I was engaged in a conversation with an older, white gentleman this morning on the topic of character in sports. The gentleman, who I shall refer to as “Steve”, opined that all across the board, athletes seem to act as if they don’t have a moral compass. It was basically a slight to my generation, which I ignored because of a later comment. “I watch baseball and hockey much more now because those leagues don’t seem to embrace thugs the way basketball and football do.” This is the one that caught me by surprise.
My immediate response was, ‘So baseball and hockey players aren’t thugs?’ He had a puzzled look on his face, and answered, “If you’re talking about beanball wars and hockey fights, that’s a part of their cultures.” Every once in a while, someone will offer reasoning, which sounds like nothing more than excuses. This was one of those occasions.
I cannot lie; Steve was right, to an extent. Retaliation and brawling have been a part of baseball for decades, and a good number of people inside and outside the sport of hockey feel that fighting is almost necessary. A star hitter that gets hit in the back with a 95 mph fastball is not a surprise, especially if he’s had a good day at the plate. Hockey teams, in every league, sign players just because of their physical presence, and ability to drop the gloves at any given time during a game. Some hockey players fight to fire up their teams, or to “avenge” a fallen player. They are usually given the title of “enforcer”, or “goon”.
My next question left Steve with more of a “stuck” look on his face. ‘Do you think that you feel this way because basketball and football are predominantly Black and more hip sports?’ “No” was his reply.
I am a 24 year-old, Black male, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. Baseball is and has always been my favorite sport, and I would rather watch a 1-0 pitcher’s duel than a 120-118 NBA game any day of the week. Yet, I think that basketball and football have gotten a bad rep, because of a few “thuggish” characters. Ron Artest and his role in the “Malice at the Palace”, and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones are just two of many examples of professional basketball and football players that don’t seem to want to dispel the notion that the NBA and NFL are heavily populated by mostly overpaid gangbangers playing a sport.
Let’s be real. Baseball and hockey are two tedious sports. For the most part, its participants are mostly White. Even though there are a good number of European (which is obviously different from Caucasian) hockey players in the NHL, they still fall under the category of White players in our eyes. Even with the increase of Latino players in MLB, the majority of fans, front-office employees, coaches and managers are White. While Alexander Ovechkin may be the most exciting athlete in all of professional sports, he doesn’t exactly scream “cool”, especially in the minds of many casual hockey fans. He got a shoutout in a Wale verse, but I’m guessing that happened because Wale is from D.C. Baseball hasn’t really changed its marketing scheme over the last several years. You could say that the MLB: The Show series is popular with kids and young adults, but its success will most likely never reach the levels of the Madden and NBA 2K series. Hockey has many prestigious awards, like the Art Ross Trophy (MVP) and Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship), and baseball, despite falling behind football and basketball in the US in terms of viewership, is still viewed as America’s “National Pasttime”.
Granted, basketball and football have great histories and have had great players and coaches, but the overall view of the two sports now is that they run rampant with young, obnoxious, aggressive, wannabe gangster rappers. Even Ben Roethlisberger is not the stereotypical star White quarterback, and not because of his past transgressions. Basketball purists often voice their disgust with the lack of fundamentals practiced in the game now, and are even more frustrated that so many players are deciding that they don’t need to better themselves by staying in college for more than one year. Never mind the fact that at 18, they should be allowed to pursue whatever legal profession they choose. It’s seen as disrespectful to the professional game, and to nationwide institutions of higher learning. I just don’t believe that fans and analysts would have the same view of the two sports if most of its players, especially stars, were White.
Yes, there are plenty of scraps (95% of them minor) during the course of a basketball and football game. A basketball player might take exception to a hard foul, or a defensive lineman might respond with a punch to the helmet of an offensive lineman or blocker that cut him. Why are those seen as primitive acts? Why is rap music even mentioned as a potential reason for the aggressiveness in these sports? Yes, there are more than a few White rap fans, but when one thinks of the culture behind the music, most would think of young Black males.
When Ozzie Guillen openly acknowledged that he instructed one of his pitchers to hit an opposing player with a pitch, the media didn’t really do much to call him out for it. Actually, he was called out for admitting that he did so, and not for endorsing that type of behavior from one of his players. The pitcher was even demoted for failing to do so! Suppose instead of getting hit in the leg or upper body, the opposing player were hit in the head? Would that have been seen as one of the unwritten rules of baseball? In the world of organized crime, wouldn’t what Ozzie ordered his pitcher to do be considered a hit? More times than not, hockey players actually agree to fight before a game, or faceoff. I’ve seen a clip on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIf9tJATX9k ) where George Laraques literally asked Raitis Ivanans, before a faceoff, if he wanted to fight. After Ivanans agreed, he wished him luck. I suppose some hockey fans would say that’s an example of the sport’s classiness, but what if one of them were to hit their head on the ice? What if one punch were to end one of their careers prematurely? The fight came at a critical point during the game, but was it really necessary? Do hockey fans ever feel frustrated that there’s basically one guy on every team that is getting paid to not only fight, but to sometimes instigate fights? As I stated earlier, these players are called enforcers and goons. Don’t those titles usually belong to…gangsters and thugs? If you complain about a power forward or running back being overpaid, you should do the same for enforcers and goons. Call out baseball managers like Tony LaRussa, who have a reputation for ordering retaliation when he feels one of his players has been purposely thrown at or hit. Most pitchers have good control, but none of them are perfect. Ask anyone who’s played baseball past the age of 13 if they’ve ever been spiked, or anyone who’s played past Pee Wee hockey if they’ve ever been cross-checked or boarded. Most times, this is not just something that comes along with the territory of playing the sport. It’s intentional.
There are thuggish characters in a lot of sports. However, I find it alarming that so many choose to identify basketball and football players with such characteristics. I’ll admit, there’s more showboating in the two, while baseball and hockey are more reserved. Chad Ochocinco (wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals) has made a name for himself with his antics. Chris Andersen (power forward for the Denver Nuggets) is covered with tattoos and seems to revel in the fact that he is despised on the court. But there’s also Steve Avery, Matt Cooke, Ovechkin (to an extent), Vicente Padilla, Pedro Martinez (again, to an extent), and a plethora of baseball managers that are responsible for the foolishness that occurs in hockey and baseball at times. So I ask you again Steve. Baseball and hockey players aren’t thugs?
P.S. I miss Karen!!!
P.P.S. My McGriddle tastes awfully…kushy