Like the gentleman in the White House, Bonds will leave baseball a polarized place with popularity charitably described as microscopic. Games away from the friendly confines of San Francisco have become celebrations of vitriol with fans screaming at pitchers to “throw at his head” and “end his career.” Death threats against his family and person have become commonplace. Sportswriters such as Jeff Pearlman for ESPN write articles with leads such as, “Barry Bonds is an evil man. A truly evil man.”
He has been turned into Barry bin Laden: The easy symbol for — altogether now — “everything that is wrong with sports.”
The question worth asking is why? Why is a pro athlete being treated as if he has committed crimes against humanity? The first answer given forth by even the casual sports fan is that “he is a cheater,” in their eyes, an obvious habitual user of steroids. Sports Illustrated, after selecting an all-time all-star team determined by “a panel of experts” excluded him from the squad because his statistics “are not to be believed.” (Their concern for the statistical integrity of Bonds career didn’t stop them from including players from before 1947 when the sport denied participation from anyone with dark skin.)
The problem with the argument that his numbers “are not to be believed” is that the man has never failed a drug test. Many players who have failed tests don’t garner anything close to the public flogging that Bonds endures.
But whether or not Bonds ever put anything anabolic in his body, there is something particularly disingenuous about putting an entire statistically dubious era on the shoulders of one man.
The “juicing of the game” is not a question of players with syringes in men’s room stalls, but an entire industry from owners, to trainers, to fans, to reporters, all turning a blind eye, if not aiding and abetting a process that saw baseball players begin to resemble pro wrestlers.
When New York Yankee Jason Giambi attempted to draw attention to this last month, saying, “What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said, ‘We made a mistake.’ ” The response from Major League Baseball was to announce that Giambi was going to be investigated. As one player said to me, “It’s crazy that punishment is an individual issue, but distribution has always been a team issue.” They want to keep this a discussion about it being “an individual issue” and no player attracts more individual attention than Barry Bonds.
But steroids alone are not the reason Bonds carries this weight. He has throughout his 23-year career committed the ultimate sin in the eyes of the media, namely he isn’t friendly to the media. Bonds’ complete lack of interest in filling their notebooks, has made him their foil long before there were any questions about steroids.
There is no question Bonds isn’t the most cuddly of players, but once again he is hardly alone in this. When actors are less than press friendly — think Sean Penn — they are branded eccentric artists. But in athletics, if you don’t define yourself, you become defined. Barry Bonds has been defined as the enemy, with little regard to who the man is behind the definition.
All of this has created an open-season atmosphere at the ballpark. Seeing the nightly sports highlights of majority white fans letting it all hang out against the most prominent African-American athlete in the sport, has led many to draw their own conclusions about the source of the anti-Bonds rage. According to an ESPN/ABC News poll released in May, African-American fans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron’s record of 755 homers (74 percent versus 28 percent) and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46 percent versus 25 percent). Baseball, the national pastime, potentially a source for unity, has instead through Bonds, become yet another staging ground for the divisions that crisscross the land.
The shame of it all is that the sports world is so busy demonizing Bonds, it is missing out on a piece of sports history. In many ways we all are. There is an expression, “Trust the art not the artist.” Barry Bonds is an artist with a bat in his hand. But it’s hard to concentrate on the art, with a gathering din in the background.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). Contact him at [email protected]
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #14 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Making Sense of the Injury Pandemic in Major League Baseball – The guest is Gary McCoy, a strength, conditioning and high performance coach who has worked with several Major League Baseball organizations. Our focus is the injury pandemic in baseball, what’s causing it and how it can be fixed.
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Episode #13 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Conversation With Long-Time MLB Exec Dan Evans About What’s Right With Baseball and What Could Be Better – Evans is a former general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently a consultant for Go the Distance Baseball, which owns the Field of Dreams movie site.
Episode #12 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Fun Chat With Dan Gutman, Author of the Baseball Card Adventure Series for Kids
Episode #11 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Latest on Brain Trauma, Concussions and CTE with Dr. Chris Nowinski – Nowinski is CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
Episode #10 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: An Issues Discussion With Paul Dolan – Dolan is the Cleveland Indians Owner and CEO.
Episode #9 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Issues With Ralph Nader – Nader is a consumer advocate and was named one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century” by Time magazine. He is the founder of League of Fans.
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Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon