I am a sports fan…always have been. I am particularly a baseball fan, and so I watched with special interest as Barry Bonds approached Hank Aaron's homerun record this summer, and noted the constant media and fan derision he received. (For example, I read one column by USAToday’s Christine Brennan, after the homerun was hit that she began with, “Our long national nightmare is over…a bit of hyperbole, I think, when our soldiers are dying in the battlefield.)
Now I have to say that my inclination is to think that Bonds used steroids. I have no proof of that, of course, as does anybody else yet, but I have been convinced, perhaps by the press, that he probably did juice up over the past few years.
However, I have noticed a pattern in the relentless way that Bonds has been berated about this that strikes me as inconsistent, particularly in light of how others seem to be treated for infractions that would appear on the surface to be analogous.
It particularly struck me this morning as I was watching the report of the New England Patriots victory yesterday and the excitement with which their 5-0 start has been greeted. Noticeably absent was any mention of the fact that just a few short weeks ago Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was found to be spying on opposing teams, a direct violation of the rules. And just before that it was Rick Ankiel, the feel good baseball story of the year when he came back to the St. Louis Cardinals, just before he was found to have used Human Growth Hormone; and before that the celebration of Sammy Sosa’s 600th homerun…you remember Sosa, of steroid allegations himself, as well as corked bat fame.
Now as much as I like sports, I also know that a game is a game. So who really cares about all of this in the grand scheme of more serious issues? But sports has had an unwavering ability to cast a light on some of our core issues over the years.
Why Bonds for this level of recrimination and not the others? I know that people have many explanations…it was baseball’s, (and maybe sport’s) biggest record; he never has admitted juicing (but, of course neither has Sosa); Belichick said he was sorry and took his punishment….etc.
I’m sure all of these are factors, but is there another? When Donovan McNabb suggested recently that Black quarterbacks are under greater scrutiny he was quickly greeted with denial. But is it possible that, without even realizing it, we do hold African American athletes (particularly those, like Bonds, who are deemed to have “attitude”) to a different standard…that their failure is more disappointing; their violations more appalling?
Everything we have been learning about unconscious bias tells us that sort of thing can happen to good people all of the time. That we can be swayed in our determinations by hidden judgments and perceptions that we not only don’t know are there, but that may be counter to our conscious beliefs about ourselves.
Yet, as I hear people respond so defensively to the inquiry about these kinds of questions, as they have with both Bonds and McNabb, I can’t help but muse, “Me thinks thou doest protest too much.”
After all, a cheater is just a cheater.
But are you sure?