A Giants fan chucked a banana at Adam Jones. Riley Cooper threatened, emptily and boozily, to "fight every n*****" at a Kenny Chesney concert. The Jackie Robinson statue outside the Brooklyn Cyclones' MCU Park was spray-painted with a swastika and the words "die n*****." Sometimes it's best to state the grisly facts in plain terms, because these sorts of acts don't require context or explanation. Either you understand them as hateful acts, or you don't.
This is different, as incisively pointed out by SBNation's David Roth, than understanding that people will be upset with you if you decide to be a pedant or apologist about these sorts of things -- to parse meaning, quibble over intent and generally just try to find any possible way to construe a bigoted act as anything but. If you're doing this, it means you are building thought-puzzles from the elements of a despicable act and enjoy arguing for no reason, or you're line-stepping for the sake of line-stepping, or you're entirely too hung up on why you shouldn't use a small handful of terms. Or you're a disingenuous ass.
We seem to never have these fraught conversations, for example, when an athlete flips off a crowd. There is usually no close examination of camera angles so as to determine that, yes, indeed, I believe that is a middle finger being extended to a pocket of fans in Row F. When Kevin Garnett (allegedly) told Charlie Villanueva he looked like a cancer patient, there was no whining about how those suffering through cancer are too thin-skinned. I've never once heard anyone argue that a sophomoric fan's behind-home-plate blowjob pantomime routine could "in a vacuum" be construed as non-sexual, and yet "n*****" seems to get twisted around every which way, in an attempt to make it not mean exactly what it means. Specious logic is the last bastion of cowards who know they are wrong.
Alexander Poulides, the man who says he hurled a banana in Adam Jones's direction, is likely one such coward. He wasn't trying to racially defame Jones, he says, but was actually, funnily enough, frustrated with the Giants' performance and whipped the nearest piece of whatever -- a fruit maybe, a yellow one, in fact -- toward the field of play. It's not that Poulides' version of events is outside the realm of possibility, but we have no substantive reason to believe him. That a bigoted-seeming act, which involved multiple steps -- obtaining a banana, throwing the banana, having the banana land near a black man -- and, one would think, some degree of malice aforethought, could turn out to be a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style perfect storm of misunderstanding is not terribly plausible. It's a lot more likely Poulides did something deeply insensitive.
Proving beyond all doubt Poulides' intention is impossible and should not be anyone's job. Only he knows what he did and why, and he will reckon with whatever or whomever he needs to about that. At any rate, whether or not Poulides is among them, people have thrown bananas onto fields of play -- European soccer pitches, usually -- in an attempt to degrade athletes of African descent. They have chosen to do so from amongst crowds, presumably because doing that sort of thing ten feet away from and in plain sight of Adam Jones or Didier Drogba could adversely affect one's cranial integrity.
The same principle probably guided Riley Cooper when he employed a racial slur in the company of a nearly all-white audience, and whatever creep defaced a Jackie Robinson statue in the dead of night operated in accordance with that same depressing rule: Racism flourishes where it seems like it might be acceptable. This makes all but the most virulent racists cowards.
Sports provide a comfortable home for cowards, racist or otherwise. People feel empowered to yell some reprehensible things while ensconced in a pack of like-minded fans. Hollering, for instance, something derogatory about someone's spouse doesn't carry the same baggage as a racial epithet, but I think we can agree it's mean and unnecessary. If one were to collect the nasty things shouted at and written about A-Rod or LeBron James over the course of their respective careers, you'd have a coffee table book delineating a grim history of sports-hate, lapsing into something that looks and sounds a lot like genuine, frothing hostility. Sports fandom can be an exercise in playful antipathy, but it can also be something a lot darker and more unpleasant than that.
The idea of sports as a safe place is generally a positive thing. A hobby that allows you to care deeply about something is something to cherish. By all means, lounge about the sofa and watch a ballgame. Lose an afternoon mulling over your fantasy football lineup. Dive into a lengthy profile on one of your favorite athletes. This is all good and, most importantly, feels good to do. But sports are not separate from the outside world, in the same way that you are not separate from your fandom. Sports are a cultural institution, big business, and a thing involving human beings as both participants and spectators. Sports do not get to be unreal. We cannot afford to treat them as such.
Yet for reasons that are either escapist or more insidious, we are permissive of actions and attitudes in sports that we would otherwise deem unacceptable. An act of racism is a transgression too severe for most people to condone, even implicitly, but it is okay to be excessively argumentative, hollowly incensed, brutish, rude and stupid. ESPN's television wing sees sports as a forum for endless, swelteringly idiotic debate. Bleacher Report conceives of it as a series of eminently clickable rankings to disagree about. Grumpy writers the world over see it as an opportunity to complain about the universe not conforming to their expectations. As that previously mentioned Roth article notes, Twitter can be fertile ground for equivocating prigs, but it can also function as a window into the harrowing inner lives of anger-drones, who seem to spend every game they watch waiting for someone or something at which to spray their miserable invective.
All of this cultivates and abets a disgusting, man-child's rage, which I'm sure wasn't prevalent but also wasn't exactly hard to find at AT&T Park on Sunday afternoon. Doubtless, people besides Poulides were throwing temper tantrums -- albeit lacking a racial element -- as the Orioles dismantled the Giants. These are people for whom sports matter too much. They want so badly for sports to be a fantasy -- which they're not, as any Royals, Timberwolves or Browns fan can tell you -- that they feel entitled to act out when their teams disappoint them.
People do stupid things in the thrall of this childish fury. They break remote controls, snap at other people sitting in the room with them, take to Twitter to cuss out a beleaguered closer. They don't usually commit acts of bigotry, however. That comes from a special blend of prejudice and anger. But some of them berate athletes from behind barriers, throw batteries at their heads. The worst of them, to hear them tell it, might toss a banana onto the field, mistakenly near a black player, claiming a banana was the only thing at hand. Or rather -- in reality, where acts of racism are actual things that occur on a daily basis -- they'll whip a banana in a black player's direction out of a helpless desire to hurt his feelings. They'll do this because they're racists -- not the cross-burning or Nazi rally type, but the type that want to elevate themselves above a group of different-looking people just because they're mad about a game.
The saddest and most frustrating element of all this is how unnecessary it feels. Part of that is because all bigotry -- as much as we might wearily accept its resilience -- feels fundamentally unnecessary. We can only do so much, but acknowledging that sports matter in a sociological sense -- that they're a reflection of cultural attitudes and mores, not solely an excuse to indulge our most juvenile impulses -- is, at least, a start.
This doesn't mean that we need to inject politics at every turn, but that we treat sports with the seriousness they deserve (although, sure, not all the time -- everyone loves a GIF of a hockey player haplessly skating into the boards). We just need to conduct ourselves as adults, and when we fall short of that, own up to our mistakes. If we don't conceive of sports as a sort of red light district for obnoxiousness -- if we are not cowards, lobbing whatever awful things through whatever available channels -- sports will then become a less hospitable place for contemptible acts and contemptible people.
Frequently, when a fan or athlete does something reprehensible, it's an opportunity for sports media types to harangue whoever's involved, with a tone that suggests this is very grave business, and language that details, in so many words, how deeply unacceptable such-and-such actions are. But then the A-block is over or the column is finished, and we go back to not examining why these events happen in the first place -- as if being upset with racists, misogynists and homophobes is the best and only thing we can do. Some bigots are beyond help, but the environment in which they operate is not. That much we can change.