In his 2013 address to the Bishops Academy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, theologian Luis Rivera-Pagán uncovers how Cristoforo Colombo’s rhetoric of (dis)possession was later masked and sanitized as a story of “discovery.” Analyzing a “founding text” in the “literature of imperialism” written by Colombo (Columbus), Rivera-Pagán analyzes the (dis)possession of Caribbean gold and labor, which were the primary goals of the imperial mission in the Caribbean. He also examines how these idolatrous goals were ethically justified by popular theology and purified in the waters of Christian baptism. (Ironically, constructing persons native to the Caribbean as the “idolaters” was the justification for these material-structural agendas or “missions.”)
This analysis is foundational for understanding the colonial, neocolonial and diasporic context of baseball, which has now existed in the Caribbean since the late nineteenth century. Theologian Carmen Nanko-Fernández, in her “Signs of the Times: Not Just A Game,” examines baseball history and critiques the manner in which many ministers and religion scholars mask or sanitize the colonial conflicts inherent to sports, which are important sites of popular culture. Nanko-Fernández contends that sports have real religious significance but that religious meaning should not be ascribed to public sporting “rituals” without first analyzing the social realities of racism, coloniality and neoliberal economics deeply-rooted within modern sports. To ascribe religious meaning without understanding these social realities amounts to a kind of ahistorical ritual studies that merely dissects the collective effervescence produced at public sports gatherings. Nanko-Fernández argues that powerful colonial interests have long used baseball to dispossess or distract “others” who—in turn—use this game and its institutions in their struggle to survive, feed loved ones, and even mobilize anti-colonial pushback. By attending to (neo)colonial domination and the struggle for survival, which are ordinary and often devoid of much effervescence, the religious significance of sports begins to emerge.
Several journalists have argued that the ongoing “scandal” of baseball players using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is really a larger material-structural scandal. David Zirin’s noteworthy sports column, titled “The Edge of Sports,” has referred to Major League Baseball’s “sweatshop” academies in la República Dominicana and has named the ethno-racial elephant in the room: The majority of the fourteen players recently suspended for PEDs are migrant Dominicanos chasing baseball contracts in the heart of American Empire’s entertainment apparatus. (Most of the remaining players are Venezolanos in very similar circumstances.) Despite his column’s title, Zirin’s commentary regularly reveals that exploitation is central to modern sports, not merely at its edge.
While UNICEF reports that half of the children in la República Dominicana live in dire poverty, MLB grooms exploitable youth labor and the gold they produce for team owners. Whereas la República Dominicana comprises about one one-hundredth of one percent (.0014%) of the world’s population, roughly one-third of Minor League Baseball players come from this impoverished nation and 27% of MLB players come from Latin America, commonly arriving to their diasporic destinations via MLB’s “Dominican pipeline.”
Despite countless misdeeds and what many consider a repulsive character, the US-born quarter-billionaire Alex Rodriguez should not be depicted as the face of PEDs in baseball nor should he be considered the main driver in this scandalous situation. In recent weeks, the focus on A-Rod has been an effective diversion tactic in what could have been a sustained conversation about MLB’s idolatrous labor-mining in places like Boca Chica, R.D. Instead, corporate media has fixated upon the power struggle between dueling baseball “superpowers,” much as it does with its coverage of petty spats between the two dominant U.S. political parties. For them, the news that is worthy of dramatization is the three-way power struggle between the highest paid baseball player in history (A-Rod), the wealthiest team in history (the Yankees), and the ownership cartel to which the Yankees belong (MLB).
Similar to the scholars who fabricated Colombo’s “discovery” of the Caribbean, corporate sports media today masks (neo)colonial realities with its glimmering coverage of MLB teams “discovering” Caribbean talent—“diamonds in the rough.” In reality, these men are forced, whether by grave necessity or barbed wire enclosures, to remain in baseball camps where they learn to take steroids in pursuit of the “American Dream.” In this American nightmare, compensation and safety are abysmal, with devastating social consequences for most of the 97% of vulnerable children who enter Dominican baseball academies but never arrive on the MLB stage.
Digging beneath the diversionary headlines, we enable ourselves to hear subaltern athletes speaking and are reminded of the importance of Nanko-Fernández’s interdisciplinary/intersectional research. I look forward to her forthcoming analysis of post-9/11 professional baseball in New York City in her chapter “Ordinary Theologies, Extraordinary Circumstances: Baseball at the Intersections of Faith and Popular Culture” in Recovering 9/11 in New York (Cambridge Scholars Press). I also eagerly anticipate her ¡El Santo! Baseball and the Canonization of Roberto Clemente (Mercer University Press), parts of which she has already previewed in a talk at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Nanko-Fernández reminds us that an idolatrous coloniality and the struggle for life (en conjunto) is not at the edge of sports, popular culture and religion, but at the very heart of our late modern reality.
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