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Last week, after careful consideration of their organizational dysfunction, the Miami Marlins got to the root of the issue and banned facial hair. A new season and media training session brought Yankees players an uncomfortable comparison between Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. And months after his notorious scuffle with Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon traipsed through the Nationals Spring Training facility in an “Obama Can’t Ban These Guns” t-shirt. All three incidents stirred the baseball world’s collective ire, with the Marlins, Yankees, and Papelbon facing derision. Papelbon is ready made for a black hat; the Yankees and Marlins are ironically ready to twirl mustaches. But the backlash seemed to me a failed test of our self-professed commitment to player expression.

We bristle at the mandate of the Marlins because they assume a particular sort of person looking a particular sort of way while playing baseball is doing so the best way. It carries with it the same sort of ickiness decades of beardless, nameless Yankees uniforms brought, without the tug of tradition to ground such silliness. Players become interchangeable commodities, widgets. But these are men with stories and families, places and experiences they’ve lived and survived, baseball diamonds visited and surpassed. They flip bats, own silly pets, and are imbued with personality and opinion in equal measure. Reducing them to the create-a-player consistent with a team’s media and labor strategy feels disingenuous and scheming.

Surely teams perceive some advantage in the anonymity of the laundry. Players become easier both to cut and to excuse. Those who demand too much for themselves are more easily dealt or left to free agency. As fans and observers, we hope to liberate the individual from his facelessness, and ascribe personal accountability to his actions. We want him to be himself. As we are able to pick them out as individuals, we are blessed and burdened by their specificity. We are unable to turn away from their struggle, and no longer free to ignore the pain they might inflict.

We—and here I’m claiming a particular, like-mindedly progressive “we” that I expect is more likely to read this column; don’t feel as though I’m forcing you into the pronoun—disagree with the Marlins’ policy on facial hair and look aghast at the Yankees’ instruction to imitate Russell Wilson rather than Cam Newton. Those policies are problematic for many reasons, but the core objection is that they stifle expression and force players into a mold that is often racialized.

So, then, why do we mock Papelbon for his t-shirt? Yes, it is a talisman of a political agenda of which many of us want no part. But these outbursts are bound to be the outcome at least some of the time if we embrace player expression. We’re going to get people who say odd things, or have bad opinions, or are more conservative or liberal than we are, or less thoughtful than we’d like.

We say we want players to be free to express themselves, but mostly we want them to be free to express themselves like we would. We want them to be real and authentic, but buried in that desire is the hopeful assumption that athletes, afforded fame, wealth, and a microphone after years of almost exclusively playing baseball, will somehow defy what we know about people, which is that many of them are awful and all of them are flawed. We want the joyful exuberance of the bat flip but look askance at something thornier. Some players hold virulent opinions, but many of them are simply people. Many of them are a ho-hum kind of traditional. They’re your least thoughtful uncle, or your conservative cousin asking for the potatoes at Thanksgiving. They’re Daniel Murphy.

Murphy has shared his views on homosexuality rather matter-of-factly. He sees it as a “lifestyle.” He has characterized it as a choice. His opinions don’t conform to the progressive mainstream’s understanding of the question. It isn’t progressive, and might fairly be characterized as thoughtless or hateful. And it also isn’t that unusual for a baseball player. Given what we know about the demographics of major-league clubs, it might constitute a centrist view. When Billy Bean visited Mets Spring Training in 2015 as MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion, Murphy said, “I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn't mean I can't still invest in him and get to know him. I don't think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect." His view of Bean’s life as lifestyle, as a choice rather than a fact of his biography is problematic, but the openness he displayed to dialogue, however boundaried we find that willingness to be, probably puts him ahead of many of his teammates.

That ho-hum sort of insensitivity and intolerance can do a lot of damage. Some of us flee our families rather than endure such casual meanness. The ho-hum can say hurtful things. Daniel Murphy said hurtful things. He left room for dialogue when Billy Bean visited the locker room that day, but I doubt Bean appreciated Murphy’s limited tolerance being bestowed like some sort of gift. It’s not how I would engage the question of gay players in baseball, or address a gay person’s sexuality. But Murphy isn’t that unusual in baseball. He’s ho-hum. And he faced opprobrium because he made the mistake of opening his mouth where other, more conservative players gritted their teeth and sat in stewing silence. What strikes me is that we know those players subscribe to more caustic forms of conservatism but give them a pass because they remain silent. It’s only when those ideas demand air time that we rally. We’re punishing the expression, instead of doing the hard work of changing the idea or finding compromise.

It’s an odd thing, the public trust that is baseball. We are often disappointed when corporate executives put themselves at odds with our collective values, but rarely do we ask rank-and-file employees for their take, considered or otherwise. But because baseball asserts cultural weight, because our children emulate players’ movements and their game teaches us things, we want the assurance that ball players think like we do. We, of course, don’t think one way about anything; the views of baseball players, varied as they are, find their advocates in our ranks as easily as their detractors. This fractured “we” then gets up and asks them questions. As surely as we want to understand their approach at the plate, or their pitch mix, we want David Ortiz to opine on domestic violence, Daniel Murphy to share his insights on homosexuality, or Clay Buchholz to share which candidate he is voting for.

It’s strange when we decide to hold those players accountable as players rather than looking to engage them as citizens. And it is made all the stranger because we’re supposedly getting exactly what we said we wanted. Once we open the door to expression and sanctify it as a virtue, as a more authentic and honest understanding of the game and those who play it, we open the door to imperfect politics and quirk and thoughtlessness. We make room for expressions of culture and confusion, lesser discourse and principle and privilege. Some will be Curt Schilling, but mostly they’ll just be folks, a mix of compassion and rigidity, as folks often are. Baseball will have to decide how that expression fits into their business; we’ll have to decide how to get along with folks with whom we disagree, and how to sit next to the folks who support them.

We are unlikely to always agree on exactly what we are dealing with, but we’ll always be dealing with people, in all their flawed peopleness. So we have to be careful; to object to a person’s ideas rather than their impertinent assertion of them, to find fault with those beliefs when they manifest as hostility toward fans or teammates, to do something other than simply relishing pulling off the villain’s mask. To find a posture other than frustration, and to accept that the tricky work of discourse might not result in changed minds but uneasy detente.

The League has laid claim to a national pastime and thrust its employees into the odd position of being hero, teacher, and exemplar. It ought to engage questions of race and gender and power and privilege. Baseball told us that it’s a part of our lives, and an authentic expression of our national identity; having taken baseball at its word, we rightly expect it to better the lives to which it is bound. It must engage and teach and train its players. It has to do all those things. And we have to know that some of that won’t stick. That there will always be good old boys with whom we don’t agree. They’ll find themselves replaced by new generations who will hopefully be better practiced in hard conversations, but might not be. They’ll express joy at a well-struck home run, engage in dugout silliness, advocate political action, and make us angry. They’ll be themselves. And we have to be prepared to deal with that. After all, we’re the ones who asked them to start talking.

Thank you for reading

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beeker99
2/26
"We say we want players to be free to express themselves, but mostly we want them to be free to express themselves like we would."

This. Expression isn't always pleasant, but if you ask for it, you shouldn't be dismayed when it doesn't always confirm your outlook. Of course, there is a difference between unpleasant expression and crossing a line (I would argue that Lonn Trost crossed that line with his comments about fans who sit in the most expensive seats - and I'm a Yankees fan!), but that is a different article.

I really enjoyed this article, Meg. It is very thought-provoking and I look forward to re-reading it.
tearecrules
2/26
Imagine my surprise when I found myself nodding along in agreement with this article. I also appreciated not being forcibly included in your use of a pronoun. But, Ms. Rowley, you're going to need to show a lot more evidence that teams are doing things that are "problematic" because of their "racialized" nature. For example how is the Yankees comparing and contrasting Russell Wilson and Cam Newton's post super bowl loss press conferences as part of media training racialized or problematic? Newtown was awful in that press conference, and it was an event some of those players probably watched and many of them heard discussed. Would it have been more or less problematic if it had been comparing Newton and Manning from 2013?

I can be convinced the Marlins facial hair policy possibly is, but I'd bet it's far more likely the Marlins are a floundering organization which is just trying to do something, anything, to improve. I'm struggling to attribute that to racial animus and not some old man yelling at clouds.

Describing Daniel Murphy's opinion on homosexuality as "thoughtless or hateful" is not being fair. "Thoughtless and ignorant"? Sure. "Thoughtless and unpopular"? Probably. "Hateful" is very unfairly imputing a motive and emotion to Murphy that, to my knowledge, he has not expressed. Heck, his opinion would have been almost progressive within your parent's life. Also, is being gay a fact of Billy Bean's biography or biology? If it's the former then it can be a choice as he could simply write it different.

To be fair Ms. Rowley, most of reality doesn't conform to the progressive mainstream's understanding.
doog7642
2/26
Well, the response to this comment is a pretty interesting demonstration of exactly the premise of the article, isn't it? Does it have five negative ratings because it carries a disrespectful tone or you suspect trolling? Or does that simply mean the raters disagree with some of the stated opinions? I suspect the latter.
tearecrules
2/26
Neither, it's mostly people who hate even unintentional puns like "Marlins are floundering". Turns out there are some BPers who really, really hate puns.
misterjohnny
2/26
It's people following the herd and saying "I hate bigots more than you"
mandamin
2/26
Solidly both, to be honest. The opinions are garbage, but so is the sopping condescension! Really ticks all the boxes.
Bartali
2/26
I applaud the Yankees approach to media relations and handling reporters. Saying the Yankees choice to compare Russell Wilson and Cam Newton's post-game conduct as "problematic" excuses Newton from his obvious display immaturity and lack of professionalism.

In a new world where every move by professional athletes can be chastised by the media and any vulture with a twitter account, I would want my players to do as much as possible to distance themselves from further ridicule down the line, as it will not only benefit from a PR standpoint, but possibly monetarily.

Its not a debate of "self-expression." Its a matter of professionalism. From body language to posture to word choice (or lack thereof by Newton), athletes need not be excused from displaying professionalism, simply because they're athletes, or what you seem to be insinuating, "unique, interesting, snowflakes."
tearecrules
2/26
Any team, and a NYC team in particular, who does not spend time training their players in how to handle the press is being negligent in their duty to their employees and their brand. If the Yankees' media relations training was comparing and contrasting Wilson and Newton with some sort of commentary on them as people or their racial or ethnic backgrounds, then shame on the Yankees and I hope the league comes down on them hard. But every single report I can find on this is simply talking about it being a thing the Yankees did.

In my opinion the people who were being "problematic" in relation to Newton were the media and twitter vultures. He'd just lost the most important game of his career, played poorly in process (excusable given he was playing a historically great defense), and, apparently, Broncos players cheering and taunting could be heard within the room the where Newton was being interviewed. He's sitting there having to field questions about "how he's feeling". I'd be pretty surly too. He didn't handle it well but it wasn't a "Playoffs!", "They are who we thought they were!," or "We're talking about practice!"-level breakdown.
megrowler
2/26
I agree that the reaction to Cam's post game press conference was hugely overblown, especially when we learned that he was within shouting distance of joyful Broncos.

I can appreciate how, as an employer, the best outcome from the Yankees perspective is to have employees who are pleasant to the media and uncontroversial in their responses-- even boring. As a Seattle sports fan, I can also appreciate how Russell Wilson might embody all of those things, and that the club's goal was simply to not have "problems," real or perceived, down the road. All of that said, the post-Super Bowl conversation surrounding those two quarterbacks was charged to say the very least (whether you agree that it ought to have been charged, or even happening is a topic for a different thread). The Yankees invite that conversation when they make that comparison. Sean Newell over at Vice had a nice piece on this, but I'm still confused as to why they didn't simply invoke Derek Jeter, the king of being liked for saying nothing. I don't think MLB should sanction them, but they should know that their actions as part of a broader conversation in which Newton and Wilson represent problematic, stereotypical archetypes, and this appeared tone deaf to that conversation.
tearecrules
2/26
The Super Bowl was about 3 weeks ago. Cam Newton's post-loss press conference is the most recent example of a player having a very bad, no good, awful day and giving a press conference that showed it. That your media peers blew it way out of proportion, and that a whole lot of people are attributing some awful things to Newton as a result of him being a sore loser (his words!) doesn't change the fact it's a really good example for discussing post-sporting-event-interview don'ts.

I think you're setting up an inherently unfair situation where the Yankees, or any organization, is danged if they do and danged if they don't. I asked upthread if the comparison is "problematic" because it compares Wilson and Newton, and if it would be less or more problematic if it compared Manning and Newton. Also, unless you have some insider info about the training session that hasn't been made public on ESPN, CBS, FOX, etc you really have no idea about the training beyond the fact it referred to Newton and Wilson. Maybe it was properly caveated, maybe it wasn't, maybe it featured a video that owuld put the 49er's one from 2005 to shame.

Finally, I would disagree that Derek Jeter is the Yankee they need to involve when discussing media relations. They have Alex Rodriguez at Spring Training. Were I a new Yankee I'd find it much more enlightening to get some what-not-to-dos from Donny Don't.
misterjohnny
2/26
you must not be "progressive" because clearly the Yankees were being racist.
:)
MikeGianella
2/26
I really enjoyed this piece. This is something I think about a good deal, particularly in recent years as social media has exposed me to a larger cross section of likeminded, progressive fans.
How we react to athletes and their behavior off the field is as interesting as how athletes behave on it. Bat flips give many fans joy, and when a curmudgeonly columnist complains about it, one of the most common defenses is that the player is expressing himself and is merely having an emotional moment. This is a completely fair explanation (in my view) but when a pitcher gets angry at a hitter for doing so, some of the same pro-bat flip fans get mad at the pitcher, and will say something like "if you don't like the reaction, throw a better pitch." This is problematic, and no better than the reaction of the curmudgeonly columnist. Isn't the pitcher entitled to his reaction as well, even if it is a reaction that we don't like? One of the more common defenses of bat flips or jubilant behavior on the field is that "players aren't robots." I get it: bat flips are fun while a pitcher screaming his head off at the hitter after a 450-foot home run is not. But both players are entitled to their reactions. Telling someone to suppress his negative, in-the-moment emotions is no better than telling someone to suppress his positive ones.
tearecrules
2/26
A "problematic" part, to me at least, with the pitcher-batter bat flip reactions is that escalation from the pitcher is something we'd consider "assault with a deadly weapon" if it happened anywhere but 60' from home plate. I worry MLB will eventually follow the NFL's example in doing everything it can to punish players who celebrate their accomplishments in an unapproved way.
MikeGianella
2/26
To be clear, I'm not endorsing a pitcher throwing a 95 MPH fastball at a hitter because he's pissed off about being "shown up". I'm talking about the immediate, visceral reaction of the pitcher shouting something like "f--- you" or "run the damn bases" immediately after the home run. The former is deplorable and beyond the pale; the latter is understandable...and should be viewed as acceptable behavior.
tearecrules
2/26
I didn't think you were. What I was trying to say though was some of the complaining about the pitcher reaction might be people knowing, maybe consciously or not, that the pitcher is the one who can escalate the confrontation within the confines of the game.