The Least Effective Way to Fight Racism in Sports

Cross-posted at Viva El Birdos.

Let’s get this out of the way: Cardinals fans are racists. Some of them, anyway. It’s not exactly a controversial statement. It’s easy to find examples of Cardinals fans spewing some of the most vile racist rhetoric imaginable—and goodness knows there are oodles of Twitter accounts that’ll do the work for you.

Most recently, it was in the direction of Jason Heyward, but it’s not as if he’s alone. Before Heyward, there was Nyjer Morgan (and these racist fans were just so creative with his first name). Before that, there was Brandon Phillips. Before that, there was Carlos Zambrano. Go back almost fifty years and you’ll see the Cardinals trading a good-not-great player in Curt Flood for a perennial MVP candidate, Dick Allen, driven out of Philadelphia because of racism. Examples abound of racism’s long and storied history in baseball.

I think we can all acknowledge that—and if you can’t, you might as well stop reading now. Racism is alive and well in America, and if you take a large enough population—Cardinals fans are nothing if not numerous—you’ll inevitably get some racists.

Presumably, we can also all accept this next statement: Cardinals fans don’t have a monopoly on racism. Look at any team’s fanbase and you’ll find plenty of examples. That’s certainly the tack that a lot of Cardinals fans took yesterday on Twitter, citing Cubs fans’ shameful treatment of Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley.

These reactions are factually correct. They’re also completely irrelevant. The Cardinals having a racist contingent in their fanbase is in no way nullified by the Cubs having a racist contingent in their fanbase. Both are terrible.

Let’s go to a slightly (but hopefully not by much) more controversial statement: racism isn’t limited to hurling racial slurs at players. By and large as a society, we all recognize there’s no place for that language. It’s why Donald Sterling’s comments a few years ago prompted such a backlash–not because people didn’t already know he was a racist, but because his language was so overt it couldn’t be ignored. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “This town needs a better class of racist.” In other words, there’s no need to Twitter shame the morons who use racial slurs–they’re already so far beyond the pale that even other racists would take a step back and wonder why they weren’t bothering to dog whistle. Worse, it reinforces the belief that racism is limited to name calling, and the providence of just a bunch of ignorant rubes–not a larger and far more insidious problem.

It’s understandable why Cardinals fans are uniquely singled out, at least when it comes to baseball—for years, they’ve been billed as “The Best Fans In Baseball,” a claim that’s nothing more than a marketing ploy. Couple that with the team’s recent decades of success and domination of its division and it’s understandable why non-Cardinals fans are sick of the team and looking for a reason to root against them. And if you can’t consistently do it on the field, fans make a great target. Add in the fact that pissing people off generates web traffic (a fact I’m all too aware of given my day job), and it makes all the sense in the world for “Look at these dumb racists who root for the Cardinals” to be a regular feature on the web.

To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to be smug with a veiled “kiss the rings.” It’s simply acknowledgement that, as humans, we’re wired to root for the underdog. Tack on the tribal loyalties that sports bring, and it’s easy to understand why the Cardinals are a deserving target of fan backlash. I’m not immune from this either: growing up, I hated the Detroit Red Wings. I was constantly annoyed that the team could grab seemingly any random guy off the streets of Russia, give him a Wings jersey, and watch him run roughshod over the Blues. I probably permanently sprained my eyes rolling them into the back of my head listening to announcers praise Steve Yzerman, hockey’s version of David Eckstein but with all-star caliber talent.

Point being, sports help bring out some nasty emotions in their fanbases. And, for the most part, it’s harmless. Ribbing Dodgers fans for showing up late and leaving early doesn’t really harm anyone. Neither does asking where the Miami Marlins’ one fan has gotten to. Go nuts pointing out all the Cards fans that can’t distinguish “traitor” from “trader.” Nobody was ever harmed by disinterest in sports or an inability to spell.

A shitload of people were harmed, are harmed, and will continue to be harmed by racism, both in and out of sports. Hurling “racism” as an insult merely on par with “inattentive” or “ignorant” when talking about a fanbase is a form of privilege. Many of us are incredibly fortunate that racism is “just another thing we can make fun of sports fans for” and not “a thing that’s a constant threat in our everyday lives.” To use it as the former diminishes the very real—and very destructive—force it actually is.

When we single out Cardinals fans for racism, it helps project a societal plague onto a single fanbase and misses the much larger point: racism is as much a part of baseball as the seventh inning stretch. We accomplish nothing by Twitter-shaming individuals for disgusting acts, then washing our hands and thinking we’ve done our part. Pointing out that some Cardinals fans are racists doesn’t make one’s own fanbase morally superior, it merely obfuscates a plague on society.

I haven’t the foggiest idea what would work to help rid baseball of racism—if I did, I damn sure would be doing it—but I do know that a tit-for-tat over which fanbase is most racist isn’t constructive. Turning the spotlight on Cardinals fans as if they’re uniquely racist just allows the racists that infect all other fanbases to operate with lesser scrutiny. If ever we’re going to progress from “look what this asshole just Tweeted” to something resembling justice, we can’t keep singling out Cardinals fans.

So, to that: yeah, some Cardinals fans are racists. Fine. You got us. But using that fact as a way to insult the entire fanbase cheapens the very real damage that racism does to sports and society at large. If someone actually wanted to help lessen racism in sports, they wouldn’t use it as a cudgel to generate clicks or to prove moral superiority in sports fandom.

Let’s all try and be better than that. By all means, shame the morons if it makes you feel better, but don’t apply it to entire fanbases.

Follow Adam Felder on Twitter at @AdamMFelder.