Major League Baseball has taken action against racism in the game. It wasn’t just with words, which was all commissioner Rob Manfred gave after Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones heard racist taunts in Boston. It was with actions.
The league suspended Houston Astros first baseman Yulieski Gurriel on Saturday for five games after he was seen making a racial gesture toward Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish during Game 3 of the World Series. Gurriel will not serve the suspension during the World Series, however. He will serve it at the start of the 2018 season.
Shortly after the Jones incident, Manfred said “The behavior of these few ignorant individuals does not reflect the millions of great baseball fans who attend our games.” To show those words weren’t hollow, Manfred had to take action against Gurriel, though the punishment was lacking in this scenario.
The decision to suspend Gurriel was the right one, even if Manfred hedged on the punishment. As he announced the suspension, Manfred doubled down on his view of racism in baseball.
“There is no place in our game for the behavior or any behavior like the behavior we witnessed [Friday] night,” Manfred said. “There is no excuse or explanation that makes that type of behavior acceptable.”
He continued, “There needs to be disciplinary consequences to make clear that Major League Baseball is an institution that will not tolerate behavior of this type.”
If he truly believes that to be the case, Manfred will have to do more than just suspend Gurriel for five games next seen. If there truly is no place in the game for racism, Manfred will prevent the Cleveland Indians from using Chief Wahoo before the team plays another game.
Fans of the team have virulently opposed the league taking action against Chief Wahoo, often arguing the mascot is not offensive, and is paying homage to Native Americans. But that’s nothing more than fans rooting for laundry and trying to cling to tradition because they grew up with the symbol.
Native American groups have come out to protest the mascot, and filed lawsuits against the team. They don’t seem to find the mascot flattering, and for good reason. Native Americans don’t have red skin, or a cartoonishly large noses as the logo suggests. When white men dress up in red face and bring signs to the game encouraging the team to scalp its opponent, that doesn’t come off as respectful.
A common refrain from those who want to keep Chief Wahoo is that only a small percentage of Native Americans are offended by the logo, so it’s not a big deal. By saying that, those fans are merely suggesting there’s a certain level of racism they are willing to allow. If 10 percent of Native Americans are upset, that’s OK. But if 35 percent are angry, then maybe we should consider a change. That’s a dangerous line of thinking.
And yet, the commissioner walked that line during his statement on Gurriel, saying “I see a difference between behavior from one player directed specifically at a player and a logo. While both are problematic, I don’t see them as the same issue.”
If that’s true, then MLB has just created a tiered system of acceptable racism instead of sending the message that all racism is bad. In this instance, MLB is saying a racist gesture against an Asian person is worthy of a suspension, but a logo that offends a group of Native Americans is not. Is that really an argument the league wants fans of the game to have? Which type of racism is worse?
The league has already created a flawed punishment structure by pushing Gurriel’s suspension to next season. If Gurriel had tested positive for steroids, he would receive an immediate suspension. It wouldn’t be pushed to next season. Gurriel would likely appeal and still play anyway, but the suspension would have been put in place during the World Series. In making this decision, MLB has prioritized dealing with steroid use over racism.
Both Manfred and Cleveland team owner Paul Dolan have admitted that Chief Wahoo is disrespectful and offensive. The two have communicated regarding getting rid of the logo, but both sides are still “not exactly aligned” on its use after months of discussion.
Manfred reiterated the two sides were still talking about the issue Saturday.
“We continue to have conversations with the Indians about the logo, and it’s an issue I intend to deal with in the offseason,” he said.
The team has attempted to slowly eliminate Chief Wahoo from its uniforms in recent years, but the logo still is used. It could be seen prominently displayed as the team made its 2017 postseason run.
Pressure has mounted in recent years. The team’s World Series run in 2016 put added focus on the mascot. A fan in Toronto will have a case heard on whether the mascot is offensive. One Toronto Blue Jays announcer refuses to use the team’s name during games.
Each time Manfred is asked about those situations, he uses all the right words. He says the logo is “offensive” and “problematic.” He admits it’s a problem, and then he preaches patience. We’re working on it. We’re figuring it out. Give us time.
The Gurriel suspension gives Manfred the precedence to tell Cleveland time is up. If racism has “no place in our game,” Manfred can’t send that message by suspending Gurriel and then allowing the Indians to wear Chief Wahoo on their sleeves on opening day.
If he does, it won’t just be Manfred’s words that ring hollow. It will be his actions as well.
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