The MLB has found itself in a place it never wanted to be: the center of a debate about politics in sports.
These days, the political climate has invaded most sectors of American life, and the sporting world is not immune to that reality. But, while political discussion have become commonplace in the NFL and NBA, professional baseball has largely avoided such controversies. From Black Lives Matter to the rise of Trump, as long as you don’t count Curt Schilling (which I never do), the major league has been largely silent on every issue.
This is the basis for a piece ESPN’s Jayson Stark
wrote on Feb 28.
The article, titled “With nation deeply divided, MLB’s silence speaks volumes“, Stark claimed there was a stifling culture of silence in major league baseball, and for that he reaped the whirlwind.
We’ll get into the critical response in a moment, but let’s start by examine the situation. The most important comment most likely came from Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Baseball. Manfred told Stark:
“[MLB has] never been an impediment to players expressing whatever political point of view they wanted to express. And that will continue to be the policy of baseball as long as I’m the commissioner… But I do believe that our sport, with the way people feel about our sport and the spot that it occupies in our culture, is related to the fact that we are a symbol of inclusion. We became that because of the Jackie Robinson experience. And we work very hard to maintain that symbolism. Everything we do in the community, all of our efforts with youth, has a focus that we try to include people of all races, colors, socioeconomic backgrounds.
We believe that we make a statement every day, when we put out a product that’s amazingly diverse on the field, made up by the best players in the world, and continue to have our ballparks be a haven where people can go, no matter what issues are weighing on their minds, and escape by watching what I regard as the best entertainment available.”
Essentially, Manfred is saying they want to showcase diversity in action rather than talk about it. That’s a valid goal; unfortunately, the diversity Manfred is talking about has steadily declined in recent years
. The percentage of black baseball players (8.5%) is now almost equal to the percentage of black baseball viewers (9%). That means the MLB has roughly half as many African American players as they had in the mid-80’s.
To put that in perspection:
Now, that’s not as bad as the NHL, where 93%
of the players are white and 54% of them are Canadian, but it’s not exactly the picture of diversity that Commissioner Manfred was attempting to paint.
It is worth mentioning that the MLB is the only major-market sport in the United States where the percentage of white players is close to the percentage of white people in country’s general population (63% in 2013
). The rest of the demographics are also represented similarly (within ≈10%) to how they are in the population; which means, while baseball isn’t as diverse as the commissioner claims, it’s roughly as diverse as the United States are in general.
The same cannot be said for baseball’s viewers. In 2013, a breakdown of MLB’s viewer demographics
showed that 83% of MLB viewers are white, 70% of them are men, and 50% of them are over the age of 55. Essentially, major league baseball fans are mostly old white men
Now, if the rumors of baseball’s dwindling popularity
have not been greatly exaggerated, the league has good reason to avoid alienating their audience through politics. As you may have heard, old white men
are the group most often targeted by the fabled “social justice warriors”, so any move in that direction could only serve to hurt their viewership. Does that justify a culture of silence? That’s debatable… Maybe not that interesting, but definitely debatable.
What I do find fascinating, however, is how much attention Stark’s relatively benign piece seemed to get from major media outlets.
David Harsanyi, of the National Review
and The Federalist,
responded to the piece with an article
called: “Baseball Won’t Change Politics, But Politics Will Definitely Ruin Baseball
“. In his response, Harsanyi claims that:
“Baseball already proves that rural whites, Hispanic immigrants, African Americans, northeastern Yankees can all live and play on a team, pull together, aspire to greatness, and make vast amount of money in the process. The ability of diverse people to live peacefully under a free system is the American ideal. Demanding unanimity of opinion is not. In many ways we still have the former. The latter is what tears us apart.”
His belief was echoed in a post by David Whitley of The Orlando Sentinel.
Whitley decried “the notion that [athletes taking political stands] will ‘raise awareness’ and magically cure what’s ailing America”, writing:
“I don’t want to turn on ESPN and hear the same stuff we get ad nauseam on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. That doesn’t mean sports should divorce itself from the real world… but the lack of “awareness” is hardly the problem.
… athletes are free to express their opinions. But these days that just leads to people calling each other racists, snowflakes, Nazis and libtards…Sports used to be an escape, but now the social-justice warriors want every channel of American life to be political.”
Of course, Warner Todd Huston of Breitbart
took that opinion one step further, claiming:
“The saturation of politics in sports has also affected sports organizations outside the big professional leagues. ESPN, for instance, has been losing up to 10,000 subscribers a day as the cable network continues its drive toward left-wing politics. Customers of the sports cable network grew so upset and vocal about the liberal politics infused with its sports coverage that the network’s ombudsman felt it necessary to investigate the complaint. “
Of course, neither of Huston’s accusations, that ESPN is becoming increasingly liberal or that this perceived bias is driving away viewers, have been proven. In fact, they seem to be mostly based off an op-ed by Jim Brady
chastising ESPN as a whole for expressing what he “believes” to be an “identifiable political stance”. Brady bases that claim off ESPN giving an award to Caitlyn Jenner and then choosing to relocate an event to a venue that wasn’t affiliated with Donald Trump. He also quotes a few conservative Disney/ESPN staffers who’ve said they feel like a minority at the company. These are all things that are worth considering, but they’re hardly concrete evidence of some vast liberal conspiracy.
Slightly less subjective is Brady’s claim that ESPN has been receiving more frequent political emails and complaints over the past few years. That statement is completely believable; but it should be noted that Brady clearly stated that the emails are coming from both liberal and conservative viewers. Specifically, he said: “liberals tend to be critical of ESPN’s positions on specific issues, [but[ when the subject comes to broader political bias, the complaints come from conservatives.”
Now, once that thought was filtered through the Breitbart translator, it became “ESPN has become far too liberal” and then used to justify why “ESPN has been losing 300,000 subscribers a month on average”.
Of course, as most people probably know, cable subscriptions are down across the board. According to SNL Kagan
, “812,000 U.S. customers canceled their pay TV subscriptions” in the second quarter of 2016 alone. This is mostly due to people getting their content online and it has nothing to do with politics. Knowing that fewer people are signing up for cable packages in general, it stands to reason that ESPN is being impacted as well.
Another factor factor that’s contributing to the network’s decline, in order to cut costs and stay competitive, many cable providers are now allowing people to opt-out of ESPN
, an option that wasn’t previously available.
Of course, there may be some people who unsubscribed from ESPN specifically due to politics, but there’s no real evidence that this has had a major impact on their subscription numbers (it’s the old “correlation ≠ causation” chestnut). In fact, if this is proof of anything, it’s proof that Breitbart likes to misrepresent data.
The truth is, Bryce’s ESPN op-ed claiming there’s too much political discourse in sports is no more valid than Stark’s op-ed claiming baseball players should be more politically active. These are both valid opinions. Does that mean more baseball players should talk about politics? No. Does it mean fewer athletes should talk about politics? No.
If there really is an imposed “culture of silence” in baseball, I think that’s sad, but mostly just because it makes baseball look incredibly weak and vulnerable. On the other hand, maybe the baseball community just isn’t that politically inclined. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never really been much of a baseball fan.
While I can understand the urge conservatives seem to have for a politics-free “safe space”, part of the issue is that, for many people, life is inherently political. If you’re directly affected by a new tax or a travel ban, you’re more likely to bring it up. The same is true for ballplayers. They’re all free to make their own decisions, hold their own beliefs, and express those beliefs however they see fit; inversely, we’re all free to judge them.
But, here’s the bottom line: if you really need a baseball player to validate your belief system by expressing, or not expressing, a specific opinion… Maybe the problem is with you, not baseball.