Behind the Barry-bashing

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of the forthcoming "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

IT TAKES QUITE THE sportsman to inspire a call for a "smiting." But Barry Bonds, closing in on Henry Aaron's all-time home run record, might just be the first jock since the young Cassius Clay to inspire such biblical animus.

In her regular column, Jemele Hill, one of the few African American women with a high-profile voice in sports journalism, recently wrote: "God, can you smite Barry Bonds before he breaks Major League Baseball's all-time home run record? (OK, maybe smiting is a little extreme. Could you conjure up some locusts every time he bats? Give him a few boils? Crack a stone tablet over his head?)" She also wrote: "If Bonds breaks the home run record, it will be like the O.J. Simpson trial all over again." The difference (which she failed to note) is that Bonds hasn't been charged with a double homicide.

Among sports columnists, Hill's antipathy toward Bonds is hardly unique. Most have taken shots at the player they decry as a "cheater" because of widespread suspicions that he used steroids to improve his performance. The attacks range from the horrible (John Seibel's oh-so-tongue-in-cheek comments on ESPN Radio that if Bonds does it, we should "hang him") to the ridiculous (for instance, Jeff Pearlman, former Sports Illustrated writer and the author of "The Bad Guys Won," recently regaled a TV audience with tales of Bonds refusing to pick up his underwear from locker-room floors and how the now 42-year-old punched somebody in high school).

It would all be amusing if such snarky comments didn't have real consequences. The anti-Bonds cottage industry has become so bombastic, so disproportionate to his alleged offenses, that it is having an ugly and divisive effect on society.

Consider an ESPN/ABC News poll released this month. Black fans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to want Bonds to break Aaron's record of 755 homers (74% to 28%) and nearly twice as likely to think that the slugger has been treated unfairly (46% to 25%), according to the poll. Black and white supporters of Bonds were then asked why they believed that the slugger is so hated. About 41% of black fans said suspected steroids use was the reason, while 25% cited race and 21% blamed Bonds' "in your face" attitude. By contrast, two-thirds of white sympathizers cited the steroids issue, with virtually none mentioning race.

When asked about the poll, Hill said: "It's too bad some people are more concerned with race than right. Blacks have been unjustly persecuted in the court of law and public opinion, but supporting one lout doesn't erase, compensate or change those injustices."

But the black-white divide on Bonds is not about people being "more concerned with race than right." Rather, it represents a visceral response to the way Bonds has been subjected to criticism when white players with reputations of steroid use haven't gotten nearly the heat he has. For instance, suspicions have swirled around future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens, but he hasn't received the level of media and investigative scrutiny that Bonds has.

I have been a guest on both mainstream sports and black radio, and the Bonds discussion is like visiting two alternative universes. Mainstream radio is a veritable "I Hate Barry" parade. Callers typically deflect charges of racism by saying: "We're not racists. We just hate his guts because he's a cheater!"

But on black radio, I am sometimes seriously asked, "Do you think Bonds will be physically harmed?" That I'm asked such a question points up how dangerous the atmosphere surrounding Bonds' march to history has become.

The federal government has exacerbated the situation. The FBI has approached players about wearing a wire in an effort to get Bonds on tape admitting steroid use. Mike Celizic, who reported the story for MSNBC, called the investigation a "witch hunt. It's not about cleaning up the game; it's about putting Barry Bonds in jail."

Another reporter quoted an FBI agent as saying: "He's our Capone."

The question is, why do so many people despise Bonds? Comparing him with O.J. and Al Capone is outlandish on its face.

The man can be surly, one of more than a few star athletes you would not want to be trapped with in an elevator. Clemens can be as pleasant as a bobcat, and Larry Bird wasn't Mr. Sunshine during his NBA playing days. But, when it comes to Bonds, the media have called for everything but a big scarlet "S" on his chest, all of which has the appearance of a hellacious double standard.

Yes, the man is plagued by suspicions of steroid use. But despising a pro athlete for using performance-enhancing drugs is like hating a chef for cooking with trans fats. As the late Buck O'Neil, the Negro Leagues star, said, "The only reason we didn't use steroids is we didn't have them."

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig claims with a straight face that until quite recently, he wasn't even aware that steroids were a problem. President Bush owned the Texas Rangers at a time when Jose Canseco was turning the clubhouse into a McSteroids franchise. Fans cheered as players burst their uniforms with unholy biceps. Major League Baseball embraced the cheeky slogan "chicks dig the long ball" as the homers flew. The point is, we can do a better job of spreading around the sanctimony instead of placing it on one man's shoulders.

Bonds' pursuit of one of baseball's hallowed records will probably have an ugly ending. Selig has said he will not attend any games in which Bonds might pass Aaron. This is an ugly echo of former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's refusal to be in attendance when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record in 1974. Kuhn's decision had racial overtones. For many, Selig's will carry the same divisive weight.

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