By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, October 29, 2005
It seems that all the guys Hank Aaron wants playing for the Astros are apparently playing against Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry, and neither one of them is happy about it.
While race is an inseparable element in sports, thoughtful discussion of the topic makes some squeamish.
DeBerry looked at black receivers running past his slow and usually white defensive backs and said he wants more fast black kids, so his team has a better chance to win.
Aaron took a look at the National League champion Houston Astros, saw not a single black American and called it "very disturbing." The Astros, Aaron said, should move heaven and earth to have a black American player or two on their team.
Both comments are rather funny when you consider that fewer than 60 years ago, there were no black major leaguers, and fewer than 40 years ago, some of America's biggest college football factories wouldn't consider having a black player, regardless of speed, on campus.
By way of review, let's start with DeBerry, if only because he's in very hot water. He has received a reprimand from the academy, in fact, for saying it seemed to him that African American players run very, very well. DeBerry was quick to add, almost seamlessly, that he would be open to having players of any race who are faster than his kids, but that black kids appeared to be faster.
Then all hell broke loose, and by Wednesday the coach was fighting back tears and saying, "I want everyone to understand that I never intended to offend anyone."
DeBerry has nothing whatsoever to apologize for. I understand that any kind of categorization, especially along racial lines, can be risky. One of DeBerry's former black players (who loves his coach) e-mailed me this week to point out that any such comments put the speaker on a very slippery slope, and that's certainly true.
But our fear of any discussion involving race should not eliminate common-sense observations. Since Jason Sehorn retired from the NFL a season or so ago, how many white starting cornerbacks are there in the NFL? The answer, as far as I can find, is zero. And even if I missed one or two, fact is that a position based largely on speed is 99 percent black in the NFL. That's not the same as making a presumption about the intelligence or character of cornerbacks, black or white. It's fact, jack. DeBerry didn't offer any cultural or empirical evidence about cornerbacks; he just said he would like faster ones, and as the NFL demonstrates, the fastest ones are black. That isn't even debatable.
I've heard some black dissent, but mostly I hear objection being raised by white administrators and media colleagues, a sort of misplaced white liberal guilt, if you ask me. Oh, there's plenty of bigotry out there that needs to be identified, but DeBerry's statements aren't among the top 1,000 on the list.
The coach didn't say his school should lower admissions standards to let in more black students, as Paul Hornung said Notre Dame should do. DeBerry didn't do an Al Campanis and say somebody lacked the necessities (primarily the intellectual necessities) to do a specific task. And he certainly shouldn't be lumped in with the likes of Jimmy the Greek, who gave a drunken anthropology lesson of how the big black buck (to use his words) was mated with the big black slave woman to produce the best athlete.
DeBerry didn't insult any race or ethnic group. He offended some folks who confuse politically incorrect public speaking with bigotry. What I find a hundred times more offensive was when DeBerry hung a banner proclaiming, "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ," in his locker room one day after the academy superintendent announced plans to increase the school's fight against religious intolerance.
Even more misplaced than the fury directed toward DeBerry is Aaron's anger at the Astros for not having any black American players. For the record, the White Sox only had one -- Jermaine Dye -- in their starting lineup Wednesday night when they won the World Series. That's because we, black American men, have turned away from baseball. Overwhelmingly, we've cast our lot with basketball and football, and that's it. Only 9 percent of the players on Major League rosters on Opening Day were black and American. Black and Hispanic? Oh, there are plenty. Approximately 31 percent of major leaguers are identified as being of Latin descent. As for black Americans? The Washington Nationals had two on the Opening Day roster. The Baltimore Orioles had none, zero.
A man who navigated as much overt prejudice in baseball as Aaron did over his 23-year career from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, probably never thought he would live to see a day when young black boys ignored baseball, a day when a higher percentage of blacks play quarterback than play baseball. I don't doubt he is stunned and disappointed and, given his experiences, suspicious of baseball.
But nobody's keeping black folks from playing baseball now, except mostly ourselves. The peer pressure is to give up everything in life for basketball. The percentage of blacks in the minor leagues, reportedly, is smaller than the percentage in the big leagues. But this isn't 1944.
I understand why Aaron finds it "disturbing" because he devoted his life not just to baseball, but to baseball being open. And after fighting and winning that fight, it must kill him that his own people won't walk through the doors he opened.
But what should never be suggested, not by Aaron or anybody else, is that baseball resort to some quota to have more black major leaguers.
How would it go down if somebody suggested two or three spots on every NBA team be reserved for a white player?
Aaron and DeBerry are interested in inclusion, even if they don't articulate it eloquently. Because of people such as them, sports is the closest thing America has to a true meritocracy. Almost always now, the best players prove themselves to be the best players, whether they're black quarterbacks, white cornerbacks or Argentine basketball players.