Bigotry still reigns in sports

Acel Moore

December 04, 1992|By Acel Moore

ALTHOUGH the color line in professional basketball, football and baseball was broken more than a generation ago, big-league sports are still deeply rooted in this nation's racial divide.

Bigotry routinely is expressed by players, fans, sports commentators and owners. Usually it is not overt. Mostly it is only implied -- just under the surface of ordinary conversations.

From time to time, though, it erupts dramatically.

Former CBS football commentator and handicapper Jimmy the Greek got into trouble a few years ago by suggesting that black athletes were superior because slave owners a century ago bred African-Americans for their strength.

Then there was former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, on ABC's "Nightline" to celebrate the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball, who offhandedly observed that blacks "lack the necessities" to hold front-office jobs in baseball.

Both Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis were fired because of their offensive remarks.

The latest outbreak of American bigotry has come in the form of racist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott.

Reportedly, Ms. Schott referred to some former black players on her team as "niggers" and frequently has made remarks offensive not only to blacks but also to Jews and Asians. Unlike those of Jimmy the Greek and Al Campanis, Ms. Schott's remarks were made in private. They have come to the public attention via a wrongful-firing lawsuit filed by former Reds employees.

Baseball -- indeed, professional sports -- has a long history of racial stereotyping of black athletes.

Stereotypes attribute the prowess of black athletes to the hypothesis that they are closer to our primal past than white athletes. Whether the stereotyping is done by teammates, owners or sports commentators, the pejorative commentary about black athletes almost always makes reference to their supposed simian characteristics. Ms. Schott allegedly indulged in such metaphors.

A former employee of the Oakland Athletics alleged that during a conference call with other team owners she overheard Ms. Schott say that she would rather have a "trained monkey" working for her than "a nigger."

In depositions filed with their lawsuit, Ms. Schott's former employees also revealed that she kept a swastika armband in her home.

The obvious implication is that Marge Schott has been known to harbor racist attitudes and openly has shared them with other owners.

Interviewed this weekend about her alleged remarks, Ms. Schott acknowledged using the racist terms but said she was not a bigot and only used these expressions "kiddingly."

Marge Schott's apparently cavalier attitude about using racist terms not only confirms her insensitivity but also says that for years her colleagues have known about her bigotry but have remained silent. This would include those in the National League office, where president Bill White happens to be African-American.

The allegations make me wonder about the controversy between Ms. Schott and former Reds star outfielder Eric Davis. Mr. Davis, who is black, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1991 season. When he was with Cincinnati, he was injured and couldn't play for a time. Ms. Schott thought he was making too much of his injury and publicly depicted Ms. Davis as a slacker and malingerer.

Now that Ms. Schott's alleged sentiments are being aired, this makes me question whether Mr. Davis' performance as a member of the Cincinnati Reds was judged on his ability or on his racial heritage.

I also question the notion being advanced by Schott apologists that her attitude is just an isolated case of intolerance. Might her feelings be representative of franchise owners -- and only she had the misfortune of being caught?

If that is the case, the question of why there are still so few minorities in the front offices not only in baseball but in all the major sports is relevant.

For baseball executives to continue to remain silent or to excuse the behavior of Marge Schott -- who is in her 60s -- as a generational phenomenon is simply not acceptable.

Currently baseball does not have a commissioner and instead is being governed by an executive council of owners. The council has said it is investigating the charges, and unnamed members have been quoted as saying that some action will be taken by the council before the owners' meeting scheduled for next week in Louisville, Ky.

Swift action should be taken by the owners. They should be outraged and go on record denouncing such bigoted behavior by anyone in the sport, be they owners or players.

Baseball is not like just any business. It is a special enterprise that has been exempted by the courts from the anti-trust laws and should be held to an even higher standard of fairness than other businesses.

The remarks attributed to Ms. Schott, who profits from baseball, conjures up the image of a baseball stadium as a plantation run by a slave owner.

Acel Moore is associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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