Finding the truth in Sheffield's anger   

Updated: July 17, 2007, 3:16 PM ET

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If you watched "In Living Color" during the early 1990s, you're familiar with Homey D. Clown, a character made famous by comedian Damon Wayans.

Homey, an ex-con who worked as a clown to fulfill his parole agreement, was hilarious because he educated little kids about "The Man." Homey's lessons were typically punctuated by whipping the children across the head with his rock-filled sock.

Gary Sheffield

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Were Gary Sheffield's comments on point, or way off? The debate continues ...

With his latest, racially charged comments, it seems many sports fans view Gary Sheffield as a mixture of Homey and Conspiracy Brotha Jones, the overly paranoid secret agent Dave Chappelle played in "Undercover Brother."

It's easy to see why Sheffield has a solid candidacy going for Mike & Mike's Just Shut Up award. He's a millionaire complaining about being discriminated against and most Americans just want our millionaires to have the decency to not whine.

But I'm not ready to dismiss Sheffield's claims that Joe Torre treats black players differently than white ones -- comments you can hear for yourself tonight during an interview with former ESPN reporter Andrea Kramer on HBO's "Real Sports."

For the second time in a little over a month, Sheffield has thrust the uncomfortable topic of race in our faces. As always, he lacks finesse. But even the most ardent Sheff haters must admire the fearlessness in which he deals with racial topics.

The truth is that many of Sheffield's comments carry more truth than the sports world is comfortable with -- from his assertion that Latino players were being controlled to the idea that Derek Jeter isn't perceived as threatening because as Sheffield told "Real Sports," he "ain't all the way black."

Sheffield lacks the elegance of a social scientist, but we shouldn't be so quick to get sucked into the mindless panic that tends to accompany sports-themed racial discussions.

Sheffield's theory that Major League Baseball financially exploits Latino players is true. Baseball pays young Latins paltry signing bonuses, knowing it's cheaper than signing college and high school players through the draft. Virtually every American industry was built on cheap labor and that economic imbalance guarantees a certain amount of control.

These latest comments about Torre only illustrate what polls tell us all the time. Poll after poll shows a severe gap between what blacks and whites experience in this country. In an ESPN/ABC News poll about Barry Bonds two months ago, the majority of blacks feel Bonds is treated unfairly and they eagerly support him. White America, however, isn't buying that Bonds didn't take steroids and generally chooses to ostracize Bonds because of his ties to BALCO.

So in a locker room, even one as heavily scrutinized as the Yankees', it should not be surprising that a black player feels he is being treated unfairly by his employer -- even as other African-Americans are experiencing success.

Sheffield isn't fitting Joe Torre for a white hood or accusing him of burning crosses. In fact, much of the treatment Sheffield described was subtle and not all that different from the experiences many African-Americans have in corporate America.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons the Tigers are Sheffield's seventh major league team. He is a talented hitter with a chip on his shoulder the size of Bonds' head. If he had less of a chip, he'd have more love. Although for some black men, you can't survive without having that chip.

Gary Sheffield

Kirby Lee/WireImage.com

There's truth between the lines of Sheffield's rhetoric.

Still, you can't deny that in the sports world, outspoken African-Americans such as Sheffield aren't well-received -- with Charles Barkley being a notable exception. Even among Yankees fans, there is a big difference between how Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield are perceived. Some Yankees fans still hate Jackson because they believe he was too boisterous, flamboyant and irritating during his glory years. Winfield, who wasn't nearly as outspoken, is never hailed as anything but a class act.

So isn't it fair to consider such perceptions might weave their way into a clubhouse?

As much as we try to deny it, race is so embedded in our society we often can't recognize how it influences our behavior. That doesn't make us racists, just human.

It wasn't a stretch for Sheffield to point out to "Real Sports" that Jeter's biracial heritage has helped him gain a favorable perception. Who knows if that's the case in the Yankees' clubhouse, but it's certainly a factor in Jeter's popularity, even though the championships and his demeanor are what made Jeter one of the most beloved Yankees of all time.

Jeter's African-American and Caucasian heritage makes him more appealing, and to some, safer.

Appearing on the Donny Deutsch show "The Big Idea" for a discussion on Bonds, former NBA player John Salley said this of Jeter: "They look at Iverson and see braids, tattoos, his diction and say, 'Oh man, that's one of those guys who can one day rob me,' and they look at Jeter with those nice green eyes and light skin, and it doesn't intimidate them."

If we look past the Homey D. Conspiracy Brotha persona, Sheffield isn't as off base as we think.

Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.


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