In a year that forever intertwined sports and politics, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers met in the World Series. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the United States; Dodger Stadium sits mere miles from the nation’s most celebrated Koreatown and one of its largest Chinatowns. Houston, meanwhile, has transitioned from an oil boomtown into a vibrant mélange of white, black, Vietnamese and Latino, with an Indian population of over 90,000. None other than the Los Angeles Times, well before the cities' teams would run into each other, declared Houston “the most diverse place in America.” It is said to have the third-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the country.
And on one unusual Friday, Houston became the epicenter of two different racial controversies gripping the sports world. Somehow, Major League Baseball, long a champion of its own diverse and international game, more or less forgave the laziest form of racial insensitivity.
The firestorm started with ESPN’s bombshell report of the NFL owners’ meetings. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who is adamant that all players should stand for the national anthem, said that “you can’t let the inmates run the prison” in reference to the widespread protests from NFL players. Then, during Game Three of the World Series, Astros first baseman Yulieski Gurriel was picked up on cameras making a slant-eyed gesture and mouthing the term chinito (a common Spanish phrase referring to Asian people) after hitting a home run off of Dodgers starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was born in Japan to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother.
Both of these moments have forced the sports-consuming public to grapple with what is racist, what is ignorance, and whether perpetrators should be given a break if, as both McNair and Gurriel claimed, they “didn’t mean to offend.” McNair has issued multiple apologies, both publicly and to his players, and after star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins missed practice on Friday—reportedly in reaction to McNair’s comments—all the Texans are expected to travel to their Sunday game against the Seattle Seahawks. Gurriel apologized after the game and was issued a five-game suspension for the 2018 season by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Gurriel will not, however, miss any World Series games. Manfred argued that it would be “unfair to punish the other 24 players” for Gurriel’s actions.
McNair’s comment, an altered edition of the common idiom “you can’t let the inmates run the asylum,” was an assertion that the owners, not the players, should be allowed to dictate what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior on the field. It summarized his discomfort with the players taking the spotlight away from football by participating in a gesture that personally offends him. The 79-year-old’s defense was that he was simply using a common expression, and that he was not intentionally referring to his own players or the players of the NFL as "inmates." But McNair’s comment, even if you give him the benefit of the doubt, is astonishingly tone-deaf and reeks of ignorance.
NFL players are kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick to increase awareness of police brutality against African Americans. Implicitly within that protest is the existence of mass incarceration of African American men. Even those staunchly opposed to players kneeling, and those who believe that police brutality and mass incarceration are exaggerated or false, are aware by now of what is motivating the protest; players have repeatedly explained and written about their reasons for kneeling. McNair’s flippant comment showcased a willful ignorance of why players are protesting in the first place. That those players play an often violent sport that enriches McNair only magnifies his lack of sensitivity.
For better or worse, the conversation surrounding McNair’s comment indicates that there’s some incremental progress regarding what kind of comment is racially insensitive and what isn’t. Instead of being shrugged off as a slip of the tongue, the tangible effects of powerful figures' comments and how they can affect others are being recognized. If that provides little solace for those who were referred to as “inmates,” perhaps, at least, the public discourse accompanying the controversy increases awareness. It could be a small net benefit from an ugly situation.
And then came Gurriel’s gesture—the kind of old-fashioned naked racism that should have been abandoned generations ago. Gurriel’s slant-eyed gesture, mocking Darvish’s facial features, is one that most people of Asian descent have likely seen or experienced at some point. The Spanish National Basketball team made the gesture before the Bejiing Olympics in 2008. The Serbian women’s volleyball team did it at the 2017 World Championships. It’s old, it’s tired, it’s reminiscent of political cartoons from the Russo-Japanese War. It’s offensive by any standard. Some writers, like L.A. Times columnist Dylan Hernandez, partially defended Gurriel, writing that the gesture is “made with less vitriol” in Cuban and Latin American culture than in the United States. Even if that's true, that logic would make ignorance an acceptable defense for racial insensitivity.
This should have been an easy decision for Major League Baseball. Even if Gurriel meant no offense, there is no defense of his actions as appropriate. By suspending him for one World Series game, the league could have delivered a message that in today’s ever-diversifying sport, there is never room for racist gestures. It could have positioned itself as the league at the forefront of racial progress.
Instead, Manfred deemed it unfair to punish Gurriel’s teammates for his actions. The comissioner also cited Darvish’s reaction to the controversy—the pitcher argued that it was disrespectful and merited disciplinary action, but was quick to forgive Gurriel—as reason for not suspending the first baseman. By being compassionate instead of angry, Darvish may have saved Gurriel’s spot in the Game Four lineup.
If any player made gestures mimicking an ape toward a black player in the World Series, would Manfred have postponed the suspension like he did Gurriel’s? None of us can know the answer to that question for certain, but it seems unlikely. By offering such a limp response to a deliberate mocking of an Asian man’s physical characteristics, Manfred helped normalize all-too-common and too-often-ignored racism towards Asians.
He also set a cringeworthy and disappointing precedent: If you want to mock somebody’s race or physical features, make sure you do so during a big game. That way you won’t get suspended.
The nation’s most underappreciated melting pot hosted two distinct conversations about race in sports. One forced us to grapple with the uncomfortable racial power dynamics of the nation’s most popular sport. The other was more direct: a man making a slant-eyed gesture at his Japanese opponent.
And yet the second guy may get off easiest.