Suspending Josh Donaldson was easy. Overcoming hateful speech in baseball will be harder. | Opinion
It was no decision at all, really, for Major League Baseball to suspend New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson for his racist name-calling directed at Tim Anderson, for twice calling Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson “Jackie” and inspiring a pair of benches-clearing incidents between the clubs on Saturday.
The paper transaction came Monday, when MLB levied a one-game suspension on Donaldson, a light punishment given the circumstances and context of league discipline.
The ramifications run far deeper, not only in the deep-seated racial conflict baked into the game but also the thinly veiled coded language that frames so much societal discourse – a spectrum that ranges from bullying to virulent racism.
The Donaldson affair uncovered two of the more painful retorts that emerge following pushback against racism, discrimination and sexual violence – that hurtful speech was merely a “joke” and that the instigator was sorry only in the event it offended the recipient.
For the uninitiated, Donaldson and Anderson got sideways with one another during a four-game series at Chicago on May 13, when Donaldson’s aggressive tag on Anderson knocked him off third base during a pickoff attempt. Anderson took exception as teammates, almost disinterestedly, vaulted out of the dugout and jogged in from the bullpen while order was quickly restored.
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The vagaries of the schedule, though, placed the individuals together again a week later in Yankee Stadium, when Donaldson twice baited Anderson with greetings of “Jackie,” an allusion to Anderson likening his desire to diversify Major League Baseball with Robinson’s breaking of its color barrier.
The context-free quote involved is far more widely circulated than the lengthy profile that accompanied it, and according to Donaldson, he’d freely joke with Anderson about the shortstop’s aspirational comparison in subsequent years.
This is where the affair leans into personal recounting and interpretations, a process partially clouded by the fact Donaldson is baseball’s reigning agent provocateur, a slugger lauded for playing with an “edge” yet one who often revels in teetering over it.
Donaldson, for sure, is an equal-opportunity beefer, be it a bat-chucking incident starring Manny Machado, a “sticky-stuff” shouting match with White Sox ace Lucas Giolito or a screaming match with John Gibbons, who at the time was his manager.
Yet a racially insensitive comment is not gamesmanship like a hard tag, or a heel turn by a spikes-high villain in a baseball movie. And there should have been little ambiguity after the aggressive tag incident in Chicago: Whatever the Donaldson-Anderson history, the upcoming series would not be the time for “jokes.” Nor would it be a time to poke the bear, to stir up and incite and, quite possibly, get into the opponent’s head.
Not by dropping a “Jackie.”
Michael Hill, MLB’s executive vice president of on-field operations, said that “regardless of Mr. Donaldson's intent, the comment he directed toward Mr. Anderson was disrespectful and in poor judgment, particularly when viewed in the context of their prior interactions.
“In addition, Mr. Donaldson’s remark was a contributing factor in a bench-clearing incident between the teams, and warrants discipline.”
Donaldson, who was placed on the COVID-19 injured list by the Yankees, is appealing the suspension.
Perhaps that’s just a procedural maneuver to enable him to serve the punishment at an opportune time for his team. Regardless, if equating a person of color with a noted figure sharing their lineage doesn’t strike someone as racist, a remedial course in human relations is necessary. And if Donaldson doesn’t/didn’t realize that such a loaded greeting would vastly differ with a more replacement-level brand of messing with a rival, he deserves some time off to think about that a little more.
More broadly, swaths of society perhaps desensitized by one too many “Pocahontas” cracks either never grasped that concept or choose to ignore it.
The “just kidding” mechanism has been popularized by the very worst of white nationalist bad actors, who freely admit to weaponizing irony to normalize their abhorrent beliefs or spread misinformation. Or making very serious accusations and floating seemingly earnest conspiracy theories only to brand themselves a “performance artist” to wrangle out of legal scrutiny.
Donaldson later came up short in meeting with the media when he said that Anderson “obviously deemed it disrespectful. And look, if he did, I apologize.” While it’s never easy to strike a pitch-perfect tone amid a media inquisition, it was clear to anyone in either clubhouse that Anderson was offended. He had a chance to go a step beyond the “I’m sorry if I offended you” response, another well-worn phrase of the bully.
This isn’t to equate Donaldson with any number of hateful figures. We only know so much of what’s in his heart, his “Jackie” misstep only an obscured window into his soul, just as his gallivanting with teammates of color does not guarantee the makeup of the bones in his body.
Yet in this exchange, it is only Anderson’s feelings that matter. If he turned the other cheek after previous “Jackie” cracks, it doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to anger when he hears it one too many times. His somber postgame recounting was but a glimpse into the discrimination faced by millions of Blacks in the USA, and more specifically the roughly 7% who survive plenty of ugliness on the way up to join the shrinking but proud group that plays in the big leagues.
Anderson and Donaldson grew up separated by just a few hours of Alabama interstate, Anderson in Tuscaloosa and Donaldson in Mobile and Pensacola, Florida. Both overcame significant challenges and trauma to excel in the game and play it at All-Star and MVP levels. That one can so badly misunderstand the other is an indictment of our progress, or lack thereof.
We can only hope Donaldson emerges with a greater understanding after an ugly incident that reminded us of our worst tendencies.