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Brandon Phillips, hustling and race

May 6, 2010, 2:13 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote a post in which I slammed Brandon Phillips for his “lack of hustle” when he failed to run hard out of the batters’ box.  And, objectively speaking, he did show a lack of hustle on the play in question. Rob Iracane of Walkoff Walk noticed my use of the phrase, however, and today he makes an excellent point about it:

[T]here is no reason to call out any single writer for leaning too hard
on this simple, cliched phraseology. Nor is there any evidence that
points to any single writer being a closet racist. Still, the evidence
is vast: whenever the phrase “lack of hustle” is used, chances are
the player is black or Latino. This is disturbing! . . .

. . . Brandon Phillips is human, and when he erred, he showed it. I was not
inside Brandon’s head when he smashed that baseball, but does anyone
really think he thought, “Darn, I’m tired! Let me just trot a bit here
so as not to exert too much energy!” No, he didn’t run it out; perhaps
it was half hubris and half misjudgment. But to attack his character
with that horrid phrase smacks of prejudice.

In my defense, I wasn’t attempting to make a character judgment about Brandon Phillips. I was simply describing the undeniable fact that, on that particular play, he did not run it out like players should. What was in his mind or his heart I have no idea. I think he misjudged the shot and thought he’d admire it a bit.

But as Rob notes, the terminology of “hustling” is problematic and loaded. Indeed, Rob points out that an analysis of news articles which reveals that “lack of hustle” is a term used almost exclusively to describe black and Latino players, never whites.

This is something of which I’ve long been aware. Nyjer Morgan hustles more than just about anyone I’ve seen, and he’s
never described as someone who hustles. I’ve witnessed Aubrey Huff and Travis Hafner dog it down the line on multiple occasions and neither I nor anyone else I can recall have accused them of “lack of hustle.” Multiply this across the players and the years and, in the aggregate, the selective deployment of the term “hustle” has had the effect of reinforcing bad old stereotypes
about minorities being lazy.

This is not to say that the concept of “hustling” is now some third-rail, politically incorrect thing. Even I’m not that big a sensitive lefty weenie to think that (and I’m a pretty sensitive, pretty left weenie).  But I think that it’s probably worth thinking about how we use the term.

It’s one thing to say that someone did or did not hustle on a given play because they either did or they didn’t.  But it’s something else to say someone, generally speaking, hustles or does not hustle, because that’s a character judgment — a very subjective one, actually, that is usually not easily verifiable nor based on much evidence at all. And, as Rob empirically demonstrates, it’s one that leads inevitably to the land of racial stereotype.

After reading Rob’s post and thinking about it all, I’m mad at myself for using the phrase “lack of hustle.” Not because it was necessarily inaccurate in that particular instance, but because it’s prone to being misused and I don’t really feel like participating, however unwittingly, in the perpetuation of that kind of baloney.

  1. Charles Gates - May 6, 2010 at 7:32 PM

    Craig, good work on this post. I admire your ability to take accountability. It seems as if the people arguing against you don’t disagree with your original post, but are more so tired of the constant race colored lenses we unfortunately view the world through and want someone to take a stand against it. While I also want someone to say ‘Just because I criticize someone of a protected race doesn’t mean I’m racist,’ it’s even more important to make sure that one does not perpetuate anything that gives weight to the intolerant parts of society, consciously or otherwise.
    I don’t think you said anything inappropriate in the original piece, but at the same time I don’t believe clarification is out of order either.
    That being said (I always thought that phrase is unnecessary…I mean, I’ve obviously already said it), since we’re bringing up race, imagine what the public reaction would have been if the kid that got tased had a, shall we say, darker complexion than the cop who tased him?

  2. Moses Green - May 7, 2010 at 4:55 AM

    Words matter, thank you for being thoughtful and straightforward, Craig. I will try to channel your self-control the next time I feel like setting my keyboard to fully automatic.
    Strangely, this thread has explained a lot to me about the mindset of some of the windmills I’ve tilted at, and I now find myself unconcerned with their inability to discern between the many different shades of gray. Some managed to take offense on your behalf since you were called a racist. Oops, that’s right, no one ever called you that.
    Where people once took pride in being an American, they now seem to take prahd in bein Mare-ih-ken. Mocking others for reading, caring, and for buying into the hopey-changey thing. Blaming literally all of the ills of the world on liberalism. Not that there are problems that liberals among others are pointing out, but that they actually are the problem; i.e., remove all liberals – no more problems.
    People are proud of the strangest things. Aggressively ignorant, and proud of it. I wonder if they’re also proud when they take a crap. Where do you draw the line when you’re proud of being ignorant and loud about it?

  3. Rays fan - May 8, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    Interesting piece, Craig. I know I’m late to this party, but I’ve been away. I’m right of center politically, but social sensitivity to me isn’t (or shouldn’t) be a political issue. I understand and agree with most of your post, but do feel one point should be made…when you’re mad at yourself because never thought of how what you wrote could be misconstrued, it’s also the very proof of your innocence in meaning any harm/racial profiling.

  4. MikeD - May 15, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    So…does that mean a reporter can no longer use the term “lack of hustle,” unless it’s in reference to a white player?
    Craig, if you were doing a re-write, what words would you now use to describe the incident?
    I have frequently pointed out that there are racist terms used to describe both black and white players that are insulting to both. When Robinson Cano is described as gifted, but at times unfocused, and Pedroia is described as gritty and a hustler, both are insulted and minimized. It implies that Cano doesn’t work hard, which is entirely not true, and it implies that Pedroia’s athletic skills are somehow lesser than Cano’s, which is also not true. Pedroia has more consistent command of the strike zone, better foot speed and better range at second base. Pedroia is probably helped more as a hitter by his park, meaning Cano is the stronger hitter, but when evaluating both players, I’d put Pedroia slightly ahead of Cano when rating the entire package.
    Which player is really insulted more by the the desctiptions given to them?

  5. Biff Tandem - May 16, 2010 at 11:39 PM

    We should also remember that good athletes are graceful and don’t often look like they’re working hard, when in fact, they are going 100%. David Eckstein isn’t that fast, but because he makes weird facial expressions and pumps his arms like a madman people think he’s working hard. Which he is. I would compare Eckstein to redlining it in a Geo Metro: it’s making a lot of noise, but you’re still not going to be faster than the Honda Civic.
    Another problem is how analysts always compare players based on race. They’ll say about Prince Fielder: he’s the next Willie Stargell. Or how Chase Headley is the next Chipper Jones. Why can’t James Loney be the next Don Mattingly? I will give Joe Morgan credit for comparing Ryan Braun to Hank Aaron.
    Also, look at how the media portrayed Cecil Fielder compared to John Kruk. They said Fielder would eat himself out of the game. Whereas Kruk: that’s just who he is. He’s “old school”!

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