It’s Complicated: BJ Upton and Race

I was asked to write about this topic a month ago and I wanted to make sure I got it right, so here's the end result. Please read with an open mind.

Let's start with a statement we can all admit is true: BJ Upton is disliked by a lot of people in Tampa Bay/St. Pete.  Why is he disliked? Well, that's tough to answer. Rays' fans have had six seasons to find reasons to be frustrated with Upton, so the displeasure with him has grown deep and nuanced. It's the difference between meeting someone for the first time and hating their accent, and splitting up after living with someone for six years. In one instance your anger is shallow, fleeting, and easy to understand; in the other, your anger is the result of a hundred small things. The way they set the table. The way they leave the toothpaste cap unscrewed. The way they leave dishes in the sink. Frustration grows to the point where you can't say why you hate them - you just do.

Over the years, there have been lots of reasons for Rays' fans to get frustrated with Upton. He was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft and made it to the majors in only two seasons at the age of 19. He had all the talent and promise in the world, and he was supposed to be one of the guiding lights for our franchise. Instead, he bounced up and down from the minors and the majors, switching between positions to find someplace he could field competently. He got lumped in with the bad attitudes of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, said some foolish things, and didn't hustle to first on a few occasions. He had an amazing season in 2007 and a fantastic postseason in 2008, but his skill set makes him a player that strikes out a ton and hits for a low average, leaving us fans wanting more. He never plays with emotion; it looks like he's bored on the playing field at times. I mean, if you're going to strike out so much, couldn't you look like you at least care?

All these little details have irked people over the years until now, they're fed up with him...and you know, I can understand that. I don't necessarily agree with it all - I'm a fan of Upton, for better or for worse - but I can understand why people are frustrated with him. He's not the player we were all hoping for back in 2006 and 2007, and watching him strikeout time and time again gets old fast. It's tough not to get frustrated with him at times.

Now we get to the crux of the matter: the race question. Emotions run high when talking about Upton and there have been discussions here and elsewhere about how some of the anger directed at him might be influenced by racism. Whenever you mention this, though, the discussion immediately becomes polarized and futile. You're saying I hate Upton because I'm a racist? Have you not watched the man play?!!? The discussion becomes black and white (horrible pun, I know), when the real discussion is much more nuanced.

No one is saying that race is the reason people dislike Upton. Obviously there are many reasons why, which we've already listed. My point is that his skin color, whether we realize it or not, influences how we view him. Let me explain.

These days, racism is subconscious. Scholars and activists in the area refer to it as "privilege" - or in other words, white people are given certain subconscious privileges that black people and other minorities are not. I like to describe it as, "the benefit of the doubt." When a white person messes up, we don't have to worry about our actions being taken to stand for our race; it's taken as an individual failure. That white person didn't run hard out of the box? Well, let's give him the benefit of the doubt - that wasn't great, but it was probably a mental lapse. It's an individual issue, and does not bring to mind any negative stereotypes.

However, when a black person messes up, stereotypes and racial assumptions are quick to jump to the forefront. Failures are also attributed to character problems as opposed to situational factors. Their failures aren't viewed as individual failures, but instead reinforce the stereotypes that black people are lazy, unintelligent, and more likely to be malcontents. That black person didn't run out of the box? Geez, they don't hustle or play hard - so lazy. It's a character issue.

Don't believe me? Let's go to an example: Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, as we all know, had all the talent in the world when he was drafted, but then fell out of baseball for years due to drug addiction problems. He made a comeback a couple years ago and after his showing in the 2008 Home Run Derby, the national media embraced him with open arms. He became a posterchild for baseball - a shining Christian role model for children to look up to. His years of drug addiction and troubled past were dropped in an instant, and people were willing to embrace that he'd turned a new leaf in his life and become a new person.

What, though, if Hamilton were black? Would fans and the media have been so quick to forget his troubled past, and given him the benefit of the doubt? It's impossible to say because there's no comparable case to look at, but we all know it'd have been different. How much different is open for interpretation, but I don't believe he'd have been treated as such a role model. His accomplishments would still have been praised, but that cloud of his past would have clung tighter to him. He wouldn't have been given the full benefit of the doubt.

That's why I have a problem with people calling BJ Upton lazy. If you don't want to like him, fine, be frustrated with him; there are plenty of reasons to be disappointed with how his career has turned out. However, we don't know if BJ Upton is lazy or not. Do any of us see when he arrives at the stadium each day? Do any of us watch what work he puts in behind the scenes? Were any of us at the private workouts he had with Derek Shelton all off-season? Do any of us know him personally, and know how much he cares about the game? No, we don't. Labeling a person "lazy" is a huge assumption to make, especially when you only know them through a television.

Upton made some poor decisions when he was a young player, not hustling on a couple occasions, and that tag of "lazy" has stuck with him ever since. Does that make you a racist for calling him lazy? No, of course not. I merely ask that you stop and think before you use it again. Are you treating Upton the same way you would a white person in his situation? Would you hold his past against him so much? Would you be so quick to make assumptions about his character? Up until last month, Upton had gone multiple years without an incident of "laziness" and so I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. Every player makes mental mistakes; no player should have to live with them for the rest of their career.

If you're interested to learn more about privilege, I highly recommend these three articles by activist Tim Wise. The last one, about Barry Bonds, is especially interesting.

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