Our nation’s racial history remains treacherous ground. Like any other pile you’d prefer not to step in, it seems to find you when you aren’t paying attention. And wearing sandals.
Two different athletes trod into that territory this week with their words. One is a living legend with a history of choosing his statements carefully. The other is a current NFL player with a University of Florida education. And thus, their respective statements should be viewed with much different lenses even though in some circles both will be accused of the same offense — egregious historical hyperbole.
The first athlete to make waves was Buffalo Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes, who signed with the team this offseason after four years with the Patriots — four years he clearly did not enjoy.
Spikes launched multiple Twitter salvos against his former organization on Wednesday — already a questionable tactic when your new team has gone 3-25 against your former team over the last 14 seasons — but took things about 100 steps too far in the middle of his tirade when he referred to his time in New England as “Four years a slave.”
4 years a slave
— BrandonSpikes51 (@BrandonSpikes51) April 9, 2014
It would appear Spikes was trying to be cheeky, but some jokes are better left on the cutting room floor. Yeah, your boss may be a dick, but so are most people’s. And almost all of them are making less money than you. Unless Brandon Spikes actually lived on a dirt-floor shack during his time in New England, it was a pretty tasteless allusion to make.
Which brings us to the matter of Henry Aaron.
It turns out Hank doesn’t just do his hammerin’ with a bat.
Back when he was chasing Babe Ruth’s career home run record, Aaron endured countless death threats from those who didn’t want him breaking a white man’s record. Absurdly, this was the actual opinion of real people just 40 years ago. So much in life has changed that it seems like multiple eons ago.
Only Aaron opined that things really haven’t changed as much as we think. As we reach the 40th anniversary of Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale did a story Thursday on Aaron keeping the hateful letters that were sent to him during the home run chase, which he explained thusly:
“(I keep them) To remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.
“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.
“The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
That is bringing in the heavy artillery, and it will no doubt be used as counter-fodder by the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world.
“Look at this reverse bigot making baseless claims! I’ve lost so much respect. What a shame,” they’ll thunder.
Yes, Aaron’s comments venture out of bounds. But they are not baseless. Aaron’s error was speaking in absolutes, which always trips up an argument. (Bonus points for noticing “always” is an absolute). Yes, all Republicans are opposed to the president’s policies. And I’d venture to say the majority do so for purely ideological reasons, however flawed some of us may find those reasons to be. At least it’s an ethos. But I also wouldn’t call it an overwhelming majority.
Having lived in the Deep South since the week before Obama’s first election, I’ve seen first-hand that only a fool would believe race does not play a role in the virulence of his opposition. It’s an easy fear to prey upon and pander to for the sake of votes.
Life experience is another massive difference when it comes to assessing the seriousness of Spikes’ words compared to those of Aaron. If not actually an idiot, Spikes at the very least Tweeted something completely idiotic. Aaron said something he truly believes.
When Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama 80 years ago, it was a legally segregated city where being a Klansman was a perfectly respectable item on your resume. Forty years later, we had escaped racism enough to the point where that was a point of shame, but not enough that Hank Aaron could pursue something as benign as a baseball record without being called a jungle bunny and be threatened with death.
In other words, Hank Aaron knows damn well how far we have or haven’t come on the matter of race in this country. While his actual statement smacks of hyperbole, in his eyes they carry the weight of truth. And that makes them something we can’t automatically dismiss.