When Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist views of black people were exposed in 2014 through a leaked phone conversation, the NBA took less than a week to drop a lifetime ban on him.
Pressure from NBA players, 77 percent of whom were black, influenced the decision. They spoke out about their disgust with Sterling’s offensive rhetoric. They wore warm-up shirts inside-out as a form of protest. In a meeting, Clippers players reportedly discussed the idea of a boycott.
The NBA listened to its players.
Major League Baseball is in a position, after incidents of racism last week in Boston, to send a message about the sport’s direction in the face of dwindling fans.
On Tuesday at Fenway Park, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones had a bag of peanuts thrown at him and said he heard Red Sox fans yell racial slurs at him. On Wednesday, the team ejected and later banned for life a white male fan who used a racial slur toward a Kenyan singer who had performed the national anthem.
The Red Sox condemned these outbursts from fans, but MLB and its teams can do more. Jones is pushing for stricter measures, such as levying heavy fines against fans who behave this way.
“What he was saying is, ‘Can you step in here and act like 21st-century baseball fans and not act out in a way that brings shame to your organization?’ ” said Adrian Burgos Jr., a University of Illinois history professor and editor-in-chief of LaVidaBaseball.com. “He was saying, ‘I’m tired of this.’ “
African-American players made up only 7.7 percent of Opening-Day rosters this season, making it harder for players to feel comfortable raising these concerns. Can you imagine a white fan yelling something similar, let alone getting away with it, at an NBA game, where African-Americans make up a vast majority of the rosters and a larger percentage of the fan base than in baseball?
Credit Jones for prompting journalists to ask players about the racism they’ve encountered and inspiring his fellow players to band together to speak up about the issue, similar to how NBA players joined forces after the Sterling incident.
With a national spotlight on the sport after these ugly incidents, baseball can make a change for the better and along the way help its brand. Substantial steps toward ridding stadiums of this behavior would be a better tribute to Jackie Robinson than uniform patches on the 70th anniversary of his breaking the color line.
MLB has undertaken several laudable initiatives to bring black youths back to playing baseball and to make the game more appealing to cross-sections of fans. But the majors have had fewer than 10 percent African-American players since 2010.
The NFL and NBA are far more popular among black fans than MLB. A poll last May by Public Policy Polling showed 25 percent of African-Americans identify as MLB fans, compared with 65 percent identifying as NBA fans. News of ESPN cuts indicates the network will have less coverage of baseball.
The numbers for black baseball fans are minute, according to Scarborough research.
In 2016, only 14.4 percent of black respondents to a survey described themselves as very interested in the sport, compared with 17.8 percent in 2012. The survey revealed 40.7 percent said they were “not at all” interested, up from 36.5 percent in 2012.
Seventy-four percent of black respondents said they went to no major-league games in 2016, while 17.2 percent said they went to one or two games. Less than 3 percent had watched the MLB Network in the last two seasons.
”MLB has been very much focused on how to bring African-American fans back to the ballpark,” Burgos said. “It’s not just the players they want, it’s the fans too. African-American fans see very clearly how Adam Jones responded to playing for the flag (as part of the U.S. team that won the World Baseball Classic in March) and responded to being a leader on the team. Then six weeks later, and a fan of a Major League Baseball team treats him this way?”
Last year Jones called baseball a “white man’s game.” The incidents in Boston only reinforce that perception.
“If MLB wanted to, they could work diligently to rid it,” Burgos said. “(Commissioner Rob) Manfred’s offices are aware they have an opportunity, if they market wisely and make the experience fan-friendly and more inclusive, that they can recapture some of those fans who might have left, generations of fans who have left.”
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