Payback is a bitch
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Sat up in Berkeley Cali last week, at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, had a Barney's Gourmet Hamburger with the trimmings and thought on a question I'd been asked: What do black athletes owe back to communities that spawned them? Like, I should know, right? Like I'm Miss Cleo, Jesse Jackson or somebody?

"You can have an opinion," piped in my swaggering company, Ms. Melody Moon. I swear to you, if she wasn't so sharp, I'd ... but that's neither here nor there. What do black athletes owe back to the community? Well, first, which community do you mean?

Bobby Smith
Tampa Bay Devil Ray Bobby Smith paid tribute to his Oakland roots.
Do you mean the community that filled their lives with unwed motherhood, fatherless adolescence, inextricable poverty, liquor stores on every other corner, frequented often, hopeless schools, careless teachers, playing fields, if there are any, with as much litter as grass, Section 8 housing and, worse, Section 8 mentality? The community that tries to drag him down once he's brought into college, saying he's putting on airs, "forgot where he came from" (oh, if only he ever could), tempts him with sex/dope under the pretense of being his friend. The community that looks at him as if he's insane if he says, "I don't want to play this game; I want to learn how to be a pilot." The community that compromises him at every turn, embarrasses itself trying to grind a buck off his body in any way it can, that, if he somehow does make it, then takes credit for his "development," when the only thing that community developed in its life was a case of galloping envy?

You mean that community?

Or, do you mean the other community, that exploited him from word Go? The community that builds liquor stores on every other block where he grew up, puts a government seal on liquor bottles that stock the shelves in the liquor stores on every other block. The community that then allocates next to nothing for public education, and stands by while highly refined dope comes into his world even though nobody there is much of a horticulturalist? The community that, if he likes and is good at baseball, makes him believe baseball is "a white man's game," or excelling in school is "acting white," then subtly, laughably, making him believe that's his concept?

Or do you mean the community that makes him criminal by saying it's illegal for someone to give him a $2 sausage sandwich if he's on scholarship? Even though you can't eat a scholarship? He's always hungry, because it's hard work being a D-I revenue-producing ballplayer at a big university; hard, physical, year-round work. Off his labor, coaches, ADs, conference presidents, hotel chain magnates, network executives, bus and airline company bigwigs and their chairmen eat at fine restaurants and dab at their double-chins with their linen napkins. Yet, if somebody takes him to McDonald's to ease his missed-meal cramps, he's a criminal.

Do you mean the community that makes an entire industry off his industry, and then pays everybody but him for it? The community that embarrasses him by saying if his mother dies and he can't afford anything but a cardboard box to bury her in, he still can't get paid anything for performing on prime-time TV -- the last so-called humans I know of who don't get paid for being on prime-time TV? Even though he scored three TDs for ol' Siwash in the Fedex Orange Bowl, Ma will have to be buried in a UPS box. Make her proud, son. Have some dignity. Then score four TDs vs. State U. in the next Kickoff Classic, or you'll never make social progress.

You mean that community?

It's a wonder these athletes give back to anybody anything other than the thinly veiled contempt in which they are so often held.

But, miraculously, sometimes they do ...

***** ***** *****

Went to an awards ceremony at a small hotel just an Ichiro throw from the Oakland Coliseum. Old black man named Howard "Pa" Bess and some thick-middled, middle-aged coaches from the Oakland Babe Ruth baseball league were being honored for taking the time with the young boys, along the way constructing one of the most competitively successful youth baseball programs in America. It includes all: white youth ballplayers, Latino youth ballplayers, and most certainly, from Curt Flood, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan and Rickey Henderson on, the black ones; most of their coaches are African-American. I cannot count for you how many district, regional, state and national championships they've won.

  He's always hungry, because it's hard work being a D-I revenue-producing ballplayer at a big university; hard, physical, year-round work. Off his labor, coaches, ADs, conference presidents, hotel chain magnates, network executives, bus and airline company bigwigs and their chairmen eat at fine restaurants and dab at their double-chins with their linen napkins. Yet, if somebody takes him to McDonald's to ease his missed-meal cramps, he's a criminal. 

Besides "Pa" Bess, besides the other coaches, like Mobil Cox, there are the players. But what does Ryan Drese owe back to this small community that spawned him? Ryan used to ride around with "Pa" Bess, while the old man picked up the rest of his players, always in different order, without Pa ever saying a word until they got to the diamond. Then he said plenty. Ryan came to the awards ceremony, paid hommage to "Pa" Bess. Ryan learned how to play competitive baseball in Oakland Babe Ruth. And this season, Ryan will, in all likelihood, be in the starting rotation of the Cleveland Indians.

Ryan Drese knows where he came from. Ryan Drese is white. Yet he was there that night. What does he owe back, and to which community? Life can be a hard thing to get your head around.

Bobby Smith was there. He just signed a long-term deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Tall, rangy, hell of a third sacker, a big-leaguer developed from the hardscrabble fields of Oakland Babe Ruth. What does he owe back? Well, he was there. "Yeah, Ralph, I was down in Arizona, getting ready to go to spring training in St. Pete," Bobby Smith said. "But then, I thought about this award ceremony." Smith, Drese and Phillies infielder Jimmy Rollins were being inducted into the Oakland Babe Ruth Hall of Fame, along with "Pa" Bess, coaches Royce Crowell and Granville Brooks, and sponsors Alan Silver and Lou Duvernay.

"I thought about it. I knew I had to come," said Bobby Smith.

"Yeah, you did," I said to Bobby. "Because once you left this league and went to high school ball, you were like, 'Is this it?' "

He smiled and nodded. The rest of it was like stealing.

Smith recently got married and is on his way starting a family. If he raises that family right, and maybe sponsors a team in Oakland Babe Ruth, is that enough of a give-back? If he lives right, is that enough? Or must he build a field that the conditions described above will eventually tear down? Who decides for him?

If he's a man, he does.

***** ***** *****

Thought about this giving-back business. Yeah, some guys give only the back of their hand. But there'll be an accounting for that one day. If they're smart, they can look at O.J. Simpson and see that.

George Washington Carver High
George Washington Carver High School hangs a banner honoring alumnus Marshall Faulk last month in New Orleans.
Thought about Marquis Grissom, the longtime big-league outfielder, who bought a house for each one of his 10 or so brothers and sisters.

Thought about Warrick Dunn, whose mother was killed in the line of duty as a public servant in Baton Rogue, La., and who today builds single-family dwellings for single mothers whom he deems deserving in that same community, and maintains a low profile doing it.

Thought of the college player at Texas A&M whose mother died and who could only afford that cardbox box to bury her in. Some enterprising associate AD got on the horn to NFLers and former Texas A&Mers Quinton Coryatt, ex of the Colts, and Kevin Smith of the Cowboys. The assistant AD explained, said there was really nothing Texas A&M could do without violating the community of the NCAA, and its rules and regs. The moment an account could be set up at a local bank, three large was wired into it by Q and Kev so this young man could bury his mother with the respect and dignity all of these open/underhanded "communities" had never afforded her.

Thought of these things as well as asking myself, "What are Michael Jordan and Marshall Faulk doing? Well. They know." They know what they do. Or, don't do. Each according to his own conscience. Some don't know they have one. Some learn.

Thought of all this, the whole nine. Got one of those rare, quickly passing feelings that maybe things are getting to be maybe halfway as they should be. Know the feeling will probably pass.

And you? What are your thoughts?

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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