Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 13, 2003
BASEBALL: Bull Throwing
I suppose I can't let the story of the Hall of Fame disinviting Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon from an event honoring 'Bull Durham' over their penchant for anti-war and generally left-wing politics go without comment, but I really can't impove on James Taranto's retort to Robbins' letter (complaining that "baseball is being politicized"): "It does not even seem to have occurred to Robbins that none of this would have happened had he not politicized his own acting career."
Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) thinks otherwise:
[I]t's not that we don't want public figures--entertainers and athletes--to have political opinions. It's that we want them to have the right ones, and when they don't, they simply become cannon fodder. Social consciousness is good, as long as it tends toward the kind of mainstream things everyone can get behind. Curt Schilling can be political in writing an extended letter in the wake of September 11, because he said the right things. Manhattanville basketball player Toni Smith, however, is roundly criticized for her political protest, turning her back on the flag during the national anthem, just as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a decade ago. MLB can wrap itself and its personnel in the flag, with no regard to what level of support that decision has within the game.
My initial response to this is, well, duh. If athletes make fairly bland statements with which nearly everybody agrees, few will be offended. If they say things the great majority of the paying customers find abhorrent, they will be unpopular and that will spill over onto the public's affection for them. If they go somewhere in between, choosing sides on an issue where the country is deeply divided, people on the other side may wish to tune them out.
But there's another distinction here that Sheehan seems to miss. There are plenty of people in this country who supported the war with Iraq. There are also plenty of people who objected for one or other reason, based on predictions that the war would not turn out to be in our best interests, or based on a devotion to subjugating our national judgment to international procedural rules. The first group is the classic 'loyal opposition' group, and while they may be foolish and misguided, I don't think they meant America harm; quite the contrary. The second group is indeed 'unpatriotic' in a literal sense -- they are willing to put their nation's interests second to some defined interest of the world at large -- but again, their motives are generally driven by a sense of where our long-term enlightened self-interest lies.
The relevant point for these purposes is that, while both of these groups might find a certain amount of flag-waving, 'support the troops' rhetoric or some of the generic bravado in Schilling's letter to be a bit misplaced or unnecessarily strident, neither group is likely to find such generalized expressions of patriotism offensive. The only people who will be offended by generic appeals to patriotism, the flag or the troops are people who are on some level emotionally committed to anti-Americanism, the view that the exercise of American power is not a force for good in the world. And that's not a mainstream position in this country, or one that any sensible business needs to associate itself with. And, for better or worse, it's that third view that people associate with Sarandon and Robbins.
Let's give another example: would Sheehan find it problematic if baseball fans saw nothing wrong with athletes doing anti-drug PR spots, but objected to athletes who loudly proclaimed that using cocaine was a good thing? That's 'taking sides' all right, but one side is the position supported by the common sense conclusions of a great majority, and the other is a fringe position.
As with the item below, it's important to recognize that not all sides of all controversies are equal. I'm a big fan of bright lines and neutral principles, but there is still no substitute for using our human capacity for moral judgment. And comparing putting the flag on a uniform to giving ideologically charged speeches on issue after issue over a decade and a half -- that's a failure to use that judgment.