About a month or so ago, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was suspended for 10 after using pine tar on the mound during a game against the Red Sox. It was a funny story, mainly because Pineda had pine tar slathered all over his neck. Instead of having the decency to be discreet in his cheating, Pineda was pretty obvious about it.
It was a funny little story, something that put early season baseball in the headlines, got a laugh. It’s a perfect baseball-in-April story. The outrage seemed to be more about how obvious he was in his cheating than in the cheating itself.
That seems to be the code when it comes to cheating in sports. Sometimes cheating is OK, and sometimes it’s not (there’s the old saw that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying). The line, a lot of times, seems to be obviousness. The use of amphetamines in baseball in the 1960s (an open secret that’s been well documented) feels less like cheating than the use of steroids and PEDs in the late 1990s and 2000s, and I think part of this is because steroids just feel more obvious.
It’s a fine line. Because on one hand, cheating is cheating. On the other, it feels more egregious when it’s obvious. It’s the difference between Gaylord Perry’s spitter and Barry Bond’s muscles.
The issue – let’s call it the problem of obviousness – is an interesting, if kind of harmless and fun, topic when we’re talking about cheating on the field.
It gets real when you realize it’s at the core of the Donald Sterling and Michael Sam stories.
When the Donald Sterling interview first came out a few weeks ago, people were appalled, disgusted, angry, etc.
They were not surprised.
Sterling’s record of racism has been well documented. He’s a reported slumlord in Los Angeles, who’s treatment of minorities has always been distasteful at best and illegal at worst. He’s been sued countless times for housing discrimination. What he’s done in his life is 10 times worse than what he said to his mistress.
And yet in the end, it was what he said that got him banned for life from the NBA and will probably lead to him losing ownership in the Clippers.
The point has been widely raised – in the sports world, it’s been raised loudest and most eloquently by Bomani Jones and Dan LeBatard – that the NBA was tacitly OK with Sterling’s racist attitudes and practices for years by letting him own the team. It was only when he said what he said that he became an embarrassment. It sure looks like the NBA didn’t really care about what Sterling did but really cared about what he said. The NBA only cared when it made them really look bad.
It only became a problem when it became obvious.
It’s a valid point. What people do should always matter as much as what people say. In this case, it’s hard to paint the NBA’s decision as anything but the right move. To quote Sam Seaborn, we’re going to forget the fact that they’re late to the party and embrace the face that they showed up at all. As LeBatard pointed out, Sterling’s ban was a lifetime achievement award for racism. It’s like the interview gave Sterling’s racism an obviousness it had been somehow lacking, giving the NBA a peg to hang its hat on.
But it’s easy to ban Sterling for these comments. There’s no risk in calling him out, in calling on the league to act. There’s no defense for Sterling, for his words or his behavior. There never has been. But once it became obvious, there was no longer an excuse for the NBA not to act.
Thing is, it’s so easy, we’re missing an opportunity to have a conversation. We could be talking about the latent racism that still exists. We could be talking about how housing discrimination continues to exist, and (as [Bomani Jones eloquently pointed out on radio] a few weeks ago) is one of the true blights on our society. We could talk about sports’ role in race relations, in the formation of racial identities, in how we come to understand the other.
But we’re not. We’ve moved on.
Because the problem, and the solution, was obvious.
Michael Sam was drafted over the weekend, and in celebrating kissed his significant other.
This is a big deal, of course. Because Sam is Sam, now the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL. In a clip aired live, Sam gave his boyfriend a celebratory kiss after being picked by the St. Louis Rams. It was a sweet moment – I showed a picture of it to my non-football-loving wife, and she awwwed just like I did. But it also brought out ugliness from fans and at least one active NFL player. Along with the to-be-expected homophobia from certain segments of the population, there was an equal number of disgust at Sam kissing his boyfriend from people who claim to not care that he’s gay but “don’t need to see that.” Several went all Helen Lovejoy on us.
In other words, they were upset because it became obvious.
Tony Kornheiser brought up a great point on PTI on Monday. He said that it’s easy for people to accept a gay athlete in theory. It’s easy to say that you don’t really care if a person’s gay or straight, that it just matters how they play. But Kornheiser pointed out, this is the reality of an openly gay athlete. They may have partners. Whom they kiss.
It’s easy to say you are OK with an athlete being gay. It gets real when you see them kissing. Suddenly, it’s not an abstraction. It’s not just a label that’s been put on him. Suddenly, it’s real. It’s who he is.
Suddenly, it’s obvious.
And when it becomes obvious, suddenly it can become a problem.