The Mariners' Social Media Night was set in a Spartan venue: seven tall chairs arranged against the outside wall of the stadium, with the faded brick of Pioneer Square and a single American flag as the backdrop. The gray concrete combined with a mixture of wind and crowd noise to give the event a strangely somber air considering the nature of the proceedings. Somewhere around 50 fans, clutching free t-shirts and sipping complimentary beverages, clapped as members of the social media team, local press, and players took turns talking about their social media experiences.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto arrived and took the microphone, and the natural question arose: do you have an overarching policy for how players should behave on social media?
“Every spring training we go through a social media training session with all our players. To make sure they know how to behave, and to represent the club. I mean, they’re representing the Mariners on social media, there’s a responsibility that goes with that, so we make sure they’re trained in that regard, the same way 25 years ago I was trained to go and play in New York, in front of the major media. It’s different now. Now the major media is in your hand.”
For those catching up on the news cycle, that training would prove to be tested six days later, when injured backup catcher Steve Clevenger posted the following tweets:
They were quickly removed, and Clevenger’s account was made private. Public outrage was undeterred, and Clevenger later issued an apology. Dipoto, when reached for comment (the team was en route to Minnesota to begin a road trip), issued a statement:
“The Seattle Mariners are very disappointed at the tweets posted on Steve Clevenger’s account. While he is certainly free to express himself, his tweets do not in any way represent the opinions of the Seattle Mariners. We strongly disagree with the language and tone of his comments. We are currently examining all internal options that are available to us as we determine appropriate next steps.”
Those steps, less than 24 hours later, materialized as an unpaid suspension for the rest of the year, while his future with the team remains in doubt. Conjecture on Clevenger’s fate, from a baseball perspective, is fairly inconsequential; the former Oriole, acquired in the Mark Trumbo salary dump of last offseason, is out for the year with a thumb injury and, though under team control for 2017, offers firmly replacement-level performance. More talent would probably help his personal quest for continued employment, but is of little interest to the vast majority of casual baseball fans.
I cannot stress enough that the message conveyed by the catcher in question is not the purpose of this article. However you feel about what Steve Clevenger wrote, you will surely maintain that opinion; to attempt to alter it would be outside the jurisdiction of a baseball website. And this is, in truth, the issue.
The Mariners did not suspend Clevenger for his political views; given the demographics of the baseball-playing set, such a stance might leave the team unable to field nine. As Dipoto foreshadowed, it’s in his representation of the Seattle Mariners Baseball Club that Clevenger failed in his duties, which has nothing to do with his right to free speech. If someone works at a fast food restaurant and they join a heated political rally, they do so as an individual. Get caught on tape doing so while wearing their corporation’s polo shirt, and they may be looking for a new corporation.
America is a place founded on the concept of individual freedoms, but none of us are truly individuals. We are parents and children and siblings at the same time, perhaps churchgoers and volunteers and employees. We belong to things, share things, and our actions inevitably affect other people. It’s why we support troops who create a shared public good in our defense, why we don’t pave our own roads. It’s why suicide is illegal. In a democracy, all our actions are political actions.
Steve Clevenger can’t be a reverse Clark Kent; he can’t just dash into a phone booth and tear off his employee-branded polo. His name and his corporation are, like it or not, inextricable.
The multifaceted nature of identity creates conflicts in all of us: It’s hard to be a mother and daughter at the same time, especially on a family road trip. Nor is it easy to juggle the demands placed on us by the various responsibilities we earn ourselves as adults. But this alone does not excuse Clevenger, because this is the very definition of adult behavior. We all make these compromises every day, especially when money is concerned. While typing this, my 3-year-old daughter asked me to play a plastic, chicken-based board game, which I was forced to decline, thanks to a deadline. We do this all the time; we evaluate our choices, prorate out the benefits and costs of our actions, and make our decisions based on them.
Perhaps the trouble lies not in the people, or even in the little all-powerful devices that allow people to damage their brands so efficiently. It’s the times themselves: the polarizing, toxic political culture of the weeks before an election that destroy all hope of civility. By joining a "side"—and there are so many sides—each person gets caught in a zero-sum environment where that side’s political victory outweighs all other considerations. In politics, we all become realists, and the ends always justify the means. Witness the reaction to Clevenger, which has fallen into predictable party lines. Those who disagree with him believe he should be punished, and those who agree with him feel he's the victim of politically correct culture.
It's a strange juxtaposition, and an increasingly common one of late: corporations, once the bastion of Reagan-era conservative culture, are now blamed for enforcing progressive ideologies in the name of maintaining a wide customer base. The right, meanwhile, find themselves in arms with the unions, seeking to expand the definition of the first amendment. The employer-employee relationship has become its own form of government, a contract just as social as it is fiscal. The company creates its culture and the employee agrees to help shape and abide by it.
But whether you agree with Clevenger shouldn’t matter; there'll be some other example from the other side of the spectrum a week from now. Being a complicated person does not preclude anyone from participating in political dialogue. Athletes can thoughtfully and positively use their position and their fame to make important statements about their nation; Adam Jones, Clevenger’s former teammate, is a perfect example recently. The Player's Tribune has offered an outlet for professionals to share their stories and viewpoints in beautiful longform. Where Clevenger’s politics and his unsuccessful apology fall short are in the medium: Twitter.
Twitter is a wonderful thing–a perfect amalgamation of news desk, sports bar, RSS feed, and amateur comedy night. It helps us connect to so many people and share so many things. But in terms of the level of nuance required to make valuable, incisive commentary, Twitter’s 140-character limit is by definition unequipped for the task. For Clevenger to claim that his message was misconstrued, in a medium where limitations make it impossible for him to relate that message with real clarity and meaning, rings hollow.
American history is riddled with dark, angry autumns before presidential elections. So much is at stake. And Steve Clevenger, with his relative prowess at hitting a baseball, has been gifted with the ability to reach many people in expressing his values. This is no hard-and-fast rule for all members of social media; aphorisms do exist, and people can use social media to influence real political power, especially on the lower rungs of society's ladder.
And the benefits of social media are apparent for players and teams alike; it may no longer be the fifties, when autographs could be sought by standing outside the clubhouse door, but fans enjoy greater access to their favorite players than they had for decades. But baseball players make some sacrifices, earn some responsibilities when they take on the mantle of Professional Baseball Player. Regardless of how one feels about what he actually said, Clevenger owes it to his team to do a better job of saying it.
Thanks to Meg Rowley and Nathan Bishop for their assistance with this article.