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Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Media's vilification of Bonds shows lack of objectivity
It's a question that has to be asked.
In light of the most recent allegations about his long-term involvement with steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, is Barry Bonds being subjected to racist treatment from the primarily white media that covers him in North America?
I must say, that even for veteran journalists, the constant pummeling that Bonds is taking is nothing short of amazing.
Let's face it, Bonds has never had a good relationship with the media.
But the recent revelations detailed in the book "Game of Shadows," an investigation of his conduct by Major League Baseball, and the subsequent opening of a probe by a federal grand jury, looking into the possibility that the star lied under oath in 2003 during testimony in the BALCO case, have catapulted the level of the attacks to an entirely new level.
The ferocity of the seemingly nonstop assaults on Bonds' character and accomplishments have me wondering if there isn't something more sinister at work here.
Sure, it seems a near certainty that Bonds, who was a certain Hall of Famer before all the steroid rumors started, was involved in attempts to build up his body artificially, and to try and ward off the injuries that come with age to professional athletes.
However, it is also quite apparent that he was far from the only player in the major leagues, and other pro sports, who engaged in this type of "body building."
That's where the disconnect comes in.
Current players who have been associated with the steroid scandal, like Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield of the New York Yankees, are only mentioned in passing now, while retired ones, like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco, are hardly talked about at all.
Yet Bonds is getting hammered day after day by many of the same media that fawned over McGwire and Sosa during the 1998 season, when both surpassed the single-season home run record of Roger Maris.
Is the fact that Bonds is black contributing to the ferocity of the media onslaught?
Or is it his attitude and demeanor that have infuriated so many?
To try and get some answers, I contacted two of the top sports sociologists in the United States -- Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder of the center for the Study of Sport in Society, who is now the director for the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, and Dr. Harry Edwards, a retired professor at UC Berkeley, who was the organizer of the "Black Power" protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics -- for their takes on this issue.
Lapchick, who is white, once believed that there was racism in the media coverage of Bonds, but feels differently now.
Responding to a series of questions via e-mail, Lapchick replied: "When I wrote about this three years ago, I thought race played some factor in the additional scrutiny. However, I think three years later, Bonds has set his own table. His relations with the media hurt, as well as with fans outside San Francisco.
"The book was the near nail in the coffin. I think we know so much more now about the subject of PEDs, that if McGwire was around now he would get the same scrutiny.
"I do not think either will be first-ballot Hall of Famers."
Edwards, who is black, has a very different perspective on the way Bonds has been handled by the media.
"Barry Bonds has not been treated fairly. The media is looking for somebody to throw under the bus. It's that simple," said Edwards by telephone from his California home.
"Sports emulates society . . . and the media wants a way to tie everything up, so they are latching the whole issue on to Barry. He is the biggest star right now, and he is going for Hank Aaron's record, so he is a very easy target."
Edwards noted the hypocrisy on the part of the MLB over the steroid issue.
"This whole subject of performance-enhancing drugs has been known around pro sports since the mid-1980s, but now, all of sudden, they are taking action.
"Why was nothing done before?
"Because everyone involved was getting paid. The owners, the teams, the television networks, the sponsors, and the media."
I asked Edwards why McGwire was seemingly getting a free pass from the media, despite his pathetic performance last year in front of a U.S. Congressional committee investigating steroids in sports, where the slugger refused to answer questions about the subject.
Edwards, who was a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers for 20 years, says the media "empathizes" with McGwire -- who is white.
"They don't sympathize with him, they 'empathize' with him. They feel sorry for him.
"Look at his physical condition now, compared to what it was a few years ago."
Edwards was also dubious of the two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote "Game of Shadows" and covered the BALCO trial for the paper.
"They weren't even involved in this. They are getting all their information second hand. When we (black people) are involved in something like this, they call it 'good journalism.' They don't do that when it is the other way around.
"Look at Jose Canseco (who wrote a book about his own involvement with steroids) -- who was in the middle of the whole thing -- he has been belittled by nearly everybody, and he was there."
While acknowledging that Bonds could make a greater effort in improving relations with the media, Edwards said that seven-time National League MVP is suffering from 'star fatigue' after being in the spotlight since high school.
Perhaps most interestingly, Edwards noted that the once-hallowed marks set by Maris (61 home runs in 1961) and Aaron (755 career home runs) will continue to grow in relevance because of the steroid cloud hanging over the MLB.
"It is pretty clear now that '61' and '755' are the standards.
"Even though Bonds now holds the single-season record of 73 home runs, and is closing in on Aaron's mark, in light of all that has gone on, the hope is that some day a player -- like Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez -- will come along and reunite both the standard and the record."
All of this has me thinking back to a couple of years ago, when I asked Tuffy Rhodes, Japan's all-time leader in home runs by a foreign player, if the rough treatment Bonds got from the media was because he was black, or because of his behavior.
Without blinking an eye, Rhodes told me, "The fact that he is black has nothing to do with it. It's his personality."
At the time Rhodes made that statement, I might have been inclined to agree with him.
Now, I'm not so sure.