The Baltimore Orioles pummeled the San Francisco Giants 10–2 Sunday afternoon, but all was not well for one Orioles player. After the game, O’s star Adam Jones tweeted that a San Francisco fan tossed a banana at him while he was playing centerfield during Sunday’s game.
There’s no video of the incident, but it seems improbable that Jones, who is black, would make it up out of thin air. The Giants said they didn’t hear reports during the game but will investigate video footage of the final inning to verify Jones’ claim.
Banana-throwing is still maddeningly common in sports like European soccer, but such explicit displays of racist behavior are largely absent from American games now. That’s obviously a good thing, but while we can’t stop every idiot fan who wants to do something stupid, we also shouldn’t allow the rarity of incidents like this to obscure the fact that racism toward black athletes still manifests itself in different ways quite often. After Jones tweeted about the incident, for instance, Twitter users questioned whether it was racially motivated or if it was just regular heckling, as if bananas are common ballpark cuisine along the lines of beer, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. Other black athletes have faced similar backlash on social media, where the n-word is still aimed at them in depressingly common fashion: after he scored a game-winning goal in the playoffs two years ago, fans showered NHL player Joel Ward with the racial slurs.
As I wrote last week, the progress we have made on racism in sports shouldn’t goad us into pretending that sports are somehow a safe space in a racially divided society. Wealth and fame doesn’t eliminate the ways black athletes are perceived and treated differently on and off the field than their white teammates, as reactions after Trayvon Martin’s death and other off-field incidents have shown us. Banana-tossing may be an outlier, but it’s still a result of already-existing biases, not an incident totally divorced from reality. Pretending otherwise makes it easy to avoid acknowledging the ways in which racism and racial differences still affect African-Americans, both athletes and not. Those acknowledgements are being made and those conversations are being had in the black community and in black publications like Ebony. But they need to be had in broader society too, and sports can be a vehicle to make that happen. By examining and acknowledging the ways in which racism and racial differences affect Adam Jones and Dwyane Wade and other athletes — people who seem to have “made it” and who certainly don’t seem disadvantaged by race or class or anything else — sports can hopefully help expand the conversation about how those differences affect black men and women who aren’t Adam Jones and Dwyane Wade too.