a spoiled brat who, at the age of 39 still believes that throwing tantrums and pouting is how to get his way. Sadly, because he can still hit with occasional power, it works too often. Coaches and players cater to him because he carries a career batting average of .297.

It’s unfortunate that Gary Sheffield is black because it gives him something to hide behind. As long as he looks in the mirror and sees a black face looking back at him he assumes it’s the color of his skin that people judge him by when in reality it is the content of his character.

Gary Sheffield won’t be embarrassed by his comments and if he is grilled on it he will undoubtedly claim that his words were taken out of context and blame that on some convoluted conspiracy by white journalists to impugn his credibility. Sadly, it’s Sheffield who is guilty of racism. He’s also guilty of embodying a negative stereotype unfairly associated with black athletes. Most African American baseball players don’t act like Gary Sheffield but guys like Sheffield seek out the spot light because they need to feed their massive egos. If they can’t get face time by being the best they talk the loudest and if that doesn’t work they say or do something controversial. It’s unfortunate because there are great players, like Ryan Howard, who deserve more attention.

It’s also unfortunate because Sheffield drew attention away from an important subject. We should be concerned about the declining numbers of African American baseball players and take steps to identify why this trend is developing but when a guy like Gary Sheffield claims to represent his race it’s hard to see this as a problem. Baseball doesn’t need more guys like that.

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