If you let it, hate can get in anywhere.
The Red Sox invited Curt Schilling to their home opener ceremonies this year at Fenway Park. The reunion sparked a brief, intense debate about celebrating his accomplishments as a pitcher while ignoring his consistent statements as a bigot. This same argument typically arises when Schilling is at the center of any event, as it did last June when the Phillies invited Schilling to Citizens Bank Park for a 25th anniversary celebration of their 1993 pennant-winning team.
The Phillies’ official response to inviting Curt Schilling back to Philadelphia last year indicates that the organization feels able to separate the man from his beliefs:
Curt Schilling played a prominent role in Phillies history. When honoring past accomplishments, such as the 1993 team’s National League championship, the Phillies prefer to keep the focus on those accomplishments and not on political views.
We like to pretend someone becomes a different person when they put a ball cap on; that they tear away from their true selves and become a being that solely produces statistics, and never ignorance. The Phillies’ reponse is a diplomatic version of the most common reply to any criticism of Schilling: He deserves to be lauded for his pitching, who cares what else he’s said or done? But how much of someone’s words and actions must we ignore before we stop honoring them for any reason?
It shouldn’t be hard to like Curt Schilling: A goofy yet bullheaded pitcher who helped drag a last-place franchise into the World Series; always gaming for the camera, always cracking a joke, with a successful career on the field and a lot of personality off of it.
“But enough about me; what do you think of me?” Schilling playfully replies.
Schilling was part of one of the most beloved teams in Phillies history in 1993. “That was as politically incorrect a group of human beings as ever existed in the game,” Schilling told reporters in 2018. “It was fun.”
Bill Lyon of the Inquirer wrote in 1999:
Curt Schilling is easy to like. He is extroverted and gregarious, eminently quotable, sometimes to a fault. He is eager to please. If you’re a member of the news media, you wish for hordes like him.
In his post-playing career, Schilling has championed a cause against ALS, survived mouth cancer, and advocated for better treatment of homeless veterans. And yet, there is greater familiarity with the Curt Schilling who was described by USA Today writer Ted Berg in January 2019:
A right-leaning political firebrand whose failed video-game company cost Rhode Island taxpayers millions, Schilling has created headlines in his post-playing days by gleefully sharing specious xenophobic, transphobic, and conspiratorial memes.
Nobody in 1999 would have known what half of those words mean, let alone agreed with the sentiment they contain. In the years since he’d established a reputation as a fun interview and a great teammate, Schilling is now more commonly known through Berg’s description, which was constructed by a series of widely covered incidents, including:
April 19, 2015: Commenting on a meme that called for transgender women to be barred from women’s public restrooms, Schilling wrote, “A man who is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”
In response to complaints about his comment, Schilling wrote on his blog,
I care about people and how they treat others. You will NEVER in your lives find a single person who’s met me/knows me who would ever say I treated them as anything other than a human. None. Wouldn’t you assume that all of you offended folks would have heard of me treating people the way you needed me to treat them, to be what you so desperately want me to be?
I made a comment about the basic functionality of mens and womens restrooms, period.
August 25, 2015: Schilling shared a meme on his Facebook page comparing Muslim extremist population numbers to the rise of Nazi Germany. As an analyst for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight at the time, he was suspended from the network and tweeted a statement in response.
November 7, 2016: In reference to an image of a shirt that read, “Tree. Rope. Journalist. Some assembly required,” Schilling tweeted “Ok, so much awesome here…” Schilling later said the comment was “100 percent sarcasm,” asking “Every single person that read it KNEW I was mocking. Do I have some sort of hidden passion for lynching in my past?”
December 18, 2017: On his podcast, “Whatever It Takes” for Breitbart News, Schilling encouraged his listeners to support congressional candidate Paul Nehlen, of whom he was “a fan.” Nehlen had been described as an “anti-semite” by Media Matters in July 2018, and had begun using the phrase, “It’s OK to be white,” a motto used among white supremacists.
These actions, and others like them, have made Schilling into what many have called a “lightning rod for controversy,” which is accurate in that he is repeatedly at the center of damaging incidents, but inaccurate in that lightning doesn’t strike because of something the rod said or did. As a human with agency, Schilling makes a choice to vocalize his beliefs, and forces his former teams to decide whether, despite those beliefs, he should continue to represent them.
When Schilling came to Citizens Bank Park last June at the Phillies’ request, no one forcefully questioned his presence. Schilling was in some cases welcomed back as an old friend, an understanding seemingly in place that there would be no mention (outside of a playful context) of the hateful comments and actions that had come (and continue) to define him.
There is a cultural divide between between players and fans that keeps us mostly unaware of what goes on when they’re being themselves, and it seems like the “politically incorrect” culture that Schilling loved so much about the 1993 Phillies locker room was never supposed to leave the locker room. Or 1993. Or, ideally, exist in the first place. But it’s too late for even our quick glimpses of that culture to be erased; instead, they’re given unsettling new context by the trajectory of Schilling’s post-playing career.
“This is the concentration camp of baseball,” Schilling said about having to pitch at Mile High Stadium in a clip that made it into the 1993 video yearbook, too.
Schilling is an unarguable part of Phillies and Red Sox legends; a key figure in stories baseball fans will pass down to their kids. Being a fixture of the past is impossible to change. But every time he’s a part of their future, it is because of a conscious choice made by both teams after Schilling has proudly advocated against members of society that don’t fit his view of the world.
Any athlete who has political views is a walking example of the unavoidable intersection of sports and political beliefs. Schilling has chosen to be far more vocal with his thoughts, so if you want to blame someone for “making this about” anything other than baseball, blame him. Mickey Morandini opened a hardware store after his playing career was over. You may or may not know this, and if you do, you probably don’t care, because typically, we’re only asked to separate players and ex-players from their actions off the field when we know that they’ve done something wrong.
There is a limit to what the Phillies deem acceptable behavior off the field—Lenny Dykstra was not invited to that same 1993 anniversary celebration, and Pete Rose had his Wall of Fame ceremony canceled in 2017.
However, “There is not an official line of demarcation. Situations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and a decision is made by senior management,” says Phillies VP of Communications Bonnie Clark via email.
Schilling has not yet reached the limit of what the Phillies deem acceptable behavior.
The Red Sox did not invite Schilling to a reunion of alumni from their 2004 World Series champion team last October, though the team said that the move “was not out of spite.” This year, when the Red Sox brought Schilling back to Fenway Park for their home opener, the media once more welcomed him back.
“HOF voting is not about politics,” Peter Gammons said while defending Schilling’s right to be there, bringing up Schilling’s annually debated Hall of Fame candidacy. This is a recurring trait in Schilling’s coverage: To have what he’s said and done zipped up in singular terms like “politics,” or as Jayson Stark did in his 2018 summation of Schilling’s Hall of Fame candidacy, “Twitter”:
OK, here we go one more time: We’re voting for the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Twitter.
Schilling was polling at about 74 percent on the Tracker, so he’s closing in. But he’ll have just three elections remaining after this year. If Mussina makes it this time around, it would stand to reason he’d be next in line. But then again … Twitter!
To refer to transphobia and xenophobia as “politics” legitimizes them as ideas. To refer to them as “Twitter” indicates a lack of understanding of the situation, creating a false equivalency of hate speech and grousing about the local team’s bullpen. And to not refer to them at all excuses them, and welcomes them to continue.
Without baseball, Schilling would simply live among other garden variety bigots; but because of his fastball, his message is amplified and his behavior is excused. The Phillies gave him a pass, along with a box suite and a round of applause, on 1993 Alumni Weekend last season. The Red Sox gave him a pass as they opened their home schedule this year. The press gives him a pass every time they choose not to breach the topic of his harmful statements or question what it says to have him treated as an honored guest by teams happy to look the other way.
And the last few years, despite Schilling not yet being enshrined in Cooperstown, many Hall of Fame voters have given him a pass as well, making sure you know that while they can’t get on board with his beliefs, they sure as hell aren’t going to hold him accountable for them.
It wasn’t until Schilling found the idea of lynching journalists “awesome” that the journalists of the BBWAA decided they’d had enough of him.
For one year.
ESPN.com surveyed more than 50 writers who cast ballots this year, and only one (who chose to remain anonymous) said he gave the slightest thought to Schilling’s political orientation in casting his vote. Instead, evidence suggests a singular act six weeks ago might lie at the heart of Schilling’s dropoff in support.
The flashpoint came on Nov. 7 — amid the heat of the presidential election — when Schilling posted a tweet in response to a man wearing a T-shirt with the words, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Schilling expressed his approval, calling the shirt “awesome,” before the comment disappeared from his timeline.
For writers like the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaugnessy, Schilling’s vitriol wasn’t serious enough to warrant a response until he became a victim of it:
I am not voting for Curt Schilling this year, and it has nothing to do with his politics. Schill was comfortable retweeting a despicable tweet promoting lynching of journalists. That is not a political issue. I’m sure he wasn’t serious, but it’s dangerous to promote that kind of rhetoric in today’s America. So I’m taking a year off from Schill.
This is not a points system, in which Schilling’s concern for the American education system or winning a town’s first World Series in 86 years earns him a wheelbarrow of bigot-bucks to spend at his leisure. Somewhere between 1999 and 2016, Schilling went from “gregarious” and “quotable” to a promoter of dangerous rhetoric, and all it took was a Twitter account.
When actually confronted about the hate he’s said or supported, Schilling has made a number of predictable claims—that it was just a politically incorrect joke; that he’s just using common sense; that people are just looking for a reason to be offended; that he is the true victim in all of this.
We should not be expecting Schilling, or the baseball writers who’d rather be his advocate or pal than his critic, to change. But every time a team presents Schilling to a crowd and lets him bask in applause, they are celebrating someone who they’d never retweet.
For a league that wants to “let the kids play,” Schilling offers a hell of a lesson on what those who play can get away with. If we say baseball is for everyone, but honor the men who only want their definition of “everyone” to matter, then the sport remains only for them. Teams like the Phillies and Red Sox would never give public approval to the things Schilling has posted in the past, but they are content to honor the man as long as he keeps a lid on himself for a couple of hours at the ballpark.
If you let it, hate can get in anywhere. And these teams are sending their current and prospective fans a clear message: We will open the door for hate, if it’s quiet enough.
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