A few weeks ago, around the time of baseball's All-Star Game, I turned on my favorite show, Pardon the Interruption. Dan Le Batard was on and the subject of Josh Hamilton came up.
Le Batard went a bit off-topic from the question and implied that Hamilton was only a positive story because he was a “white guy.” Generally, I find Le Batard annoying, but this time he got me thinking.
The weekend after the Home Run Derby, a co-worker of mine, who is well aware of the fact that I’m a sports geek, approached me asking if I’d seen the derby. He brought Hamilton to my attention, and explained how great of a story it was in his eyes.
Another co-worker of ours, and a close friend of mine, is a former drug addict. I compared Hamilton to him, and he said, of the other co-worker, “Why do you think I like him so much?”
I, jaw open, collected myself and responded with, “Hamilton is simply what he should have been. Why is it more impressive for someone to dig their own hole and climb back to ground level, than for someone to remain at ground level their whole life?”
In 1999, the year Hamilton was drafted, there was another player drafted in another sport with a virtually identical story. However, the two have been portrayed by the media in an extremely different light.
Ricky Williams, like Hamilton, has battled drug addiction since being drafted fifth overall by the New Orleans Saints.
Williams played his college ball at the University of Texas, and Hamilton currently plays for the Texas Rangers.
Again, like Hamilton, Williams spent time away from football after retiring previous to the 2004 season, and returning in 2005.
Williams and Hamilton both have credited their new found religious practices for their ability to conquer their respective addictions.
Both have been drug tested dozens of times since re-entering their respective sports at the highest level, Williams returning from Canada and Hamilton making the jump from the minor leagues in the Rule Five draft.
The most obvious differences are that Hamilton is a Christian white guy who is performing at an elite level, and he is a former heroin addict. Williams is a black Hindu who is likely past his prime, and he was addicted to marijuana.
Some of the same sanctimonious radio, television, and print personalities that blasted Williams have come from far and wide to praise Hamilton.
Hamilton didn’t spend any of the first seven years of his professional baseball career in the national spotlight, and it is possible that his reception from America’s sports fans is a result of ignorance of him, rather than a more broad ignorance.
However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Williams, like Hamilton in so many ways, is publicly looked down upon, while Hamilton, who fits nearly every Aryan standard is widely accepted.
Williams is atypical. The average American is a Caucasian Christian. Is it really that far-fetched to think that an average American would be made uncomfortable by a black Hindu who took a year off of football to become a yoga instructor?
Or, more importantly, are we, and the media that represents us, really this primitive in the forming of our opinions?
Are we that uncomfortable with religions that aren’t monotheistic? Is recovering from heroin addiction somehow more honorable than recovering from an addiction to marijuana? Or is weed simply the “black man’s drug?”
This is by no means an attempt to build up Ricky Williams. However, Williams has paid for his misdeeds in every possible arena on earth. His wallet, dignity, and public image have all taken major hits in the past half-decade.
Hamilton however, was allowed to essentially recover in hiding, and spent four years away from baseball, when a needle was more important to him than a baseball or bat.
We vilify players who inject steroids and HGH. Last season, Rick Ankiel went from Disney movie to demon with a simple news story.
We make a joke of players who get caught with marijuana in their systems, unless of course, the player fits into the clean, cookie-cutter image we expect from our professional athletes.
Josh Hamilton has broken baseball’s substance abuse policy more times than Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa combined, so what gives?
And to the elephant in the room, who is to say that, while Hamilton was doing drugs, he didn’t load a needle with steroids or HGH?
Of course, it’s irresponsible to speculate on something like that, especially if the player has blonde hair, blue eyes, and a firm belief in Jesus Christ, right?