Tuesday, June 5, 2007 Updated: June 8, 2:10 PM ET
Sheffield makes a point ... sort of
By Jemele Hill Page 2
I'm going to explain this in a way Gary Sheffield couldn't.
Although, if I were Latino, I'd be looking for Mr. Sheffield, who stopped just short of calling Latino ballplayers Uncle Toms in this month's GQ magazine when asked to explain why there's a lack of African-Americans in the major leagues.
According to Sheff, there has been an explosion of Latino players because they're considered easier to manage than African-Americans. Clearly he'd forgotten about Ozzie Guillen, who is about as easy to control as a porcupine and as outspoken as anyone in sports. Sheffield didn't quite channel Don Imus or Tim Hardaway, but it was an impressive offense nonetheless.
"I called it years ago," Sheffield told GQ. "What I called is that you're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out. ... [It's about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do -- being able to control them."
JEFF PEARLMAN ON SHEFFIELD
Please, don't bother bashing Gary Sheffield; after all, the man is really just a dolt.
• Jeff Pearlman
Technically, Sheffield also is told what to do because he's on the Detroit Tigers' payroll and, given that quote, he needs to worry about his own sentence structure before anyone else's.
Anyway, Sheffield is no Cornel West, but he spoke some kernels of truth that call for further discussion.
Sheffield is right that outspoken black players can be viewed by the public as threatening. Excellence is a big reason Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods became the most popular athletes on Earth, but part of their appeal is they have nonthreatening personalities and rarely take a stance on controversial issues.
Also, Sheffield is correct when he says the perception of black athletes is a factor in why the number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has dipped to a startling 8.5 percent (down from a peak 27 percent in 1975, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport). Sheffield, however, was wrong about the type of perception hurting black athletes and making them less attractive.
The image of black athletes is at an all-time low. It's not because they are perceived as rebels fighting inequality but rather because they are perceived as unruly, ungrateful players who aren't worth the trouble.
Is it a fair perception? No. But sadly, black athletes have become defined by headline-grabbing fools such as Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, TO, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds and others.
Sheffield certainly has done his share to feed the ingrate stereotype. Since he's been in the league, he has whined about money, contracts and teams. Sheffield made a point of telling GQ he is from a race that "demands respect," but his actions sometimes have sabotaged that process.
It's too bad someone like Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes, who sat out a game after his wife accused him of making death threats, can't be judged on his own individual foolishness. Most black athletes are doing the right thing, but the unfortunate burden for people of color is always being evaluated as a group.
It would be naive to think those negative perceptions and actions don't have some impact on decision-making.
Sure, the low numbers of African-Americans in the major leagues can be blamed on financially strapped inner cities being unable to support youth baseball -- although I would offer that Latin countries are just as poor, if not poorer -- and the powerful pull of football and basketball. But those economic realities have made it easier to justify acting on perceptions.
Latinos are superbly talented, and baseball is as important to them as basketball is to inner-city black kids, but the emergence of Latinos is about image, too.
Only it has nothing to do with Latinos being easier to "control." It has everything to do with many Latino players acting as if playing baseball in the major leagues is an opportunity of a lifetime -- a feeling you don't always get from American-born players. Black or white.
"Maybe we're hungrier," Guillen told the New York Daily News. "We're trying to survive. Those guys sign for $500,000 or $1 million and they're made. We have a couple of dollars. You can sign one African-American player for the price of 30 Latin players."
Economics dictating perception. It can be the other way around, too.
A sports league's first obligation is to the almighty wallets. If the wallets recognize a cheaper labor source and are put off by the behavior of black athletes, investing in another group is viewed as simply a smart business decision.
Look no further than the NBA and its top cop, David Stern, who blurred the bottom line and the color line.
The NBA's decision to start bringing in more European players, its institution of a dress code and age-limit rule, and the near-paranoid emphasis on cracking down on physical play to eliminate any appearance of thuggery were conscious choices made to appeal to mainstream consumers and corporate partners.
The influx of European players in the NBA covertly sent a message baseball already has sent: Another talent base is available if the right wallets are alienated.
Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.