Sports world is incubator for larger race discussions to come

Updated: May 24, 2007, 3:49 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The topic today is race.

I announce that up front for the folks who cringe whenever that word is mentioned. Feel free to cyberflee. Click the escape hatch now and we'll carry on without you.

Barry Bonds
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesA poll found 75 percent of blacks want Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's record, compared to 28 percent of whites.
A surprisingly large segment of the population gets terribly nervous talking about race. That segment would rather believe that race, race relations, racial dynamics and racial viewpoints are no longer a pressing issue in our country. That we "are past all that," that we need to "move on," that we should live in a "colorblind society."

Dream on. Because the contrary evidence is everywhere -- especially in sports right now.

An ABC News/ESPN poll earlier this month showed a profound disconnect between blacks and whites when it comes to Barry Bonds. A stingy 28 percent of whites said they are rooting for Bonds to break Henry Aaron's home run record, while a magnanimous 75 percent of blacks are rooting for him.

Also in May, we had O.J. Simpson tossed out of a Louisville restaurant on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, setting off some protests that the ejection was racially motivated.

In the month prior we had the Great Imus Imbroglio, wherein we all debated where the phrase "nappy-headed ho" fell on the social outrage scale. Careers were crushed over that one, and the ripple effect nearly produced a duel at 20 paces between Rutgers women's basketball coach Vivian Stringer and Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock.

And last week we had members of the University of Massachusetts track team participating in a student government-organized news conference in which they alleged the women's track coach to be a racist. Two UMass track athletes said they were going to file suit against the university accusing it of discrimination.

So you'd have to go straight ostrich to escape the current crossfire over race, race relations, racial dynamics and racial viewpoints in sports.

I don't advocate sticking your head in the sand. Stand up and talk about it instead.

There is no better time to force one of America's deepest, oldest and most divisive issues onto the table than right now. And, in fact, there is no better table setter than sports.

Because if we start the discussion in 2007 in this arena, it might get us ready for the Mother of All Racial Discussions in 2008.

Namely: Are we ready for a black president?

And, hand in hand: Are we ready for a woman president?

Forget policies and platforms. Race and gender will be the underlying issues in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. (Not so much in the monochromatic -- and XY chromosomal -- Republican race.)

It could well be the ultimate societal test of how far we've come versus how far we think we've come versus how far we really want to come.

I hope, as a nation, we're up to the soul baring necessary to find out where we stand.

Which is why I suggest we practice having this discussion this summer with sports. It's safer (there's so much less at stake). It's more self-evident (black and whites intermingle more -- and more publicly -- in sports than almost anywhere else). And we've got all these ready-made topics.

Start with the Bonds poll. For the record, I think Barry Bonds is a miserably dishonest cheater and I will take no joy in his surpassing Aaron. I also think Mark McGwire is a miserably dishonest cheater, and it wouldn't bother me a bit if the Hall of Fame waited another 20 years to admit him. Or they could wait forever.

My question is whether we, collectively, were more na´ve when McGwire and Sammy Sosa were jacking home runs, or whether we wanted to believe in what those guys were doing so badly that we ignored the evidence slapping us in the face. Because in retrospect we look like a bunch of ignorant morons.

I suspect that Bonds had the bad timing to blow up about when we were starting to figure out the entire steroid scam, with the help of some tough investigative journalism. Tough break there for Barry.

But clearly, there are a great number of African-Americans who don't see Bonds as a miserably dishonest cheater. And that reinforces, again, how different our worldviews can be.

I got my big life lesson in that area on Oct. 3, 1995. The place: outside the courthouse in Los Angeles. The reason: The O.J. verdict was announced.

The backstory: I'd flown into L.A. the night before to cover playoff baseball between the Reds and Dodgers. My friend Chuck Culpepper picked me up at the gate -- for those who can't remember pre-9/11 travel, you could actually meet people as they walked off the plane -- and told me we had someplace to be the next morning.

"Courthouse," he said. "The verdict is in."

The closest we could get was the street outside, of course, and it was quite the carnival of the weird -- even by L.A. standards. But there were enough regular people to get some sense of public reaction -- and everyone out there had radios and TVs tuned in to the news.

Somewhere, in some box or drawer, I still have an audiocassette of the reaction when "not guilty" was announced. I don't need to hear it to remember it clearly.

The celebration from much of the black population on the street was explosive -- a raucous, stunned giddiness, I'd call it. Most of the white people just stood there and looked at them and at each other, shocked at both the news and the reaction to it.

It was right about then that I learned how differently two groups could look at the same situation.

Which leads me to Simpson's dinner-table ejection in Louisville, where I live. I don't know the owner of the restaurant, but my assumption is that anyone who may have gotten away with murder and then spent the ensuing decade almost flaunting it would not be welcome in a number of places. I don't think it makes you a racist to see it that way.

But that line of thought doesn't mean racism has been expunged. Hardly. It's more concealed and covert today, but it still rears up to remind us what's out there in the dark -- like when Don Imus and his raunchy white boys smeared the Rutgers women.

In the end, they got what they deserved. And what we got was another opportunity to talk about black and white, how we see ourselves and each other, how we get along and don't get along.

Those opportunities are plentiful in sports right now, and valuable. It would be great if we could use them to set the table for 2008, and America's most important racial discussion in 40 years.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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