Major League Baseball is doing a terrible job attracting young viewers on a number of different levels. The MLB’s outdated ethics — one of the least talked about reasons — could hurt the league most in the long run.
Baseball grew into America’s favourite pastime during an era in the early 1900s where ethical standards were much less rigid than they are today, both in society and sport. During baseball’s golden age the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) ran rampant, while an athlete’s personal life was separated from his baseball career entirely. Things have changed since then, both in America and elsewhere, as ethical standards have become more rigid and athletes have garnered more responsibility as role models in our culture. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has failed to adapt with the times.
In the United States, MLB has been passed in popularity by the surging, well-run NBA and the seemingly-never-going-away-no-matter-how-poorly-run-it-is NFL. The average MLB fan is now 57-years-old, while the average NBA fan, the new golden standard sports league, is just 42. The game of baseball is too slow and lasts too long for young people, the most common argument goes, as “the average length of a nine-inning MLB game rose to an all-time high of three hours and five minutes in 2017, up from two hours and 51 minutes in 2004.” But the rising length isn’t the only reason MLB is failing to attract young people; the league’s loose moral code also has something to do with it.
If MLB wants to save itself it needs to attract a younger viewership to sell to advertisers. Right now it’s going about that all wrong. While ideas about implementing a pitch clock to shorten the game make some sense, the bigger issue for some potential viewers is that the league and its athletes are behaving in an ethically outdated way.
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For as much slack as young people get for being lazy or not maintaining old traditions, we care about ethics and morals now more than ever. Young people are more educated, politically aware, and conscious about marginalized groups than ever, too. Not only are we increasingly aware of our political situation, but we also care deeply about how those in power, including athletes, use their influence to advance a discourse to give a voice to the voiceless. This past week in baseball, which has brought to light several of MLB’s most pressing ethical issues, has been deeply disturbing for many of us, especially in parallel to the NBA’s biggest star LeBron James opening a school for at-risk children. If baseball wants young people to watch the sport, my advice is to take a page out of the NBA’s book and focus on ethics.
In the last two weeks three different MLB players — Josh Hader, Trea Turner, and Sean Newcomb — have had old homophobic, racist, and sexist tweets resurface. The tweets were from years ago when the players were still teenage prospects, which people are rushing to offer as an excuse for their insensitive behaviour, but they are inexcusable tweets and an example of the type of people that exist in baseball and contribute to MLB’s toxic culture. If you’d like to see for yourself, check them out here (Hader), here (Turner), and here (Newcomb).
All three players later apologized for their tweets, saying something along the lines of “I was young and ignorant then” and “those comments do not represent who I am today.” Regardless, the tweets show what kind of attitude is accepted more often than not in baseball locker rooms, because if these athletes were tweeting this stuff as teenagers you best believe they were also saying it (and possibly acting on it). The tweets bring to light baseball’s toxic culture where deeply rooted racism, sexism, and homophobia exist.
Worst still, when Josh Hader — the Brewers pitcher who was the first to have old homophobic and racist tweets resurface — returned to the mound after apologizing for his tweets, the Milwaukee crowd offered him a standing ovation! For what? Apologizing for a racist and homophobic past, I guess…
MLB decided to order the players to do sensitivity training rather than opting for fine or suspension. The organizations in control of the players also opted not to suspend their athletes. Technically it makes sense since the tweets were sent before any of the players became Major Leaguers, but it just goes to show what kind of toxic culture is bred in baseball locker rooms and continues to be allowed in the Majors today.
On Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays traded closer Roberto Osuna to the Houston Astros for pitchers Ken Giles, Hector Perez, and David Paulino. Osuna, who is currently serving a 75-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy (which, by the way, “barely tops the 50-game bans handed out to minor leaguers for such relatively innocuous actions as testing positive for marijuana use”), is currently in a legal battle concerning the alleged assault. Although the details of the case have not been made public, Osuna did not challenge his 75-game suspension and both John Gibbons and Astro’s manager Jeff Luhnow commented on Osuna being “remorseful” for his past behaviour and being “proactively engaged in counseling,” suggesting that he did in fact do something wrong rather than this being a case of a false accusation.
The trade — and how exactly it was handled — is wrong on a number of levels. Firstly, the Blue Jays organization had the opportunity to state publicly that they condemn the closers’ actions and would be looking to trade or release him back in June when Osuna was originally found guilty of violating MLB’s Domestic Violence Policy. Instead, they said nothing in order to keep enough leverage to start a bidding war with interested teams to get the best return possible.
The Blue Jays had another opportunity to condemn Osuna’s actions after the trade had been finalized by stating that the organization would not allow a player found guilty of violating the MLB’s Domestic Violence Policy to play for the Blue Jays. Instead, manager Ross Atkins portrayed the trade as a “good baseball deal” and diminished the significance of Osuna’s personal life affecting their decision despite Osuna being one of the best young closers in the game and reportedly deciding earlier in the season that Osuna would never pitch for the Blue Jays again.
But it would be wrong to condemn the Blue Jays and let the Astros — or any team that bid for Osuna, of which there were reportedly many — off the hook. The Astros took a chance on Osuna in a number of ways. First, they took a chance on their clubhouse and fan base welcoming Osuna with open arms despite the alleged assault.
Secondly, the Astro’s bet on Osuna’s legal battle being won or at least settled soon, because if Osuna is found guilty of domestic violence in court he will be held out of playing baseball much longer than his suspension entails if he ever does, in fact, play again at the highest level. The Astro’s did their due diligence, though, and believe Osuna will be able to pitch for them deep into this postseason and help the team win its second World Series in as many years. If that’s the case, it will represent the second time a pitcher found guilty of violating MLB’s Domestic Violence Policy closes out a World Series in just two years, after Aroldis Chapman did it in 2016 with the Cubs (who also traded for him near the deadline).
The fact that contending teams are trading for abusers in order to have a slightly better chance at winning a World Series while players’ old racist and homophobic tweets are resurfacing shows just how broken and outdated baseball’s ethics are. It shows that winning trumps all in America’s favourite pastime, including ethics.
If Major League Baseball wants to attract a younger viewership, that formula may have to change.