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Sports no sanctuary from racism

By Kevin Blackistone

The son of the first black player for the Scottish soccer club Celtic, whose writing career was forged as a one-time English professor at Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia), wrote in his 1975 rap, We Beg Your Pardon, that: “America leads the world in shocks.”

“Unfortunately,” the late spoken-word sage and musician Gil Scott-Heron continued, “America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock.”

Gil Scott’s words, recorded at old D&B Sound in Silver Spring, came to mind in the aftermath of the Fenway Park incident last Monday that enveloped Orioles outfielder Adam Jones. Thirty-some people in the stands of the Red Sox home ballpark were ejected after spitting racial invectives, and hurling a bag of peanuts, in Jones’s direction.

Most of the Red Sox fans are white. Jones is black.

“Cowards,’’ Jones fired back afterward. “It’s pathetic. I was called the n-word a handful of times tonight.”

America responded. In shock.

The Boston Herald headlined a story: “Adam Jones incident at Fenway opens important conversation in baseball and Boston.” A columnist at USA Today wrote: “Jones reminded us Monday, and reiterated Tuesday, racism is alive and well in the good ol’ USA.”

I can hear Gil Scott chortling in his baritone.

For what reared in Fenway Park on Monday wasn’t a baseball problem. It wasn’t endemic to Boston, where I survived a couple years as an accidental racial violence reporter at the Boston Globe, and as a graduate student at Boston University. And it certainly wasn’t an event we needed to recall that there are racists lurking among us.

What we witnessed in Boston was the refrain that sport reflects society — or certainly the ugly tenor of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign that emboldened bigots everywhere — come to life.

There was no reason to be stunned that such ugliness would rear itself at one of our sporting contests. Attendees at European soccer matches don’t have a monopoly on public expressions of racism. Last Sunday in Italy, a Ghanaian player walked off the field after a referee refused to respond to a cascade of racial epithets from the stands.

As my friend Richard Lapchick, who directs the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport, wrote in January at ESPN.com: “Many think of sports as being a sanctuary which racism cannot penetrate, but they often reflect what is going on in society. There seems to be a broad agreement that acts of racism in the United States are increasing at an alarming rate. The same was true in sport in 2016, where such acts tripled from 11 in 2015 to 31 in 2016, according to research and analysis from [the institute].”

Part of the reason people expressed disbelief that American sports fans would shower a player like Jones with so much vitriol is that those of us in the media have created a mythology about our sports as a vanguard for social change and justice, some sort of spearhead for progressivism on issues that really matter. Truth is, sport has been more likely to imitate societal behavior than challenge it. Think about it: that much-told Jackie Robinson story wouldn’t have happened had baseball been on the right side of history in the first place. Instead, baseball was the clubhouse leader in segregated pro sports in this country. Other sports — horse racing, boxing, basketball and football — followed baseball’s lead.

Jones was lauded in some circles near the end of last baseball season for sounding as if he was speaking truth to power in explaining why there wouldn’t be any baseball players demonstrating in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against the extrajudicial killings of black men.

“We already have two strikes against us already so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game,” Jones said. “In football, you can’t kick them [black players] out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us . . . Baseball is a white man’s sport.”

That is a narrow viewpoint.

There are more black men playing Major League Baseball now than ever before. It’s just that most of them are part of the African diaspora that was stolen away to the first stop on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the island of Hispaniola, rather than all the way to North America. Half of Hispaniola became the Dominican Republic, from which 93 players started in the league this season. Another nine predominantly or heavily black Caribbean and South and Central American countries put 125 players on Opening Day rosters. Jones was one of 62 black players from the United States at this season’s first pitch.

But minority status shouldn’t translate into self-restraint. Jones’s fellow black ballplayers like C.C. Sabathia, who echoed others when he revealed being the target of bigoted slings and arrows in Fenway, too, shouldn’t have bitten their tongues until now. Hear something, say something. See something, point it out. Don’t turn a blind eye to racism.

Jones et al. could have shamed the Red Sox long ago to respond as they did in the aftermath of last Monday by banning bigots from Fenway and encouraged every sports league to adopt the same penalty — as well they should, immediately.

Kevin Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.

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