People have asked me time and time again: What’s Kobe Bryant like?
“Simply the best,” I always answered.
I first learned about how much he cared when he showed up for a charity game for Hurricane Katrina victims in Houston on Sept. 11, 2005. I will never forget the image of him sitting next to a young black boy on the bench during the charity event. Nor will I forget how he took the time to ask me questions about my New Orleans-based parents and family, who were affected by Katrina. It meant the world to me. There were other NBA stars there that day, including LeBron James and Allen Iverson, but Bryant was the star of the stars.
I first learned about Kobe’s graciousness on Oct. 24, 2008, when my former college basketball teammate Troy McCoy took his 7-year-old son, Cameron, and two of his friends to a Los Angeles Lakers preseason game as a birthday present. After hearing the kids cheering loudly for the Lakers in an otherwise quiet game, Lakers media relations director Alison Bogli gave McCoy and the kids postgame passes to meet some players. Long after the game, Bryant came out of the locker room looking around and saying, “Where’s Cameron at? Where’s Cameron?”
A stunned Cameron put his hand up in the air, but was too shy to say anything. Kobe walked up to the boy and said, “Hello, my name is Kobe. What’s your name?” Bryant got Cameron to respond, then offered the kids words of wisdom and took a picture with them.
Kobe approached many of the people he was asked to meet postgame with attention to detail and focus, much like how he played ball.
“He would do a lot of due diligence on his own,” Michelle Obeso-Theus, who worked for Bryant from 2011-15, once told The Undefeated. “Regardless of how people view him, he is a genius. Very tenacious. Resilient.
“He taught me dedication and sacrifice to be great. His vision to see the future was crazy. When he said he wanted to meet someone, he always wanted to know what made them great. It didn’t matter if they were a wood-carver. He wanted to understand the mentality of what it takes for them to be a wood-carver.”
On Sunday morning, Bryant died at age 41 in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. He leaves behind a basketball legacy as one of the greatest NBA players of all time and one of its fiercest competitors. He was an NBA MVP, five-time champion, 18-time All-Star, 11-time first team all-NBA selection and two-time Olympic gold medalist. But he was so much more.
Kobe wasn’t just another player I covered.
After he suffered a torn Achilles tendon injury in 2013, Bryant, showing his competitive fire, said via e-mail: “Please do me a favor though and write a piece about what I was doing prior to getting hurt and the numbers I was putting up and bringing the team to the footstep of the postseason. I feel they are forgetting how good I was for ANY age. And that nothing in my career suggests that I won’t come back just as good or better next season.”
Another time, when I mistakenly asked a question and referred to his four NBA championships, he quickly corrected me — it was five — and gave me that Mamba glare.
Kobe was often accommodating to me when doing interviews after games and practices. He called me “Big Spears” and used to give me a hard time for asking thought-provoking questions, once saying, “Man, you always asking me those Dr. Seuss a– questions.” He knew I could take his joking. Kobe had a sharp sense of humor.
One time with his Nike right-hand man Nico Harrison by his side, he playfully objected to doing an interview with me after a Lakers practice unless I changed my wardrobe that day: an adidas sweatsuit and shoes. Keep in mind that Kobe was then a Nike endorser who had a bad breakup with adidas. After some good-natured ribbing, he did the interview.
But when it came down to it, Kobe was thoughtful. In March 2016, I landed a job as the senior NBA writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated and I gave him the news via e-mail. Bryant responded by writing: “Happy for you my brotha!!! Write from the heart!!! Always here for you.”
On Dec. 17, 2018, I was on hand as the Lakers retired both his No. 8 and No. 24. It was his night, but on his way out, he caught a glimpse of me and yelled, “Big Spears.” We shared an embrace and had a brief conversation before he was whisked away. And I am far from the only reporter who Kobe was gracious to, as he made time for countless other media people in sports and beyond.
I last had an in-depth conversation with Kobe in a phone interview last February. He told me about his busy schedule when I asked if he was keeping an eye on the Lakers.
“Look,” he said, “between building an entire studio from scratch, hiring a publishing-production company, licensing, building an animation studio, writing the book, between that and coaching my daughter’s team every single day, I have no time. I mean I have no time. None.”
He remained driven and dedicated to his family.
On March 19, 2019, Bryant released his first sports-fantasy book, The Wizenard Series: Training Camp. Written by Wesley King, Bryant’s youth series features characters of different races and background. He believed his daughters needed to see characters who looked like them.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the characters would be children of color, mixed-race, because that’s what I have at home,” Bryant said. “And that’s what I grew up with. But in the industry, itself, it is very hard to find that. Very, very hard to find that because we tend to … the general argument is that, ‘Well, they can’t appeal to the masses.’ ”
The basketball world won’t be the same without him. Neither will mine. Rest in peace, Kobe.
Next up are some of the best black quarterbacks who are taking over the college game and may become the next NFL stars.
KELLY BRYANT, SENIOR, MISSOURI
After becoming a starter at Clemson, Kelly Bryant decided to take his career to Columbia, Missouri, where he became the man for the Missouri Tigers. Bryant’s season was slightly hampered by nagging injuries but he still managed to throw for 15 touchdowns and 2,215 yards in 2019. The dual-threat talent was able to compile a 138.6 passer rating and 62% completion rate.
JUSTIN FIELDS, SOPHOMORE, OHIO STATE
Ohio State Buckeye Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist as a true sophomore. The Georgia transfer left for Ohio State and had a dynamic first season for the Buckeyes. He threw for 2,953 yards and 40 touchdowns while only throwing one interception this season. Fields ranks in the top five of FBS quarterbacks in passing efficiency and passing touchdowns. He’s also rushed for nearly 500 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Fields will help lead Ohio State against Clemson in one of the college football playoff semifinals.
TYLER HUNTLEY, SENIOR, UTAH
Tyler Huntley of Utah is second in FBS in completion percentage (73.7%) and ranks in the top 10 in the FBS in both yards per completion and passing efficiency. He has thrown for 2,966 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season and ended his 2019 campaign with a 181.8 passer rating. Huntley also ranks in the top 25 of FBS quarterbacks in passing yards. He led the Utah Utes to an 11-win season and will looks to cap off his career against the Texas Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
JALEN HURTS, SENIOR, OKLAHOMA
Jalen Hurts’ historic journey in college football culminated in a stellar 2019 season that resulted in him becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Oklahoma quarterback finished the regular season first in the FBS in passing yards per completion, third in passing efficiency, fourth in completion percentage and sixth in passing yards. Hurts threw for 3,634 passing yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 71.8% of his passes. He also ran for more than 1, 200 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior campaign. Hurts led Alabama to a national title while he was the quarterback for the Crimson Tide in 2017.
KELLEN MOND, JUNIOR, TEXAS A&M
Kellen Mond will lead Texas A&M into a showdown with the Oklahoma State Bulldogs in the Texas Bowl. After a stellar career for the Aggies, Mond finished the 2019 season with 2,802 yards passing and 19 touchdowns. He accumulated a 131.3 passer rating and completed 61.3% of his passes for the Aggies.
JAMIE NEWMAN, JUNIOR, WAKE FOREST
Jamie Newman led the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to an 8-4 record this season and a matchup with Michigan State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The dual-threat quarterback passed for 2,693 yards in 2019 with 23 touchdown passes. Newman finished in the top 30 of all FBS quarterbacks in passing touchdowns and completed 62.3% of his passes. He ended the regular season with a 146.7 passer rating while rushing for close to 500 yards.
BRYCE PERKINS, SENIOR, VIRGINIA
Bryce Perkins ranks in the top 20 of FBS quarterbacks in passing yards. He has thrown for 3,215 yards in 2019 while connecting on 18 passing touchdowns. Perkins finished the season completing 64% of his passes and accumulating a 131.5 passer rating. He rushed for close to 750 yards with 11 rushing touchdowns. He helped lead the Virginia Cavaliers to the ACC title game this season and will hope to lead UVA to a win in the Capital One Orange Bowl against Florida.
KHALIL TATE, SENIOR, ARIZONA
Khalil Tate, the dual-threat quarterback for Arizona, threw for more than 1,500 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2017. This season, Tate ended the year throwing for 1,954 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Wildcats quarterback also rushed for just over 400 yards and completed 60% of his passes.
Donovan Dooley is a Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.
Colleges athletes won’t be compensated until fans decide they should be treated fairly
By Matenzie Johnson
Every summer since his freshman season, Georgia junior quarterback Jake Fromm has traveled to the same farm located a half-hour away from the Athens campus. Fromm, according to a Sports Illustratedreport from September, uses the trips as an “escape” ahead of the season, an opportunity to “just relax.” The farm sits on 182 acres of land, where estates in Athens-Clarke County half that size can go for $1.2 million.
The farm doesn’t belong to the Fromm family, who are from Warner Robins, Georgia, some two hours away from the University of Georgia. According to the report, it belongs to a nameless family of a friend of Fromm’s, who has allowed the 2017 SEC freshman of the year and 2018 Rose Bowl winner to use the property whenever he pleases.
Despite what is clearly an “extra benefit” for Fromm solely for being the starting quarterback for the No. 4 team in the country, there has been no (publicly announced, at least) investigation of Fromm’s use of the farm or a self-imposed suspension of him by the university. If that same benefit were not “generally available” to regular students, NCAA bylaws forbid it being available to athletes like Fromm.
It must be pointed out, for reasons that will make sense in a bit, that Fromm is white.
Which brings us to the cases of Ohio State football player Chase Young and Memphis basketball player James Wiseman. On Nov. 9, after Young sat out Ohio State’s game against Maryland, ESPN reported that Young could be suspended up to four games by the NCAA for accepting a small loan from a family friend to help fly his girlfriend to last season’s Rose Bowl. (On Wednesday, Ohio State announced Young, a defensive end, would have to miss two games, including the Maryland game.)
On Thursday, Memphis declared Wiseman, a freshman center, ineligible and will be held out while it awaits reinstatement from the NCAA. On Nov. 8, Memphis announced he had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA because his family accepted $11,500 from then-high school basketball coach Penny Hardaway in 2017. Hardaway is now Wiseman’s coach at Memphis.
Young and Wiseman, who are both black, could be the No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts next spring but will likely miss a large portion of their seasons. The two, along with Fromm, clearly received benefits non-athletes at their schools would not have available to them, yet the role of race caused Young and Wiseman to be punished while Fromm hasn’t missed a start the past two seasons.
The NCAA has always used the excuse of competitive balance, fairness or amateurism to prevent athletes from being compensated for making the NCAA a multibillion-dollar corporation. And while there could be some merits in wanting to prevent dynasties in college sports (though the NCAA has failed in that regard; see: Alabama and Clemson football), what’s actually driven the organization’s continued policing of these improper benefits is the racism of the college sports fan base.
(Here’s where I have to say that white athletes have also been ruled ineligible due to violating NCAA rules, including former BYU basketball player Nick Emery and former Baylor football player Silas Nacita. Those infractions are few and far between.)
Until its fan base decides it no longer opposes black athletes being treated fairly, the NCAA will have no obligation to actually do the right thing.
Paying college athletes or allowing them to be compensated for their highly valuable likenesses could mean two things for the NCAA: 1) less money for coaches, administrators, universities and; 2) the risk of offending their majority-white fan base.
Despite, according to the NCAA, black athletes making up a majority or plurality of Division I college football (49%) and men’s (57%) and women’s (52%) basketball rosters, a 2013 Nielsen report found that 82% and 80% of its audience for football and men’s basketball bowl and tournament games that year, respectively, were white, compared with black fans at 13% and 14%.
With that in mind, a 2017 Washington Post and University of Massachusetts Lowell national poll found that 54% of black Americans supported players being paid by schools while 59% of white Americans were opposed. When it comes to image and likeness — which is in the news due to California recently signing into law the Fair Pay to Play Act and the NCAA subsequently voting to pave the way toward compensation — 89% of black Americans support pay compared with just 60% of white Americans.
Critics of paying players — such as Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who has a 10-year, $93 million contract and said in May he would consider quitting his job if players were paid — point to the “professionalization” of college sports as the reason for their reservations. The thinking goes that if players were paid for their labor, they would lose their supposed “love of the game” and begin behaving like the so-called divas in professional sports who coincidentally are predominantly black (the NFL is 58.9% black and the NBA is 74.8% black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida).
In layman’s terms: Black athletes subsidize the scholarships of white athletes.
There’s also the argument that if players in basketball and football, colleges’ lone revenue-generating sports, were paid, it would negatively impact the standing of non-revenue sports such as track and field, golf, hockey and wrestling. And what do those sort of sports all have in common? They’re all predominantly composed of whites. In the Big Ten and American Athletic Conference, the two conferences Young and Wiseman play in, black athletes make up 58% of basketball players and 48% of football players but only 1% of golfers, 1% of hockey players and 7% of wrestlers.
In layman’s terms: Black athletes subsidize the scholarships of white athletes.
Wiseman and Young weren’t ruled ineligible specifically because of the color of their skin. But the system that ruled them ineligible was built on catering to the racist ideologies of the system’s customers. Fromm wasn’t not punished because he is white, but because handouts for white people are perceived wholly differently than they are for black people.
It’s commendable that the NCAA is taking steps toward allowing players to be paid, but until its fan base decides it no longer opposes black athletes being treated fairly, the NCAA will have no obligation to actually do the right thing.
Welcome to this month in 2019, when Jay-Z looked more like a billionaire than ever. His company, Roc Nation, signed a deal with the NFL to produce entertainment for events including Super Bowl halftime, ensuring diverse acts for the show. This is an entertainment deal, one that might get more progressive acts to feel better about performing at NFL events. But Roc Nation will also amplify the league’s Inspire Change initiative, which could be roundly described as “social justice stuff.”
He has also supported Colin Kaepernick — who, as you may have heard, still doesn’t have a job — turned down an opportunity to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl and bragged about his defiance of the league on “APES—.”
August also saw Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — the man behind the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), an organization dedicated to fighting racial discrimination in sports — holding a fundraiser for President Donald Trump at a moment when the White House and white supremacy were inextricably linked.
Ross supported his protesting players in 2016 until he felt their demonstrations were offending the public, at which point he led the charge to get players to be cool during the national anthem. He was a face of that request because of the goodwill he had built up as a known ally on the side of right.
Jay-Z and Ross are trying to play both sides. Each wants the world to know he may be an apex predator capitalist, but, beneath the cold cynicism that made each rich, there’s a heart of gold and he wants to fix the wrongs of the world. I mean, it’s possible that’s true. But few become billionaires by being good. Helping uninvested parties isn’t as lucrative as hurting them.
Remember that while watching two men, ostensibly trying to improve race relations in America via sports but doing business with people many think — and, in some cases, know — are aligned on the opposite side of that fight. Notice that they’re moving the same way. Both are billionaires before all.
The NFL got into the social justice business — everything it gets into is business — in 2017, when it started Inspire Change with the Players Coalition, which emerged in the aftermath of Kaepernick’s 2016 protests. But no nonprofit can succeed unless it’s clear that those behind it care about its aims, and the NFL had done little to engender that trust.
The NFL uses Ross and Jay-Z for credibility the league doesn’t have. RISE allows the league to show that one of its owners — sweh fo gawd — really cares about this stuff, and Ross can serve the NFL’s interests while seeming like a voice of reason because of his good works.
Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports is correct in noting that Jay-Z serves perfectly as the “figurehead” Bills owner Terry Pegula thought the league needed to present itself to the public as dedicated to the matters that concern its players. Jay-Z is respected by black people, and his voice is so big that no owner would ever need to speak on the matter again.
Bottom line is, if Jay and the league have their way, no one’s going apes— on their watch.
But Kaepernick’s impact was so great specifically because he did it on the field. He made his point where cameras would be, rather than having to drag them along with him in the streets. He used a specific platform, an NFL football field, to call for a respect for humanity the same way the league uses that platform to venerate the military and save the lives of those fighting cancer. The league knows time and place can be worth more than dollars, but it and its newest partner want to deprive Inspire Change of its most valuable setting while saying that they care. After all, the man who once sold “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts and didn’t share the profits with the Occupy Wall Street protesters is on board, and he said Wednesday, “I think we’re past kneeling,” as if he were one of the players on a knee.
While this happens, Ross is free to do the loudest thing he could: help raise eight figures for the express purpose of amplifying the president’s message. That’s more than the NFL donated to Inspire Change in 2018.
Look, supporting the president and fighting racism may not be antithetical, but the Venn diagram of those most dedicated to fighting racism and those most supportive of the president might be Jim Brown and a few Twitter bots.
For Jay-Z, doing business with the NFL, even with the potential to help “millions and millions of people,” as he put it Wednesday, is hard to reconcile with the indefensible unemployment of the man who spurred the league to get involved in these matters, whom Jay has called “an icon.” It’s glaring that the Roc Nation partnership will serve a program Kap believes is a subversion of his initial message (and one where the league, not the Players Coalition, controls the board). Similarly, while Ross is clear that he and his friend in Washington disagree on race, the money he’s raising will fund a campaign that will almost certainly feature the president’s views on race.
These two might think they can play both sides. The rich always have. But 2019 feels a bit different.
The rich still move with relative impunity, but it’s harder for them to ignore the noise surrounding their decisions. The dedication to dollars seemed more admirable in stronger economic times, and one’s credibility can be checked by the public in ways it couldn’t before. Millennials are strident and demonstrative with their opinions, and they can be performative and principled about their purchases (as Ross’ Equinox and SoulCycle fitness companies learned last week). RISE donors and supporters may wonder if the man they’re supporting is working against him when they turn their backs.
As for Jay-Z, he entered talks with the NFL less than a year after those “APES—” lyrics. If he didn’t need the NFL then, why would he want them now?
Ross and Jay-Z got rich because, duh, that was the point. That is what they’re about first and foremost, like most great athletes are dedicated to their craft above all else. No one gets from Detroit or the Marcy Projects to Park Avenue by accident. They did what it took to get there, and they’ll do more to stay. To expect anything else is naive.
But for men like them to position themselves as anything else is disingenuous. When in conflict with the president, Ross has chosen his friend and what that friend can do for him over his purported principles. While Jay’s support for Kaepernick was almost certainly genuine, he is in bed with Kap’s primary enemies, those who fought the hardest to silence him and his message.
No matter where Jay started, he’s now got more in common with NFL owners than with NFL players. His perspective is informed by his past and, presumably, his blackness, but his actions are largely determined by his present and his portfolio. He’s a billionaire like Stephen Ross and his buddies, and now they’re all doing business. And maybe Ross and Jay-Z can play both sides, helping the world and making beaucoup profits at the same time.
But if they’re forced to choose one, it’s pretty clear which way Ross and Jay-Z will go — the same way they’ve always gone, the one that made them billionaires. How that will play out remains to be seen.
The Hall of Fame has enshrined mediocre talents and stone-cold racists. It can open its doors for the home run king.
By Justin Tinsley
The 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class, led by New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, will be formally enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday. But for the seventh consecutive year, Barry Bonds failed to get enough votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to be included. For years, people have passionately argued for excluding Bonds, Roger Clemens and other benighted characters of baseball’s “steroid era.” Yet, as the opportunities to vote in Bonds trickle down to a precious few, it may be time to revisit both the wisdom and the morality of that position.
John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian since 2011, makes an obvious point about Bonds’ performance on the field.
“I would say that if I were asked, apart from pitchers, who were the greatest baseball players of all time, and your answer were to be someone other than Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, that you’re crazy.”
He pauses momentarily before picking back up. “[Bonds] is at that level.”
Bonds, a left fielder, began his 22-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 before signing with the San Francisco Giants in 1992. His Hall of Fame-caliber career, solidified well before the allegations of performance-enhancing drugs, is quite literally one-of-one: seven-time MVP (including four consecutive from 2001 to 2004), 14-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glove winner, 12-time Silver Slugger winner, two-time batting champion, three-time TSN Major League Player of the Year, the all-time leader in home runs (762), walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688), and still the only man to hit at least 400 home runs and steal at least 400 bases (500-500, too).
But Bonds was passed over for the starting lineup in MLB’s All-Century Team in 1999in favor of the more popular Ken Griffey Jr. And his deliberately confrontational approach to the media — David Halberstam once called it an “abuse of power” in which Bonds engaged in “unprovoked, deliberate, gratuitous acts of rudeness towards all kinds of people” — may be hurting him now.
In recent years, Bonds has expressed regret for the way he acted.
“I’m to blame for the way I was [portrayed] because I was a dumbass … I’ll be the first to admit it,” he told Sports on Earth in 2016. “I was just flat-out dumb. What can I say? I’m not going to justify the way I acted toward people. I was stupid. It wasn’t an image that I invented on purpose. It actually escalated into that, and then I maintained it.”
Of course, the behavior that poses his biggest obstacle to Cooperstown is his alleged connection to performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds was the highest-profile player linked to a federal investigation of illegal doping at the BALCO lab in the Bay Area. According to a 2007 federal indictment, anabolic steroids were found in Bonds’ system in November 2000 — three years before baseball implemented a drug testing system. A mistrial was declared over three charges that he made false statements to a grand jury that he never knowingly received steroids or human growth hormone. But a jury did find him guilty of obstruction of justice for evasive testimony about his drug use. Bonds appealed, and in 2015 a federal appeals court overturned the verdict. He never admitted to nor was he convicted of using performance-enhancing substances, although in many pockets of the court of public opinion, especially the one holding court over his spot in Cooperstown, Bonds remains a stain on the game’s legacy.
For Claire Smith, Major League Baseball’s first female beat reporter and a longtime voter in favor of Bonds, there’s always a sense of what if.
“If there wasn’t that constant cloud following him, I think that period would have been really without compare in terms of the brilliance of an artist at work at the plate. But it always was under a cloud,” said Smith, who has been honored by the Hall of Fame for her work. “It was always accompanied by Barry being closed off and scowling and not being the easiest person to be around.
“I just regret that we didn’t get to see him in a vacuum. That it always had the baggage, it always had the era. Other people had been allowed to shed the era and go on with their lives and rehabilitate their image. [Barry] never had that opportunity.”
In 2017, Joe Morgan, Cooperstown’s vice chairman and a 1990 Hall of Fame inductee, sent a letter to Hall of Fame voters urging them not to consider steroid users for future inclusion. “Players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids, or were identified as users in [MLB’s] investigation into steroid use, known as the Mitchell Report should not get in,” he wrote. “Please keep in mind I don’t speak for every single member of the Hall of Fame. … I do know how many of the Hall of Famers feel.”
More than a decade removed from the Mitchell Report, which identified more than 85 players and rocked baseball to its core, the debate about whether players connected to PEDs should have a place in the Hall of Fame is still hot. Protecting the integrity of the game is most important, some argue. Bonds’ inclusion would be an insult to Hank Aaron, others claim. A few, such as Reggie Jackson, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, stand on the other side of the aisle. Pete Rose, baseball’s most infamous exile, noted in January that without Bonds the Hall of Fame doesn’t deserve its name.
Cooperstown officially opened its museum doors on June 12, 1939. Anson, considered the greatest player and manager of the 19th century, was among the class of ’39 after being voted in posthumously by the Veterans Committee. He had the stats: The first member of baseball’s 3,000-hit club, he led the league in RBIs eight times and was a four-time batting champion who averaged .415 in 1872 and .399 in 1881, albeit in far fewer games than today’s standards (and even those numbers are apocryphal).
Anson, as many baseball purists are well aware, was a racist. Famously, on July 14, 1887, Anson, of the Chicago White Stockings, refused to play against the Newark Little Giants because of its black pitcher, George Stovey. It wasn’t the first time Anson had objected to competing against black players. But on this particular day, the directors of the International League met and decided that contracts would no longer be offered to black men except for those already employed in the league. In a separate gentlemen’s agreement, blacks were excluded from the major leagues beginning in 1885 and baseball’s color barrier would last another 60 years, until the name Jackie Robinson entered the American conscience and changed the course of history.
How can Major League Baseball, which proudly celebrates Robinson’s legacy every season, continue to keep Anson, who has become synonymous with the history of segregation in baseball, in its most hallowed halls while Bonds remains a pariah? Segregation was far more destructive than performance-enhancing drugs in regards to evaluating talent in baseball. This much is irrefutable. Baseball history would be completely different if players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige had been given the opportunity to suit up against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
“If you’re going to have an asterisk in baseball at all — and the commissioners have already ruled you should not,” Thorn said, regarding the assertion that Bonds’ records should be recognized as tainted, “then that asterisk might more easily apply to every white player prior to 1947 because those players did not face the best possible competition. From my standpoint, moralism ought not to enter into it. You’ve got some very dubious characters already with bronze plaques. It’s a little late to close the barn door, because those cows have already left. If you’ve got Cap Anson in there, then I think your moral barometer is very difficult to keep high.”
Another inconvenient truth in this debate over morality is that drugs didn’t enter baseball for the first time in the ’90s. Players introducing chemicals into their bodies was anything but new by the time the Nike-endorsed catchphrase “Chicks dig the long ball” made its way into the public lexicon.
“There was a lot of performance enhancement in the pre-steroid era,” noted Jon Light, author of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. “I would say most likely it began after the war, in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Then it became a taboo subject as word leaked out in the ’60s and ’70s.”
It can even be argued that the steroid era helped save baseball. By the mid-’90s, the game was in a dark place. The 1994 work stoppage 112 games into the season had exponential effects: The Montreal Expos were the prohibitive World Series favorites. Had the team won it all, there is an alternate universe where the franchise never leaves Canada for Washington, D.C., a decade later. Halted, too, was Tony Gwynn’s quest to be the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to bat .400 — he was batting .394 when the strike began. Fans quickly soured on the game and turned almost exclusively to the NFL and, soon thereafter, Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA.
Two things helped erase the bad taste of 1994. The first was Cal Ripken breaking Gehrig’s 56-year-old record for consecutive games played. The second was the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
If not for the steroid era, “you wouldn’t have had these guys who did the so-called wrongs doing what they did and keeping baseball in the spotlight. Period. It would be like boxing now,” said St. Louis-based Yardbarker columnist Matt Whitener. The McGwire/Sosa home run race “was the most timely, lifesaving occurrence in the history of baseball. It is one of the biggest pivot points in the popularity and the financial success of this league now. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton. All these guys who are cashing checks now are doing so because baseball survived that winter on the backs of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa doing what they did. And Barry Bonds is just as big a part of that picture as them.”
Baseball has positional stars now. The Aaron Judges, Stantons, Machados, Harpers, Mike Trouts of the world. But there are no superhero or supervillain figures in the game today in the way the NBA has LeBron James or the NFL has Tom Brady, the towering strongmen who captivated the die-hard baseball enthusiast and made the casual fan cop tickets for a mere sighting. Bonds was, it seems now, among the last of a dying breed.
“I think the major difference between the steroid era and now is that people allowed themselves to believe in Paul Bunyan and follow players as larger than life,” Smith said. “I think today people just say, ‘Oh, OK, he’s the best player in baseball, but there’s no it factor.’ The energy of that era has not been duplicated.”
In his seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Bonds finished with 59.1 percent of the votes. A player needs 75 percent to get into Cooperstown. This represented a small uptick from the previous year’s finish of 56.1 percent. According to the current rules, Bonds has three years left on the ballot. After that, the all-time home run leader would need an alternative path into the Hall of Fame, most likely through the Veterans Committee. Players from Bonds’ era are voted on twice every five years.
Bonds has never made a public spectacle about the honor. But for a giant, no pun intended, whose professional story is so intrinsically tied to America’s pastime, it’s hard to believe it’s not important to him.
“I think every player who reaches a certain stature in the game, [Cooperstown is] the last exclamation point you want to put on a great career. In Barry’s case, he probably would love to take that stage while his godfather, [88-year-old] Willie Mays, could be there to applaud him,” said Smith. “I’m pretty sure that [85-year-old] Hank Aaron would be there to applaud him because Hank has always been very generous in his approach to Barry and what took place. I’m sure that Barry would love to be on the stage with those two guys. Can he live without it? Sure, because he might not have an option.”
A world where Bonds beats the 10-year cutoff seems almost impossible to imagine. For the time being, the all-time home run king appears destined to be an outcast.
“When Babe Ruth exceeded the average level of play in his era by two and three times, we imagined that no one would ever exceed the average to that extent ever again,” said Thorn. “Yet, the one person who has ever exceeded Babe Ruth on a season-to-season basis, exceeded the norm to his extent, is Barry Bonds. He did the impossible.”
Baseball’s gatekeepers aren’t in a charitable mood now. A final home run trot for Barry Lamar Bonds may look unlikely. But don’t count him out.
Banishment of Warriors minority owner who shoved Kyle Lowry a good start
OAKLAND, Calif. — Sometime between 2005 and 2008, then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling would, on multiple occasions, bring women into the team’s locker room while the players — mostly black, save for a Chris Kaman or Vladimir Radmanovic here and there — were showering.
“Look at those beautiful black bodies,” he’d boast to the women.
If Sterling wasn’t subtle enough with his Psycho routine, he also told then-Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, according to 2011 legal filings, that he preferred the team have a “Southern Plantation-type structure” where “poor black boys from the South” played for a white coach. (It seems relevant here to point out that Sterling once paid $2.73 million to the U.S. Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to blacks, Hispanics and families with children.)
Sterling was never punished by the NBA for any of those actions. Outside of the $2.5 million Sterling was fined in 2014 when he was forced to sell the Clippers for an unrelated racist incident, the only time he was ever fined was in 1982, when he said he wanted the Clippers to have the worst record in the league so they could get the No. 1 draft pick. That cost him $10,000.
But while Sterling may have viewed himself as the owner (or procurer) of the Clippers players solely because of his title as “owner” of the Clippers, he never derived that power from shouting from the bowels of Staples Center to the tip of the San Bernardino Mountains that those “beautiful black bodies” belong to him. His power came from what can best be called the owner mentality in sports.
That difference between “owner” and “owner mentality” is at the heart of a recent TMZ report that at least two NBA clubs, the Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, are doing away with the term “owner” in favor of titles with fewer racial connotations. It was further exacerbated in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, when Golden State Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens shoved Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry after Lowry chased a loose ball into a row of courtside seats.
The actions of the Clippers and 76ers come on the heels of comments Warriors forward Draymond Green has made over the past few years. In 2017, Green said the term “owner” should be changed to titles such as chairman or chairwoman because “to be owned by someone just sets a bad precedent to start. It sets the wrong tone.” A year later, he added that the term “owner” shouldn’t be blindly accepted solely because of precedent. “Just because someone was taught that 100 years ago doesn’t make that the right thing today,” he said on LeBron James’ HBO show, The Shop. “And so, when you look at the word ‘owner,’ it really dates back to slavery. The word ‘owner,’ ‘master,’ it dates back to slavery. … We just took the words and we continued to put it to use.”
While the 76ers’ and Clippers’ steps to move away from the symbolism of slavery are commendable, they don’t get at the root of the issue. The NBA doesn’t have an owner problem, it has an owner mentality problem, which isn’t just limited to the 30 proverbial heads of state of each franchise. Some fans, executives, coaches and player agents view the players and their bodies as property of NBA Inc., there to be plundered, prodded and powerless.
When asked whether it was an owner mentality in the league that led to the courtside confrontation Wednesday night, Lowry said the following: “Yeah, not everyone, not all of them. But certain ones, yes. And I can say for sure that guy makes me feel like that. Mark Stevens, whoever his name is, makes me feel like he’s one of those guys.”
The NBA fancies itself as the most progressive sports league in North America, yet its treatment of its black players, from the archaic draft process to suppressing rules and fines (which are collectively bargained, it should be noted), flies in the face of that entire argument. With the advent of catchy concepts such as “Moreyball” and “The Process,” players, 70 percent of whom are black, became less human beings and more assets, stripped of all agency and power.
This mentality starts with the NBA draft, where prospects are essentially auctioned off to the highest bidder — or, in this case, the lowest. It’s no surprise Sterling wanted the No. 1 pick so badly. Players are forced to live and play in cities even if they don’t want to. And when teams are done with them, they can be shipped off at a moment’s notice. When these same players dare to decide to play where they want, they are branded disloyal, ungrateful even. Comic sans, anyone?
The league’s fight against tampering, on its face, is about parity for all 30 teams. But what it’s really about is property ownership. An NBA contract ties a player to a team, thus making the player the property of the owner, who is threatened when an opposing player attempts to recruit a player on the team. And when the owners couldn’t keep their players from leaving, via free agency at least, they created an incentive to bribe players into staying, figuring young black men couldn’t turn down the extra tens of millions of dollars. But even these so-called “supermax” contracts haven’t completely worked.
What’s at the center of owner mentality, though, is controlling player power. Outside of a few outliers (see: Robertson, Oscar), NBA players have mostly operated at the whim of owners since the beginning of professional basketball. But along came James in 2010, deciding where he wanted to play and with whom he wanted to play with. Since “The Decision,” the NBA has appeared to have devolved into a fight over who is at the helm of the league’s ship: players or owners.
Countless basketball people have complained about the amount of power NBA players now have. Phil Jackson’s “posse” comment in 2016overshadows his overall critique of James’ supposed power within the Miami Heat organization. It was anonymous executives who complained about James’ supposed tampering with Anthony Davisthis season. Davis, it’s been said, shouldn’t be in the position to demand a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans. NBA owners may not fear the inmates running the prison, as some of their NFL counterparts apparently do, but they still want the prisoners.
The owners, unsurprisingly, disagree with that characterization. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, once said that the NBA was more progressive than the NFL. Yet still, Cuban’s ears were the first to perk up after Green’s comments, telling ESPN that Green “owes the NBA an apology” because NBA owners take care of their employees and their families. The players are well-fed, you see. (Andre Iguodala, Green’s teammate, responded to Cuban: “He’s not able to understand what it’s like to be an African American and certain terms being thrown around and how we feel about them.”)
But there’s an antidote for this owner mentality. Players deserve more freedom of movement, and not just on the court: more no-trade clauses, fewer drafts. Tampering fines should be abolished; if a player decides to leave solely because he was compared to Michael Jordan, he was never staying. Both the Warriors and the NBA took steps toward balancing the player-owner scale by banishing Stevens, a minority investor since 2013, for the rest of the Finals and for the entire 2019-20 season, respectively. (The NBA also fined Stevens $500,000.)
But if semantics is a starting point, that is adequate for players like Lowry.
“We call it the board of governors,” he said of the term “owner” during media availability. “But people in the world would call it the ownership. It should be changed.”