It’s often said that race is the third rail of politics. And since that’s the place where race actually was meant to be addressed, then dealing with the issue in a wise-assy, fan-oriented sports column is pretty much the equivalent of climbing into the bathtub, sitting down in the water and deciding it would be a good place to start heating up some Toaster Strudels. But I’m going to try it anyway. So, cover me; I’m going in.
What’s prompted me to flirt with hot, flaming, electric disaster like this are two recent media events that dusted off that tired, worn-out but persistent old chestnut that Boston fans are racist. It’s like some prickly weed that we just can’t eradicate, no matter how deep you dig at the roots or how many gallons of Ortho you pour into the hole. To hear the national sports press tell it, we’re not just all a bunch of unrepentant racists, we’re the worst in the country. And Boston in 2010 is 1936 Berlin, Cape Town in 1948 and the Death Star a long time ago, all rolled into one evil, hate-filled package.
Look, I don’t present myself as any kind of a social scientist. In college I quickly learned you could skate by in sociology simply by being able to spit out Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on the final exam, which freed up the rest of my time to focus on my fantasy football and avoiding any actual learning. I also haven’t the slightest idea what it’s like to be a minority living, playing or coaching in this city. In spite of the comic hilarity of such brilliant race-switching comedies including “Soul Man” starring C. Thomas Howell or the Wayans brothers’ “White Chicks,” it’s unreasonable for anyone to say they know what it’s like to be of a different race.
The one thing I do know, though, is the Boston sports fan. And I know we are no more or less racist than any other city in America. Period.
Am I saying we there are no racists among us? Of course not. Boston’s greater metropolitan area has 4.5 million people. And in a group that size there are going to be tons of race haters. Just as there are going to be lunatics, cancer doctors, pedophiles, war heroes, sociopaths, teachers, mental defectives and criminals. Along with lovers, muggers and thieves. I believe in sociology class I did once hear the technical term for that: It’s known as “a population.”
It would be less than honest not to admit that Boston has some terrible, unforgivable marks against it. Not the least of which is the Yawkeys. We all know the Sox were the last team to integrate, and there’s hardly any doubt it’s the fault of the race-baiting, redneck old coots and the cronies they surrounded themselves with. But it will take a lot to convince me that there ever were any Sox fans who were content to sit through 86 years of mediocrity rather than have the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays around to mess up Mr. Yawkey’s master plan with their skin color, their greatness and all those championships they won elsewhere. If Bostonians who think like that ever existed, I know for damned sure I’ve never met one.
But for some reason, despite the fact that racist fans walk the streets of in every city in the country, it’s the Boston fans that get singled out. There’s a concept in debating known as petitio principii, which literally means “begging the question.” It is to present as accepted fact that which needs to be proven by argument. For example: “Because Boston sports fans are known to be racist ...” as opposed to actually making the case that we deserve to be branded as such.
Case in point. Last week The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy wrote a column saying he was rooting for Cornell to beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Probably a hundred columnists in dozens of media outlets expressed the same sentiment. But a Kentucky sports radio blogger named Matt Jones chose the Curly Haired Boyfriend as the primary target for his counterattack. And rather than just be content with the low-hanging fruit of saying that Shank’s piece was lazy, unoriginal and probably written just to settle an old vendetta against John Calipari (which would be hard to argue with), Jones’ logic skidded off the road and the airbags deployed as he had to go “there.”
“No, instead the sportswriter representing the most racist major sports town in America is choosing the one team in the tournament that is both the A) whitest and B) most elitist school among the 65 entries.”
Right. Because one columnist wrote a puff piece about rooting for Cinderella, that makes us a city filled with card carrying Klansmen. Of course, one could point out that while Kentucky’s legendary racist old coot Adolph Rupp was still keeping his team segregated, Red Auerbach was winning championships with the most pioneeringly color-blind, racially bonding team in the history of American professional sports. Or point out that they named an arena after Rupp. We built a statue of Auerbach, while he still was alive.
But why bother? Pointing your finger across the country and declaring that Boston fans are a collection of ignorant, race-hating morons is less about us than it is a way of saying that your city is a utopia that has long since solved such petty problems of the world. As if. To steal a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
The other example that surfaced recently is the HBO special “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.” I believe it’s an FCC regulation that no TV show discuss Boston sports in any manner without mentioning the city’s troubled history of race relations. And HBO complied. Though, to its credit, HBO went to great lengths to point out that Magic and Bird were about the least racially motivated players the NBA has ever known. But that didn’t stop HBO from portraying Larry as the Great White Hope, rescuing the league from its own obscurity not with his greatness but with his whiteness. As if he could have turned the Celtics around just as quickly, racked up just as many triple doubles and won just as many championships, but none of us would have enjoyed it if he had happened to be black. That is to say, if the Celtics had gotten Magic instead, he would’ve been hoisting banners up into the Garden rafters in front of the same-sized crowd as indoor motocross. Which is utter nonsense.
Do I think lots of white fans liked Larry more because he was white? Absolutely. But is that racist? If it is, then a lot of us are guilty. Whether your rooting interests lie with the Williams sisters, Yao Ming, Tiger Woods, Tony Gonzalez or Troy Polamalu, it’s common for people to identify with someone who looks like they do or comes from the same place they do and root for them harder. Hell, that’s what the Olympics are all about. And it’s especially true when the athlete in question is competing as a minority in their sport, which Larry Bird definitely was. So, for the crime of having a white NBA superstar whom we loved, Boston fans still are wearing the scarlet 'R' on our shirts.
Again, I can’t speak for minority fans or players or what it’s like for them. All I can speak for is myself and the athletes I’ve watched this town embrace. In no particular order, from my lifetime: Luis Tiant, Robert Parish, George Scott, Mosi Tatupu, Troy Brown, Mo Vaughn, Cedric Maxwell, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Rodney Harrison, Big Papi, Paul Pierce, El Guapo, Curtis Martin. And dozens of other minority players, many of whom stayed in the area long after their careers were over. All beloved by the fans of Boston because they worked hard, were winners and gave us our money’s worth.
Arguably, the Red Sox are the most popular team in the city right now. And they’ve got an unheard-of, Sunday-school-poster-of-kids-holding-hands-around-a-globe level of diversity on the roster. If it were true that we’re all a bunch of racist ignoramuses, Fenway would be empty and we’d all be flocking to watch the Bruins, most of whom would have to lay in the sun for a week to get to white. (They tend to start off translucent.)
Yet still, the label is there, and I suppose these things stay stuck for generations, and all we can do is keep tearing at it until we pull it off. But it’s going to take more than a few out-of-state writers and some revisionist history on TV to convince me we deserve it.