William C. Rhoden can be an intelligent, thoughtful writer. (His book Forty Million Dollar Slaves bravely covered the inequities even well-compensated African-American athletes face in professional sports.) But judging from his New York Times column on Saturday, we don’t think he’s talked to an actual sports fan outside of the press box in years.
Rhoden starts his column with the idea that Major League Baseball should pass a rule making Manny Ramirez ineligible for the All-Star Game — while admitting that this would be impossible. Then he leaps to his real point: that you, the fan, can’t be trusted with the Sacred Game of Baseball. The problem isn’t Manny Ramirez at all: it’s you, being so irresponsible that you would vote Ramirez into the All-Star game in the first place. And now it’s time to go to bed without your supper. He writes, “Take away their All-Star voting rights: that’s a message fans will understand.”
Now, the most recent National League All-Star voting update shows that Ramirez is actually falling behind in the balloting. Rhoden, therefore, is proposing that fans should be punished for voting in a performance-enhancing–drug user even if they have not, in fact, voted in a performance-enhancing–drug user.
Rhoden also introduces the notion that fans make silly starting-lineup choices, rendering the All-Star game more of a joke. This is ridiculous. The managers treat the game like a middle-school exhibition, making sure everyone gets a chance to play, lest anyone’s mommies become angry. (He also overinflates the importance of home-field advantage, something not even players cite as a reason the game should “matter.”)
The real problem is Rhoden’s infuriating paternalism: He sees sports fans as unruly children who can’t be trusted with the nice china. “Fans are not in business of sending moral messages,” he writes, as if this were a problem, as if fans watched sports to pass some sort of moral judgment on the players rather than drink a few beers, scream at the television, and generally escape from life for a few hours. For years, particularly when it comes to steroids and the like, sportswriters have been criticized for turning athletics into an ongoing morality play. Fans are tired of the witch hunts, and just want to return to enjoying games, minus all the noise.
According to Rhoden, fans needs to have their All-Star voting rights taken away so that we will learn our lesson and not let the bad men into the Big Important Game. Never mind that fans pay Rhoden’s salary, and Manny Ramirez’s salary, and Joe Torre’s salary, and, heck, my salary: We shouldn’t be “allowed” to choose who plays in a game that, for 76 years, has existed purely as an exhibition for fans?
If you are voting for Manny Ramirez for the All-Star Game, you shouldn’t have your hand smacked with a ruler. Voting for the All-Star Game is the one public acknowledgment of fans’ power that MLB gives us. It’s our game. Not theirs; not his.