ESPN’s cover story this month is about Barry Bonds and his image problem. One could argue that Bonds has had an image problem from birth, or at least the better part of the last three decades. The feature includes highlights of unsolicited advice from redeemed personalities: CNBC’s Jim Cramer, Presidential Candidate John McCain, Howard Stern, Denny McClain and Leigh Steinberg. It struck me as interesting that none of those folks were black athletes who have traveled down this path before. Now there are certainly examples of white athletes who were either blasted by the media or scorned by the public being redeemed. The article highlighted the case of Mike Schmidt. McClain certainly counts. Pete Rose will probably be on this list in 20 years. There’s Mickey Mantle and his battle with alcohol. There’s Tony LaRussa and his DUI.
I know that all athletes get a lot of love from the public but I started to wonder what the dividing line might be between heaven and hell. Is it different for getting redemption from the press? What about Mark McGwire? Is he ever going to come back from his debacle? How about Bill Romanowski? What constitutes a comeback? Is it sitting on the couch on a FOX show desperate for ratings? What about Michael Irvin?
I couldn’t think of a Black athlete (quickly) who was redeemed in the public eye after either a hate-hate relationship with the media or an off-field incident of serious magnitude. One could argue that Charles Barkley’s redemption on TNT after accidentally spitting on a little girl at a game and being involved in multiple fights constitutes a best case. I can’t argue with that – except that Barkley functions largely as a comic figure. He is neither a force to be reckoned with, nor someone to take seriously on the issues of his time within sports or beyond. As such, he can be discounted because his presence does not constitute a challenge in any arena of significant value.
Perhaps Muhammad Ali is the best example. It could be – but then again, he has Parkinson’s and is no longer perceived as a threat. He no longer has the vitality of a Jim Brown or the erudition of a Bill Russell or the calm presence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I don’t know that he would have been redeemed if he did not contract Parkinson’s. I doubt it. Jim Brown certainly has not. Kareem has not. He has not been accorded the respect of someone who is arguably the single greatest basketball player of all time. Kareem was ostracized in the 1970’s for his unwillingness to “play the game.” Nearly 40 years later, his presence is barely discernible in the NBA. Moreover, in the public mind, he is still a steely, dangerous, angry man. This may or may not be true – but the consequences of patiently seeking redemption in this land were never lost on Kermit Washington. After his face-breaking blow to the grille of Rudy Tomjanovich, Washington was unable to find a team, a job or a vantage point to breathe freely in his chosen profession. Washington took his act to Africa and began a legacy of charitable, life-affirming work that merits serious commendation. The American public, however, has little or no knowledge of this. The press, to my knowledge, has only on rare occasions made mention of his work in an attempt to lay bare the fullness of his life after “The Punch.”
Drug addiction in sports is an area where decision-making is not as cut and dry. Take the case of pitcher Steve Howe. Howe couldn’t kick the habit but he was tremendously talented and teams always need pitchers. He was Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers. Howe was given so many chances that fans and the media stopped counting. He was suspended 7 times. He died in 2006 in a traffic accident with methamphetamine in his system. Now, I don’t know how much the public in Los Angeles stood behind Steve Howe, but the national and local media never subjected him to the lambasting that Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden took for their addictions. While Howe was the Rookie of the Year, he was never as big of a star as Strawberry or Gooden. That may have been part of the deal. Perhaps the greatest loss for sports and the American public is that Steve Howe never became the poster boy for drug addiction in the major leagues. That indignity went to a number of players who benefited from owners turning a blind eye to addiction – as long as production was high. The “Straw” and Doc were given numerous opportunities to slay the dragon and were unable to do so through the end of their playing days. Both of these players were likely Hall of Famers absent the influence of narcotics in their lives – but that dream never materialized. In New York, I believe these two players were pitied more than reviled by the fans and media because they emerged on the big stage as teenagers. Gooden and Strawberry, during the best of times had the key to the city. In the worst of times, they had the key to the hearts of their fans and the support of team ownership. I don’t believe drug-addicted athletes provide a sound basis for assessing the possibilities of redemption with the public and the media. Local fans who witnessed the peak performance of a player are likely to be far more forgiving that “the rest of us.” Does anyone really want to talk about Don Mattingly’s drinking or Brett Favre’s painkillers?
Barry Bonds is not facing the spectre of drug addiction – but he is embroiled in a controversy closely linked, in my mind, to Pete Rose. Gambling on the game, by players and managers, suggests an attempt to influence the outcome of an ostensibly fair contest. I don’t raise this issue to compare Rose’s treatment with Bonds. Pete was treated with kid gloves for years. He was a better interview for years and he was Charlie Hustle. Bonds, though, stands accused of also trying to influence the outcome of games by using steroids. The question, though, of his redemption will be difficult. It is the road less traveled.
I think ‘roid guys will always be looked down upon. Will anyone ever consider Bill Romanowski an “upstanding guy”? Was there any chance of that BEFORE he spit on J.J. Stokes? What about Rafael “I’ve Got Your Finger!” Palmeiro? Bonds’ problems with the press and the public precede the steroid controversy. In fact, they precede the birth of Barry Lamar Bonds. I believe the problems go all the way back to the life and times of an underrated, underappreciated, alcoholic father – Bobby Bonds. Bobby was a tremendous player, but he came of age at a time (like Russell and Brown and Ali) where players had contentious relationships with a smug, racist, white supremacist media. The media went out of their way to make Black and Latino players look less than smart, less than diligent and less than worthy of a contract extension on favorable terms. Roberto Clemente had the same problem. I don’t doubt that Barry cultivated some disdain for the press long before he hit Arizona State’s campus. I bet he developed a watchful eye long before young and old reporters tried to nestle up close to his jock strap and feign friendship. I bet the relationship was spoiled as soon as the first reporters confirmed his suspicions that he would not be treated any differently than dear old dad. Bonds’ image will not EVER recover because Black men with positive national American images occupy one of three roles: buffoon, a singer or a savior (of a dream, a childhood memory, a team, a city, a soul). Barry is none of that. He’s just a surly muhphukka that could care less.