Politicizing Barry Bonds: Implications for 2008
We generally try not to blog on similar topics two weeks in a row, but as we noted last week, baseball player Barry Bonds has been close to breaking the career home run record. He did so this week, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to address it.
Bonds hit number 756 late Tuesday night as his Giants played the Washington Nationals in San Francisco. Of course, the event will forever be clouded by accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. (ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski summarizes the sentiment of those who anticipate an asterisk in the record books beside Bonds’s name.) Some have claimed that the controversy is either partly or largely related to the fact that Bonds is black.
As we noted last week about Michael Irvin, the racial issue is more complicated than people simply being bigoted; Bonds “acts black” in the sense that he conforms to negative stereotypes about African Americans being mouthy, flashy, direct and even hostile about racial issues, etc. Like Irvin, Bonds is easy to hate, but we continue to ask ourselves (and you) how much of that hatred is rooted in embedded negative assumptions bout blacks.
Even more interesting (politically) is that just hours before the record was broken, Barack Obama was asked about Bonds’s record by Keith Olbermann in the AFL-CIO Democratic presidential candidate debate in Chicago. Here’s the exchange:
MR. OLBERMANN: Senator Obama, were you president of the United States today, would you honor Barry Bonds at the White House? (Laughter, booing.)
SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, he’s still got to hit one more, and it’s been taking a while. And I had the opportunity to meet Hank Aaron just this past weekend. It reminded me of what sports should be, and that is something that young people can look up to.
Now, Barry Bonds has been a remarkable baseball player, and I honor his achievements. But I hope that all of us are focused on making sure that sports is something that kids can look up to, not something that they start feeling cynical about. We’ve got cynicism in politics without having cynicism in our sports teams as well. (Applause.)
MR. OLBERMANN: Is that a no, sir, or a yes?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, like I said, he hasn’t done it yet, so we’ll answer the question when it comes. (Laughter.)
This is curious on a number of levels. First, it’s one of the very few questions that were not directly related to public policy or government in the debate. Why Olbermann decided to give this question to Obama, we can’t know. Race may be one issue. Obama has been outspoken about his love for Chicago sports, so perhaps that had something to do with it. But it was nonetheless a strange moment in the debate. Beyond that, Obama’s response is unsettling. He clearly wasn’t expecting the question (how could he?), and he bobbled it. The response contained appropriate content, but as Olbermann noted, he clearly was ducking a direct answer. Was his reluctance related to his standing among black and white voters, respectively?
Back in May, ESPN reported results of a poll that showed that black fans were more than twice as likely to hope that Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record than whites (74% to 28%). Further, blacks were less likely to think Bonds has used steroids than whites (37% to 76%). Twenty-five percent of black respondents thought Bonds has been treated unfairly because of his race, while “virtually none” of the white respondents who thought Bonds has been treated unfairly attributed it to race.
Assuming Obama is aware of the racial divide on this issue, he must have been miffed that he was the only one to get the question – he who is walking the finest line with respect to wooing black voters and not alienating white voters. Was Olbermann trying to tease out Obama’s racial loyalties? It’s impossible to say. But what is apparent is that this is yet another way that race plays into the 2008 presidential election since there is a strong black candidate running.