Power, perspective and sports media

Barry_Bonds

Jeff Pearlman recently did a terrific interview with Barry Bonds’ son, Nicolai. Nicolai is 25 now. He mostly lived with his mom growing up so, as he relates it, he’s not particularly close with his very (in)famous father. The younger Bonds displayed remarkable maturity and perspective in discussing how sees his dad.

Pearlman wrote a book about Bonds in 2006 (more on that in a moment). This was during the height of Bonds’ infamy. He was closing in on the most hallowed record in all of American sports – Hank Aaron’s career homerun record. And he’d become the face of the steroid generation of Major League Baseball. Those facts, combined with Bonds’ taciturn and often surly behavior, made him the most hated man in sports at the time.

Pearlman acknowledged to Nicolai his own view of Nicolai’s dad, expressed in the book – that virtually everyone who Bonds came in contact with disliked him. Here’s Pearlman’s question and Nicolai’s response:

J.P.: I’m gonna ask something that might sorta suck, but I’m dying to understand: A decade ago I covered your dad’s home run chase, then wrote a book about him. I watched him a lot. Like, a lot a lot a lot. And what bothered me most wasn’t the PED rumors or anything like that. No, what bothered me is he didn’t seem to treat people very nicely. The clubhouse staff, the PR department, the media, teammates. I just thought your dad was sorta mean. And I know it sucks to say that to a son, but, well, it was my observation. So I ask you, was I missing something? Was I correct? And if he was, indeed, mean, why? And if he wasn’t, why did so many people see it that way?

N.B.: My dad is a difficult person to understand. Is he always the nicest person in the world? Absolutely not. But then again—and I don’t mean this to sound offensive—but are you the nicest person in the world every day of your life? That’s an impossible standard for anybody to ask you to achieve.

Now, I’m going to break it down to everybody so that maybe some people will understand, some will care—and others simply cannot be swayed. My father gives more to people then anybody I know. My father helps more children and families than most athletes/entertainers. Once you become someone everybody wants a piece of you. The good people. The bad people. The people who were always there and the people who weren’t. Some of my dad’s closest friends turned on him. My father pays for Bryan Stow’s kids to go to school. Not because he has to but because he chooses to.

My dad is a hard ass. Absolutely. He can be one of the biggest jerks in this world. Absolutely. But my dad also has the biggest heart in the world and never has any intentions to hurt anyone. He had to sit and watch as people threw things at his wife, at his daughter. Attack his family. My family had to stand quiet and tall while people were sending him death threats every single day. Over baseball. People threatening his family. So now he has to protect his family. My dad doesn’t owe anybody anything. He owed the fans entertainment, and his family a life. Beyond that he didn’t owe anything. If someone threatened your family and a reporter now wants to get into your personal life, where this person now might have access to your family, would you give it? Would you allow people close? It was easy to portray my dad as a villain. He was an easy target. A closed-off athlete. But spend a real day with that man and tell me if he is a bad person. Because he and I have had our differences but I will never say he is a bad person. My dad is a great man who. He just isn’t perfect, and he tries to protect himself and his family the best way he knows how.

Back when I was blogging for the Starting Five, I had a run-in of sorts with Pearlman (whose work, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, I really like). At the start of the 2007 season, when MLB was celebrating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, Pearlman wrote what I regarded as a hit job on Bonds for ESPN.

I should note that I loved Bonds as a player. There’s never been a better all around player in my lifetime, even leaving aside however one wants to evaluate his post-1998 career (when he’s widely assumed to have begun using PEDs). Bonds was strongly disliked long before the first rumors of his steroids use first started popping up. He was, after all, surly-while-black, a double negative on his resume. The treatment of Bonds in the media long bothered me and the level of vilification to which he was subject by the time 2007 rolled around was, in my view, obscene.

So, when Jeff attacked Bonds for, as I saw it, the crime of actually participating in the Robinson celebration (like many other major leaguers), I was especially put off. To Jeff’s credit, he actually responded in comments to the piece I wrote about his piece and we even ended up doing an interview together for the site.

I mention this little episode in connection with Richard Deitsch’s latest media column. In it, Deitsch asked a number of high-profile members of the sports media what’s the one thing about sports media they would change.

Though, to my shock (kidding!), Deitsch didn’t ask me, here’s a working attempt to formulate my own response to the question. The perspective on power and privilege typical of sports discourse is grossly skewed. It’s embodied in the very frequent complaint about “entitled” and “pampered” athletes – that player X was coddled from the time he was 11 or 12 because of his talent and is, as a result, arrogant, out of touch and lazy. Never mind that, very frequently, the players against whom this attack is directed – like, say, LeBron James – grew up in unstable family situations, surrounded by violence, and forced to endure conditions in childhood that the vast majority of their critics couldn’t possibly fathom. Racial insensitivities, of course, are an inescapable part of this trope, since it’s typically the case that the charge is leveled against black kids.

On the other hand, we have a decent-sized class of people in the sports world who owe their positions of tremendous power and influence – whether as franchise owners or senior management – to the fact that they grew up in circumstances of almost unimaginable privilege. To pick just two obvious examples, the current owners of the New York Knicks and Indianapolis Colts, James Dolan and Jim Irsay respectively, owe their positions in life entirely to their fathers. These folks, of course, are uniformly white. Yet one is *far* less likely to hear these modern-day aristocrats lambasted for the character-destroying effects of their coddled and babied upbringings.

To be clear, no one is required to like Barry Bonds. And Bonds himself, as the son of a major leaguer, did not grow up in penury. But the depth of the venom directed at Bonds bespoke a larger problem that still persists: the tendency to pile on black athletes – especially those who don’t cooperate with sports media. And that skewed focus is inextricably linked to a basic blind spot in scrutinizing the reality of power and privilege in the US.

To put this another way, if you think Steph Marbury represents more of what is wrong with America than Jim Dolan, well, then, as they say, that’s a “you” problem.

So, this obscenely topsy-turvy moralizing about entitlement and privilege – let’s change that.

Update: Bonds’ conviction on obstruction of justice charges, stemming from the investigation into his use of banned substances was overturned on appeal yesterday.

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2 comments

  1. From that link on Marbury: Golic: “been told how great they are and put up on a pedestal.”

    I swear I heard almost the exact same thing from him the other day regarding the Paul Pierce comments and today’s players. The more things change the more they stay the same, to quote the underrated band Cinderella.

    1. David,
      It’s a sentiment that gets repeated all the time. And, as your example illustrates, doesn’t only come from the mouths of white commentators/athletes.

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