I'm the King of the World? Barry Bonds and the "Race" for the Record

Article excerpt

It was inevitable--though not entirely welcomed--that as long as Barry Bonds remained healthy and pitchers threw pitches in the general vicinity of the strike zone, Bonds would break Hank Aaron's Major League Baseball all-time home run record. There were a few other certainties in the 2007 season: despite Bonds never failing a drug test, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs would dominate the discussion; the media response to Bonds breaking the record would range from benign indifference to outright hostility; and race would exist just below the surface of the discussion.

As media continues to encroach into citizen's everyday lives through their television, radio, Internet, cell phone, and iPod, how an event is covered by media representatives becomes as important, if not more important, than the event itself. In a sports context, this means that sportswriters and commentators have tremendous power to influence the ways in which fans and the general public view persons and events. Anyone who has read a Spiderman comic book or seen the immensely popular films of the same name is familiar with the adage: with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, sportswriters and commentators have not always framed sporting events and controversies in a "fair and balanced" manner, particularly when race and ethnicity intersect with sport (i.e., Duke Lacrosse case, NBA dress code issue, etc.). One possible explanation for the racial blind spot comes from Critical Race Theorist Charles R. Lawrence III, who argues

Americans share a common historical and cultural heritage in which racism has played and still plays a dominant role. Because of this shared experience, we also inevitably share many ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that attach significance to an individual's race and induce negative feelings and opinions about nonwhites. To the extent that this cultural belief system has influenced all of us, we are all racists. At the same time, most of us are unaware of our racism. We do not recognize the ways in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race or the occasions on which those beliefs affect our actions. In other words, a large part of the behavior that produces racial discrimination is influenced by unconscious racial motivation. (1)

If Lawrence is correct, then race permeates all of our actions whether we are conscious of it or not. It stands to reason that unconscious racial attitudes influence the ways in which sportswriters discuss sport issues involving race and ethnicity generally and the ways Bonds's home run chase has been framed more specifically. When MLB began the integration process and sportswriters began paying attention to athletes of color, racist attitudes were the norm and could be expressed freely. Since overt racism is no longer tolerated, the negative attitudes created by the shared racist history will find an outlet, and in this case, the ways in which Bonds's pursuit of Aaron's record has been framed provides such an outlet.

Two thousand seven was a banner year for race in sport--in both positive and negative ways. The year began on a hopeful note when the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy became the first African American head coaches in the National Football League to reach the Super Bowl. (2) Unfortunately, it only took two months for the glow of Smith and Dungy's accomplishment to fade. On April 3, 2007, while the Rutgers women's basketball team was playing its first championship title game, radio talk show host Don Imus and his producer Bernard McGuirk referred to the team as "nappy headed hos." (3) Less than two weeks later, MLB celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first regular-season game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many players, coaches, and managers opted to wear the number 42, including the entire Houston Astros team, which did not have any U.S.-born black players on its roster. …