Friday, February 01, 2008

A disturbing background check

Yesterday, Jesse Jackson stepped into the fray surrounding Major League Baseball's ill-fated "background checks" on their umpires. As Jackson pointed out, the checks, which involved Tom Christopher, the supervisor of security and investigations, asking neighbours of umpires if the umpires belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, were highly problematic from the beginning and further perpetuated the racial issues that continue to occur in sports.

"Major League Baseball has done a disservice to its progressive social history by equating southern whites with white supremacists," Jackson said in a statement. "I am surprised the professional league which helped change social attitudes in all sports leagues about segregation, by championing Jackie Robinson, would make such a destructive move. ... In a year with the injustice of Jena Six, nooses hung around the country and the Tiger Woods-Golfweek scandal, Major League Baseball's false impersonations of friendships and ill-contrived questions further press sensitive racial stereotypes, with no basis for suspicion. They have essentially defamed their people in their own neighborhoods."

The question that needs to be asked is who in MLB thought it would be necessary to ask about Klan membership? In the 21st century, is the Klan still a significant enough organization that the question is even somewhat reasonable? My vote is for no, but I could be wrong. The Anti-Defamation League estimates there's about 5,000 members and associates of the Klan in the States, which is a tiny 0.00002 percent of the 303 million people living there (thanks U.S. Census Bureau). The odds that any given person is a Klansman are ridiculously low, so it certainly has no relevance as a general question in a background check. The other problem is that the Klan is pretty far underground these days, for very good reasons: people would be ostracized if they were found to be members. Thus, no one is likely to go around burning crosses and wearing bedsheets in full view of their neighbours. The only way I could see this question possibly turning up something is if umpires' neighbours are as bad as Gordie Howe's.

I used to be an umpire myself (for five years), so I have a lot of respect for the job they do: it's one of the toughest in sports, as everyone usually winds up hating them (and if both sides hate you equally, you know you're doing your job). As World Umpires Association spokesman Lamell McMorris said (appropriately enough, from India, where he was taking part in tributes to Mohandas K. Ghandi: clearly the actions of a racist Klansman), this sort of incompetence on the part of MLB makes all umpires look bad, and leaves suspicions in the neighbours' minds where none were before.

"We did not anticipate that they would approach neighbors posing as a close colleague and friend of the umpire's and asking them questions such as: Do you know if umpire 'X' is a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Does he grow marijuana plants? Does he beat his wife? Have you seen the police at his home? Does he throw wild parties?" McMorris said. To try to link our umpires to the Ku Klux Klan is highly offensive. It is essentially defaming the umpires in their communities by conducting a very strange and poorly executed investigation. It resembles kind of secret police in some kind of despotic nation."

Baseball has really screwed up on this one. They should admit their error, and apologize, which they still haven't done. This is bad timing for them, as they're still dealing with the wake of the Mitchell Report and the subsequent congressional hearings. So far, the party line has been "It's all right, we may have been incompetent for most of a decade, but everything's in good hands now!" (see Bud Selig's contract extension). As this story shows, it's more than just the steroids issue that's been mismanaged. John Hirschbeck, WUA president, summed this up nicely in the Associated Press story. "Once again, baseball's favorite way of doing things: Ready, fire, aim."

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