The Problem with Colin Cowherd's Comments on Dominican Players


Colin Cowherd veered off into commenting on the complexity of baseball during his radio show on Thursday, specifically about Marlins manager Dan Jennings, who had no previous experience in that capacity when he got the position in May. Cowherd said, “The game is too complex? I’ve never bought into that, ‘Baseball’s just too complex.’ Really? A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime as having world class academic abilities. A lot of those kids come from rough backgrounds and have not had opportunities academically that other kids from other countries have.’’

Last night, Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, who is from the Dominican Republic, took to Twitter to request an explanation of those comments. Later in the evening, USA Today reported that the MLBPA and others within baseball were upset over the comments and lack of response by ESPN (or Fox, since Cowherd is reportedly leaving for that network at the end of his contract a story we broke last week).

This key paragraph suggests that something is going to happen today – either from Cowherd or ESPN. It’s one thing for people on social media or other websites to write about it; it’s another for the sport powers to make threats as broadcast partners.

"The person, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, also said the lack of response from ESPN – and Cowherd’s future employer, Fox, has upset its members just as much as the comments, and they will consider withholding cooperation with the networks. ESPN and Fox are national rightsholders to major league games, and Fox carries its jewel events, the All-Star Game and World Series."

I’m going to set aside any debate over the complexity of baseball, or lack thereof. That’s a subjective argument. Rather, because of comments to posts yesterday and comments received or seen on social media that do not see the issue, I am going to address why the statement about Dominicans is problematic (and yes, I’m violating Dave Lozo’s rule here, but I guess when I get comments, it needs to be said).

Think back, to those who suffered through Logic classes, to the contrapositive. Then consider the following two statements.

If Dominicans can play major league baseball, it’s not complex.

If it’s complex, then Dominicans cannot play major league baseball.

These are logically equivalent statements. If a person is asserting the first as true, then the second must also necessarily be asserted as true as well. And so when Cowherd is saying one, the other is also implied.

Now, go back through the history of sports and race relations and coded language when it comes to being able to master something complex. Substitute things like “black players” and “quarterback,” or “black people” and “manage baseball teams” into similar statements. Those were the constructs that were once used in that logically equivalent second example: if it’s complex, then X cannot do it.

Go listen to Al Campanis basically take the position that managing was complex, thus black former players did not have the “necessities” to be a manager.

Or read articles on what was said once upon a time about black quarterbacks. Here’s one on the Dallas Cowboys signing Reggie Collier in 1986. “The Landry System is complex and getting tougher … But does a black quarterback fit the Dallas system, or the NFL for that matter?” Here’s another from Skip Bayless profiling Doug Williams in 1977 and summarizing the issues at the time: “But the vicious stigma persists; blacks, some believe, don’t think well enough to master intricate NFL offenses or to read the complex defenses.”

It’s that backdrop that makes these broad statements about an entire group of people and complexity of something so troublesome.

But what about the actual data on education in the Dominican Republic?

Yeah, and what about the price of tea in China? What’s it going for these days?

Here’s the problem with that education defense or the status of education in the Dominican. First, it jumps from education to aptitude and ability, which was–I think–the initial discussion on complexity. The aptitude one has for a sport (or vocation) has little to do with the formal education one receives in other areas. More importantly, both of those things may have little to do with overall intelligence. I could not run the electrical wiring in my house, and I would consider trying to do so complex. Did all the electricians who worked on it graduate college? Does that matter in determining their aptitude?

If we cite education data among different groups, we cannot then infer whatever we want, in a broad and stereotyping sense, about the ability of that group to master everything, or about intelligence and ability to master a sport.

Second, it is not okay to justify an over-arching stereotype because there may be some data out there on a class or large group level. If we went back to 1987, data on education percentages by race wouldn’t justify saying that “[member of large group that had overall lower test scores] cannot handle a position because they are a member of that group.”

That the situation in the Dominican may be rough–and you should read Jose Bautista on that to get a picture--doesn’t justify a broad brush on the extremely small number of players who survived that system. According to Bautista, only about 3 percent of those that enter a baseball academy (which is itself a small percentage of the population) will ever reach the major leagues. Those that enter live, breathe, and do nothing but work on mastering the sport, to the detriment of all else. The survivors who advance all the way through to the big leagues had to be better than everyone else to get there, at mastering the sport.

What did Cowherd intend? The education defense is not satisfying–and as we sit here, he’s citing data from the Dominican Republic on the show this morning. I don’t think he intended to equate formal education to innate intelligence. I don’t believe he was making that statement, and was in inartful while communicating within a medium where one speaks extemporaneously. But to get to the initial comment about how the sport isn’t complex, citing the percentage of players from the Dominican, one must make that logical leap. Otherwise, citing education data is irrelevant. We wouldn’t cite differing group and class education rates in this country as evidence of who could handle the complexities of a sport. (and hey, there’s data out there, folks, from the Census Bureau, Department of Higher Education, etc). Going outside this country doesn’t change it.

The initial statement certainly appears disparaging, regardless of the intent. That’s my explanation for why it’s troublesome, though my opinion has no sway. If ESPN is getting pressure from MLB, as has been reported, that’s the only opinion that matters.