More than just knuckleheads


On a freezing cold winter’s night, Maryland’s then highly ranked basketball team was hosting its hated rival University of North Carolina. Cole Field House was thick with energy and emotion. It was Lefty Driesell against Dean Smith. The Terps, with players like Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen, and with coach Lefty Driesell, had the talent now to compete with the Tar Heels.

The arena’s lights dimmed as the boots of a military color guard clip clopped on the hardwood towards the big red center court M.

Before the uniformed entourage approached half court, three African American men wearing black berets and drab green army fatigues raced out onto the court, waving the green, red and black flag of black liberation and holding fists in the air. The reaction was immediate and ugly. Students sitting around me started screaming the “N” word towards the basketball court almost convulsing while they screamed. They paid little attention to the black students sitting among them. It was a time when we were still experiencing campus and civil unrest towards the Vietnam War and we were but a handful of years past race riots in some of our major cities.

Once peace in Cole was restored, the national anthem played. Then something remarkable happened. During the game, whenever a Terp, who happened to be black, scored or blocked a shot, those same students who were quick to launch the “N” bomb, were heaping adulation on the players, black, white or whatever. I heard this once before, because the following year I was covering the basketball team for the campus daily, The Diamondback. The Terps were visiting University of Virginia, when someone from the student section called one of the Maryland players an “orangutan.” The next year while interviewing one of the Terps’ players, I was told that he heard someone call him orangutan; through the noise, the band and the cheerleaders, he heard what some of us on press row heard.

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of anti-Semitism other than the time at a minor league ice hockey game when someone sitting behind me yelled in my direction “go back to the Jordan River.”

Earlier this week when I learned that Orioles’ centerfielder Adam Jones, himself black, tweeted out that someone had tossed a banana at him from the AT&T Park stadium in San Francisco, I felt something inside scream, “Oh, no, not again.”

I thought that this despicable practice was more typical on the soccer pitch in European stadiums where black players have been taunted in such a manner.

But just checking through the search engines, I found sadly that it’s too easy to read about others who have faced similar behavior. Wayne Simmonds, a forward on the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team, was attempting an overtime shoot-out goal in an exhibition game being played in London, Ontario, in September, 2011 when a banana peel hit the ice from the crowd.

Simmonds, who is black, was quoted as saying after the game, “It was unfortunate, but I am above this sort of stuff.” It was also encouraging to read quotes supportive of Simmonds from NHL players all around the league whose origins vary from Canada to Russia.

Closer to home we remember what happened in April of last year when the Capitals’ Joel Ward scored a winning goal in a game seven overtime thriller over Boston. The shameful “N” word from a handful of disgruntled Bruins fans made its way on Twitter.

Ward, a Canadian hockey player, whose parents are from Barbados, handled the situation with grace saying, “It doesn’t faze me at all. We won and we’re moving on.”

Indeed the great Jackie Robinson was asked by Dodger’s general manager Branch Rickey if he had “the guts not to fight back” when racism emerged on or off the field against the Hall of Famer who broke the color barrier in baseball.

The film 42, which was released earlier this year, accurately portrayed a scenario in which then-Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman stood in front of his dugout and taunted Robinson, freely using the “N” word. It was difficult enough to watch two actors portraying this monologue of hate from a theater seat. Imagine being around in 1947 when it happened.

Certainly Jews have run into their share of anti-Semitic taunts no matter what surface they use for competition. Detroit Tigers’ great Hank Greenberg heard the taunts and then had to compete in a season where he was chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record of 60 only to fall short, because pitchers would rather walk him then afford a Jew the opportunity to set a record. Greenberg hit 58 home runs in 1938.

Imagine if Greenberg or Jackson had at their use the social network to tell the world what had happened in real time during their baseball careers. We truthfully didn’t need Facebook or Twitter or anything else to know these were two men of greatness. Robinson received the support of baseball greats like his teammate Pee Wee Reese, who gave Robinson unconditional support. The two are captured as statues outside of MCU Park in Coney Island.

Sadly vandals recently drew swastikas and spray painted racial slurs on the baseball shrine.

I’m glad that Jackie Robinson adopted the “turn the other cheek” rule when it came to racism.

And I respect how other black players have used the power of grace to move forward.

In just a couple of weeks, we have read how Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, was recorded on video using the “N” word at a country music performance.

Now this about a banana hurled at Adam Jones. But hasn’t this also been the summer of Trayvon Martin, something we can never, ever forget. That a young man wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of candy was gunned down, and then his killer found innocent?

I don’t blame the O’s centerfielder at all for making his feelings known. After a summer of George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, Cooper, the vandalism at the Reese, Robinson statue and now a banana thrown at a black ballplayer, I wonder if we really have turned the corner on this conversation.

We keep saying it’s just a handful of knuckleheads. That just doesn’t fly for me anymore.

The race, the hate, it’s got to stop.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here