Over the past six weeks, sports has imitated life with unfortunate accuracy, suggesting that even now, 20 years after the Rodney King riot (how lamentable that the poor guy who got the stuffing beaten out of him by the Los Angeles police has been rewarded with the infamy of having a bloody riot carry his name, as if he'd started it), it's clear that we still cannot just get along.
The reality is, we've rarely been able to.
Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young is near the end of a weeklong suspension stemming from an arrest on a misdemeanor aggravated harassment charge with a hate crime element after a night of drinking ended in a scrap in which, according to police, he yelled anti-Semitic epithets in an exchange with a group of visitors (and, apparently, a yarmulke-wearing panhandler) in New York City.
On the tennis court back in March, Michael Llodra from France and Ernests Gulbis from Latvia were playing a match at Indian Wells, Calif., when Llodra locked in on a woman of Asian descent who was rooting for Gulbis and reportedly directed a racial slur at her. A little over a month later, after the Washington Capitals' Joel Ward ended the Boston Bruins' season with an overtime goal in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series, Ward's Twitter feed as well as a few message boards showered the Caps' hero with generous portions of the N-word.
In three different sports in three different places, the same simmering resentments surface along three different fault lines -- player versus public, player versus fan, fans versus player. And teams and governing bodies are still uncomfortable with how to deal with them, still scrambling to find the appropriate balance between outrage and understanding -- in Young's case, of a dumb, drunken exchange with serious consequences -- and between reaction and overreaction.
The ATP, the governing body of men's tennis, clearly wasn't overly concerned by Llodra's infraction. Insulting a paying customer with a racist slur cost Llodra a fine of a mere $2,500, sending the message that there apparently is a place in sports for offending the fan base in the heat of battle. The Bruins and the National Hockey League both released tepid statements that said all the right things about the need to keep racist talk out the game, but seemed to miss the larger point that it's bad for business if potential customers might not feel comfortable attending a game for fear of being subject to hate speech. It may be easy to slough off the tweets of a few idiots behind a keyboard -- as long as you're not the target.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who is Jewish, suspended Young for seven days without pay. The Tigers, prohibited from further disciplinary action because baseball and the players' association, as part of the labor agreement, agreed not to enact dual punishments, can put Young back on the field as soon as Friday, when Detroit hosts the White Sox.
To date, Young has been charged but not convicted of any crime; and though baseball suspended him pre-emptively and the suspension seems appropriate, he nevertheless at this moment is not guilty.
Still, there are few more complicated relationships between groups than the longstanding tensions between blacks and Jews. When he returns to the team, Young will discover how severe, or how forgiving, the response to his actions will be. Will he be welcomed back completely or conditionally by fans and the public? Will his teammates have his back because he can play or because they understand that sketchy things happen when alcohol is combined with the wee hours, or will they suspect that the truth serum of alcohol revealed a piece of his heart and his mind that night that says something important about him as a man?
In the broader context of sports and the country learning how to navigate the great social upheavals of the 20th century, Young's case is not unique. African-American players during the first two generations of the integrated game were not to assume that their teammates wanted to room with them, drink with them, socialize with them, because the same assumptions were not being made in larger society. White players did not hide their animus for the coming social changes, evidenced by a conversation related to me by Henry Aaron between Aaron and Warren Spahn. One day during the famous Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, Spahn asked Aaron, "Henry, just what is it that you people want?"
Players were asked to do that most difficult of things: Trust each other to win as teammates while they didn't necessarily trust or respect each other as Americans.
Today's resentments may still be as deep and immovable as they were in the past, though we've reached the accepted and appropriate position that hate speech shouldn't be tolerated and, in fact, is against the law. In a polarized country, athletes are no less susceptible to the same divisions, though their deliveries are sometimes more polished. In the Bruins' locker room, goaltender Tim Thomas' conservative viewpoints are a matter of record, at one point overshadowing the celebration of Boston's first Stanley Cup championship since 1972. In corporate offices and workplaces across the country, the political and social views of your co-workers reveal just who they really are.
In American sports, one of the biggest high-profile breaches of the melting-pot aspiration was John Rocker's infamous interview with Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated in 2000, in which Rocker's comments revealed his xenophobia, his homophobia, his sexism and his racism. He was on a team, the Braves, that was the defending National League champion; yet even with the help of the great Aaron (who, on his own, met with Rocker to try to defuse the situation) and civil rights legend Andrew Young, Rocker couldn't fully recover his career.
Young has been appropriately discredited for his words, drunken or not, and it leaves him with a unique, modern-day challenge. He is on a team contending for a championship; and in the culture of today's sports world, he likely will benefit to some degree from the protection of teammates who as a matter of course attempt to mute distractions to concentrate on the collective objective of reaching the World Series. He may also benefit from the talent trap, which allows his ability to play baseball at a high level to sustain him even if he loses respect from those inside and outside the game.
However, there undoubtedly will be whispers with which Young must live. His alleged comments have provided people with information to think they know how he feels and what he believes, all of which just might make hitting a baseball that much harder.