Near hysteria gripped the New York papers last week when Larry Johnson made his now infamous “rebellious slaves” comment. While LJ seemed at first to be referring more to the Knicks’ rambunctious reputation than their societal status, it was, of course, his use of the word “slave” that brought the media’s quick wrath. Mitch Lawrence at the Daily News wins the can’t-see-the-analogy-for-the-trees prize for his doozy of a jab: “Wouldn’t we all like to be ‘rebellious slaves’ with $84 million contracts?” The normally terrific Lisa Olson weighed in as well. “It’s not always about race, not this time,” she asserted. But if you’re talking black athletes and white owners, white media, and mostly white ticket holders, when exactly isn’t it about race?
In other words, just because it’s a loaded metaphor doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one.
“In this context, even well-paid slaves are still slaves,” says Manning Marable, the distinguished black scholar and director of Columbia’s African American studies department. Johnson’s analogy, says Marable, is an understandable way of discussing the haves and have-nots in sports— of looking at the history and economics of “black athletes in white man’s games.” Though Marable’s is a language of refined academia and LJ’s the angry words of a beleaguered jock, they make similar points. Johnson compared his own financial success to the difficult lives of so many in the black community, and Marable does the same, questioning the social role of a corporation that pays blacks well— but only a few, and only as laborers.
“The whole structure of games mirrors the racialized social body and class hierarchy of our society,” Marable told Jockbeat. “They get to interpret it, they get to own it, we have to work it.” Thus, says Marable, LJ might be onto something worthy of a listen instead of a defensive panic. “Actually, he’s pointing out the structure of ownership, the structure of power, and the dynamics of it,” Marable says. “So I’d say, yeah, Larry got it right.”
Get Me An Asterisk
“History is wet cement,” says John Thorn, editor of Total Baseball. “It’s process, not product.” That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that Hack Wilson upped his record RBI total by one last week while Babe Ruth was credited with six more walks, 50 years after they shuffled off this mortal coil. The evidence of Wilson’s phantom 191st RBI has been around for a decade, but now that Manny Ramirez is making a run at Hack, the commissioner’s office has decided to set the record straight. Just as significant is the change in the walk record, which Rickey Henderson could own by the end of next season.
This is hardly the first time that baseball has had to deal with discrepancies between the historical record and the truth. Total Baseball devotes an entire chapter to the subject, noting that 36 members of the Hall of Fame have errors on their Cooperstown plaques, and no fewer than 17 batting champions have a lower average than a rival, including Cap Anson, who was awarded 20 phantom hits by a charitable Chicago scorer in 1879, inflating his batting average from .317 to .407. The most notable example concerns Ty Cobb, who was doubly credited with a 2-for-3 game in 1910, lowering his onetime career hit record from 4,191 to 4,189. “Rose actually broke the record a couple of days earlier at Wrigley Field,” says Thorn, meaning that the record-breaking ball, like Rose, is not in the Hall of Fame. The revised numbers are the official ones, says Thorn, but thanks to something called the Kingston Compromise, those who were originally considered a title or record holder (like a batting champion) still get to be called king.
One step forward, a hundred back. This year’s NHL playoffs provided the most compelling theater the league has seen since 1994, and the public responded: TV ratings were way up, despite defense-first tactics and slush-hockey playing in 90-degree heat. The passion of this year’s playoffs, climaxing in a ferocious Buffalo-Dallas final, the chaos of Brett Hull’s Cup-winning nongoal, and the continent-wide outrage it touched off, resulted in exactly what the NHL has always wanted: increased media buzz, even among the nonhockey public.
Good for the NHL? No. The events of the past two weeks could tear the league apart. Commissioner Gary Bettman, already despised by fans coast to coast, is now so actively loathed that he may want to cut out public appearances altogether. And now Bettman’s mania for fiddling with the game’s rules has him— and the sport— in more trouble. Last week, after only two months’ trial in the minors, he rammed through an absurd rule reducing the number of skaters in OT to four a side— even though there’d been no public demand for it, and some league officers reportedly hate the change. Finally on Monday, amid reports that the Montreal Canadiens may move to the States after 2003— 04, Canada’s cash-strapped NHL teams met with that country’s industry minister. The goal: pressure the league into boosting its 9 percent rate of revenue sharing (the NFL’s is 86 percent). With Bettman in the eye of all these storms, a battle for hockey’s soul could loom in the coming weeks.
contributors: Joanna Cagan, Allen St. John, Mark Winopol, Karl-Eric Reif
sports editor: Miles D. Seligman