In Friday’s World Series Game 3 matchup between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers the camera panned into the Astros dugout. What it caught was Astros player Yuli Gurriel making a racially charged gesture where he stretched the ends of his eye-lids across his face with his fingers, mocking the Asian features of Dodger’s pitcher Yu Darvish who he just hit a home run off of. The video quickly went viral and Gurriel eventually issued a tone deaf apology for the gesture. This is coming on the brink of Houston Texans owner making a public statement where he referenced the recent protests in the NFL as the inmates (players) running the prison (league). Texans owner, Bob McNair eventually issued an apology as well. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred rightfully issued Gurriel a 5 game suspension at the start of the 2018 season for his gesture. McNair met with players to express his regret for his misused idiom but it doesn’t seem like his apology has carried much weight based on players reactions from across the scope of sports.
The magnitude of these two incidents are coupled by a tense and polarizing political climate which has spilled over into the sports world. Sports have never been void of political or social influence but it seems that in this very moment the spotlight is shining a bit more intensely across leagues. Neither McNair’s comments or Gurriel’s gesture are truly shocking. McNair parades around with other owners and front office officials who are distanced both in racial/ethnic representation and opinion to the players they serve. Gurriel although Cuban born and a former Japanese League player himself, is not absent of being culturally unaware. Like McNair, it wasn’t too long ago when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was in the forefront of headlines because of his comments about his mistress not being allowed to interact with black people at his games. Similarly to Gurriel, in 2012, Yunel Escobar was suspended for having a Spanish word for “faggot” imprinted on his eye-black. I would be lying if I sat here and addressed these issues as if I was above all of this. Being born and raised in a culturally absent, diversity desert I have found myself commenting or gesturing things that would certainly be offensive. Luckily, my circumstances allowed me to go get educated and travel beyond the small section of the world I grew up in and start to surround myself with peers and mentors who experiences were vastly different from mine. This has undoubtedly molded my more recent perspectives and worldview.
The current debate on matters like this form around a circularly redundant chicken or the egg philosophy. Are we currently living in a world where our hyper sensitivity has placed people in a bubble or has human evolution and awareness brought us to a place where more folks are educated on various matters? There are nuances to both sides of this spectrum in my opinion. In my own coaching experience I often echo sentiments of the former statement and conversely when I hear or see things like Gurriel’s gesture or McNair’s comments I find myself addressing a global lack of respect for others.
From about Kindergarten through the remainder of schooling, two universal statements are ingrained in the brains of our youth. One being the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated and two, the phrase “try walking a mile in someone else's shoes.” These are very simple and effective statements that most everyone can support and understand. This has been put into action by the tremendous acts of charity and fundraising that athletes have recently done for hurricane relief. Led by J.J. Watt in Houston and by countless other athletes doing admirable labor for their homes in Florida or Puerto Rico, athletes across leagues are doing what sport has taught them to do, to care for others. Also, recently Eagles player Chris Long has donated every paycheck this season to organizations that support equity in education. Beyond that we hear stories on a daily basis where athletes travel to hospitals to visit sick children or spend the day with them, surprising them in their homes as they battle chronic illness. There is much beauty in this philanthropy. In our lives as athletes, sport is the vehicle used in order to learn valuable lessons. The singular purpose of being on a team or competing is to enhance your perspective and outlook on life through the lessons you learn. Years later, after our playing days are over we usually don’t think back about a 3rd & 10 conversion, a double play or a three point shot. This is evident by the conversations we’ve had with countless former college athletes here on What’s Next. They dig into the lessons, the brotherhood and sisterhood, the mentors, the teaching moments, the adversity and the “aha-moments”. All of those things are shaping their life right now, their careers and personal relationships with others far beyond the x's and o's. McNair’s statement and Gurriel’s gesture show us that sport more than just the play on the field, in this case for worse. The countless acts of bravery and charity by athletes in the wake of disasters show us that sport is also more than just the play on the field, for the better. Either way, it goes without question that if you’ve walked this path you know, our lives as athletes tell us in convincing fashion that this is all so much more than just a game.
Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column written by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.