Best of BP: So Do Not Become Proud, But Fear

    The whole world wants something real. Read anything on TikTok’s meteoric rise, and you’ll find the word authenticity. It’s what they claim, like all social media, to offer—a window into something true, where true is defined as what the algorithm picks. If you’re not familiar with Olivia Rodrigo, you’ve probably heard “Drivers License,” which catapulted the then-17-year-old to global fame; a clip from the song was the backing for a TikTok trend at the start of last year (at present, that specific clip has appeared in 1.3 million TikToks). She’s just one notable example, and as these things tend to go, attempts to replicate have produced a recursive parody effect:

    this is so sad tbh pic.twitter.com/oElVy6vH4F

    — arianators wildin (@arianatorswildt) May 22, 2022

    (Halsey, FKA Twigs, Charli XCX, Florence [ + the Machine] Welch). Even Adele, probably the world’s most successful active female artist, reports being hectored by her label to “get 14-year-olds to know” who she is. It’s not hard to see where the wind blows.

    If you don’t want to believe MLB is dying, you sort of have to ignore Gen Z. Just 23% of Gen Z (roughly identified as those born between 1996 and 2009) identify themselves as passionate sports fans; that’s nearly half the figure for Millenials (42%), and a smaller proportion than those who said they disliked sports (27%, compared to 7% in the prior generation). In a separate poll, one in four 19-to-23-year olds said they watch live sports (42% of adults, half of millennials do), while 39% “never” do. For MLB, things appear especially dire: e-sports were more popular, with MLB ranking sixth, between college basketball and UFC. Per that first article, more than half of NBA fans are under 35; the league’s presence all over social media including TikTok and Twitch is noted. The NFL is said to have a legion of 1,000 unpaid influencers who promote their content on social media in exchange for access. MLB “is finding success with its YouTube channel” [cue MLB.tv guitar riff].

    MLB loves to blame failures to engage youthful audiences on game length and pace of play, as they do in the NYT article, but it’s obvious a greater issue lies in their failures to package content in innovative or appealing ways. The message has been obvious for a long time: meet us on our grass, or don’t meet us. That’s not a sustainable business model with the generation emerging into adulthood, and it illustrates why platitudinous efforts from the league or clubs to basically any underrepresented community are failing at best, actively blowing up in the league’s face at worst. Racial justice and support of Black athletes; domestic violence and gun violence; outreach to the LGBT community, presently facing sustained civil rights attacks; MLB has words of support to offer. Nothing else, substantial, worthwhile, or otherwise tangible, even when those words of support end up hurting exactly those groups to whom the league or an individual team had hoped to market itself. Authenticity collapsed forever somewhere along the line. There is baseball as MLB defines it, and everywhere else the bare minimum. And it’s killing the league.

    ***

    A probably unnecessary primer: Sunday marked the Rays’ Pride Night, apparently their 16th annual. For the first time, though, the club would wear hats with a (modern incarnation of the traditional) rainbow flag, plus a matching jersey patch. As it turned out, only some of the club would—(at least)[1] five players elected to peel off the jersey patch and wear the traditional Rays cap. Two, Brooks Raley and Jalen Beeks, appeared in the game. Not that MLB selectively choosing which rules to enforce should surprise, but per the Official Rules:

    No player whose uniform does not conform to that of his teammate shall be permitted to participate in a game. (3.03 (c))

    When Chris Sale altered some jerseys that weren’t to his liking, he got a five-day suspension, without pay (from the White Sox, not MLB), with Chicago GM Rick Hahn saying, “It’s unfortunate that it has become this level of an issue and potential distraction taking away from what we’re trying to accomplish on the field.” In this case, rather than condemnation, Rays executives spoke glowingly of the “conversation” being had; manager Kevin Cash evidently believed the team threaded the needle, “valuing the different perspectives inside the clubhouse but really appreciating the community that we’re trying to support here.” The fact that the Rays had made LGBT people a product of public debate, condescension, and derision without offering anything in the way of substantial support occurred to no one. But sure, Pride Night’s a capitulation to wokeness, not the latest instantiation of the league’s implicit commitment to the opposite. 

    As of most recent polling, 20.8% of (adult) Gen Z is LGBTQ, fractionally smaller than the segment who are MLB fans. That deficit will almost certainly flip in the next few years, with the ratio of LGBTQ adults already having nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021. A majority of American professional baseball players, and likely even those in MLB at this point, are of Gen Z. There are roughly 5,000 minor league players and at least 780 major leaguers at any given time; we do stats here, the likelihood of zero active players being gay is remote. Some players are probably out in their private lives, or to some teammates, but the words of Jason Adam, whom the cohort of bigots[2] elected as their spokesman, render the idea of a safe environment for such a player incredible:

    But when we put it on our bodies, I think a lot of guys decided that it’s just a lifestyle that maybe — not that they look down on anybody or think differently — it’s just that maybe we don’t want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who’s encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behavior.

    This is standard language of the religious right wing, cemented around Ronald Reagan’s 1980 ascension:[3]

    An employer should not be subject to special laws, such as “gay ordinances” passed in some cities, which in effect would compel him to hire a person because of that person’s sexual preference … My concern is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights, it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I … in the eyes of the lord, homosexuality is an abomination.

    This is a league where grown men slap-fight about fantasy football. Given a player comfortable putting words such as Adams did in print, and four other players believing his viewpoints their best representor, it’s absurd to pretend that there’s a team environment conducive to the success of a gay player. When someone claims to not judge a group from one side of his mouth and argues for the exclusion of that group from equal societal access with the other, it’s obvious which to believe. On that front, it’s arguable MLB is in a worse place than it was 40 years ago.

    ***

    I’ve written about Glenn Burke previously, but one aspect of his complex story bears emphasis here: it was not other players but executives who drove him from the league. On this point there appears to be no debate—while the broadly presented notion that none of Burke’s teammates expressed reservations might be hard to accept, the timeline of his exile from the Dodgers directly corresponds with his outing to the front office. In Oakland, it was manager Billy Martin who immediately ostracized Burke, reportedly having introduced him as a “faggot.” Now, the tables have turned: rather than having to keep a secret from a few executives, would a gay player have to shield everything in his life from his teammates? How can you spend seven months traveling with people who “don’t want to encourage” your lifestyle? Evidently, no players feel they can.

    On Friday, Burke finally got a tiny portion of his due in Los Angeles, being celebrated as part of the Dodgers’ Pride Night; like the Giants and Rays, the team wore rainbow-flag inspired caps. In neither other team’s case did a player opt out; one wonders if players were given an option. Rays executives might like to tell themselves they’re doing the work of actual support, signaling a more coherent attempt to foster acceptance of LGBT people, inside and outside MLB foul lines, than the league itself has attempted. But they’ll only traffic in words.

    There are no out players in the league who can rebuke Adam’s callousness, as the Rays well know. By staging a halfhearted show of support to boost their pathetic ticket sales and coddling the players so immature as to oppose even that, all the Rays did was provide a player a platform for hatred he would not have otherwise had. No one cares what Jason Adam has to say, but the Rays stood by, patting themselves on the backs, while providing an opportunity for him to be hateful when he otherwise would have been quiet; no one put a mic in his face until the Rays tried a topic du jour. It would be genuinely shocking that a bunch of analytically minded people could be so stupid if it wasn’t so rote. If it almost seems like they want easily collapsible props rather than people, welcome to corporate Pride month.

    Though the Rays executive staff support of LGBT people extends only to words, they’re more than willing to endorse actions that demarcate the point past which the “lifestyle” will not be supported. That point, for the record, is the locker room—as Adam pointed out, it comes down to “bodies.”

    Christians place a lot of importance on bodies. Made in God’s own image, a fully human and fully divine Christ, eating the body and blood. And yet Adam specifically name-checked Jesus, whose words are simple (I thought the New American Standard Bible was fitting): 

    Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

    After he was driven from the league by prejudice, Glenn Burke lived 13 more years. He was poor, spent time homeless and in prison, contracted HIV and ultimately died of AIDS in May 1995. Whatever shallow words Adam wants to proffer, actions speak. He would not have been an ally to Burke, would not have done what is commanded of a pious Christian, because time and again people who say these sorts of things provide examples that put the lie to claims to “not look down on anybody.”

    The Reagan administration’s stance on the HIV/AIDS pandemic is well-known: silence at best, cruel disdain at worst. While Nancy Reagan had a number of gay friends, and was well-aware of the spread of the disease’s spread and lethality, her support only extended so far. When Rock Hudson, whom the Reagans knew going back to their time in Hollywood, was infected and near death in 1985, it was believed his best chance at survival was in a French military hospital, but when he arrived he was not admitted, lacking French citizenship. Nancy Reagan denied his publicist’s request for intervention, citing a desire to, “not do anything that would appear to favour personal friends.” Given her husband was an inveterate nepotist, a much more plausible reason was the White House’s commitment to publicly ignoring the “gay plague” (famously, that’s how the disease was first alluded to in a 1982 White House Press Conference; asked a question about it, press secretary Larry Speakes responded, “I don’t have it? And you? Do you?). Hudson was not admitted to the hospital for several critical days, and died months later. Per Ronald Reagan’s diary, his wife did not even mention to him that their friend was dying of AIDS. The administration continued to ignore and actively hamper efforts into understanding and combating the disease. By the end of 1987, the year Reagan first addressed AIDS in a “major speech,” more than 20,000 in the U.S. were dead—greater than half the number who had contracted it. Nancy Reagan will this month appear on a stamp green-lit by a Democratic White House.

    ***

    Thoughts and prayers: that’s what Adam’s cowardly vow to “not look down on anybody” is worth, what his shallow, scapegoat faith amounts to—a sham. It’s not just him, he simply chose to make himself a spectacle. The problem is one that clearly goes to MLB’s foundations, and one that, should the league intend to combat (an open question), requires so, so much more from players and executives. Erik Braverman, a Dodgers senior vice president, got the final word in the NYT’s article on the Burke tribute: “Progress takes time. But progress also takes hard work.” I agree. Get to it.

    [1] Topkin’s article states that “well more than half” of Rays players agreed to participate, and the five named players who altered their jerseys are only reported as “among those” who did not.

    [2] bigot (n.): a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices

    [3] Shilts, Randy. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. Macmillan, 2008, p. 358.

    The post Best of BP: So Do Not Become Proud, But Fear appeared first on Baseball Prospectus.

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