Another baseball regular season has passed. 2430 games played by 30 teams. Prospects have been called up. Players have said goodbye at the end of long careers. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Mets, Rangers,Astros, Royals, Yankees, and Blue Jays are moving on. Everyone else is looking toward next season because next season is always a better season. The possibilities of April have congealed into the hardened reality of October.
I was going to write this column about the beauty of baseball and my memories of the season. I was going to pay tribute to the baseball family and the wonderful people from players to fans to bloggers to announcers who make the game come alive for me. This isn’t that column though. Something happened on the way to writing this column.
It was during a Phillies-Nationals game the day after the Nationals, who had led the NL East for a big chunk of the season and come into the season as a potential 95 win team, were officially eliminated from play-off contention. Bryce Harper, the 22 year old baseball phenom and leading MVP candidate, who currently possesses an OPS+ of 196, (OPS+ is a measure of how close to average a player is so an average MLB player would have an OPS+ of 100.) did not run out a routine pop fly to the satisfaction of Jonathan Papelbon, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals. Words were exchanged and then, in front of 30,000 people, Papelbon attacked Harper.
I want to talk about this incident in terms of the toxic masculinity that professional sports can breed. C.J. Notkowski, a former MLB player and current analyst, wrote a defense of Papelbon that included this quote “The clubhouse is like no other place. It’s not like an office, and it’s not like your weekend softball team. Don’t compare a clubhouse to where you work, it’s completely different.” My issue with that line of thinking is that clubhouses are still in the United States of America (except the Blue Jays but I assume assault is illegal in Canada, too) and Papelbon committed a crime. It doesn’t matter if he was provoked. It doesn’t matter how many rings Papelbon has compared to Harper. Papelbon assaulted Harper. End of story.
There is a tiresome narrative in sports that the old guard has to protect the integrity of the game and make sure that new players know how things are done. All this does is perpetuate a notion that the clubhouse is a different place. It perpetuates a notion that athletes can get away with things. Baseball changes. Everything changes. If baseball hadn’t changed then Andrew McCutchen would not be wearing a MLB uniform. Women would still be banned from covering the game. The DH wouldn’t exist. The game changes because it has to change. It changes because society changes and players should not be above the rules and laws of society.
Comments like Notkowski’s perpetuate notions of hyper masculinity and reinforce the male privilege of elite athletes. This is not something that should be passed on. The male athlete should not be exempt from the rules of society. A clubhouse should be like an office where assaulting your co-workers would get you fired and arrested. This is a case where context doesn’t matter. Words were exchanged but nothing, not a verbal disagreement nor Papelbon’s experience nor Harper’s age nor the clubhouse environment, gave Papelbon the right to lay his hands on Harper. The fact that he did is one more way that baseball teaches players that they have a right to a toxic brand of male privilege.
This message starts at a young age. In a sporting world where interpersonal violence is a real issue, the baseball powers that be are excusing the twisted hyper masculinity that makes assault okay. This has profound consequences for fans, players, and players’ families. Let’s work together to stop this cycle. Let’s work to teach young boys that bullying and assault aren’t okay. Let’s work to teach young boys that nothing gives you the right to lay your hands on someone else. It doesn’t matter if they are in a clubhouse or a bar. It doesn’t matter if that person is an MVP candidate teammate or a woman wearing a great pair of shoes. There is no situation where it is okay for an athlete to harm another person. Let’s change the culture of sports and change the lessons of the clubhouse so that tomorrow’s athletes keep their hands to themselves.