Major League Baseball has become the latest tip of the spear in the culture wars. (Look out, apple pie: you’re next.) First, the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrated an activist group that mocks Catholics. Then, the Toronto Blue Jays demoted a player for expressing the religious beliefs of one-third of the country. Such actions threaten to turn the national pastime into another unwelcome example of what America is becoming—a polarized, politicized, and uncompromising place.
The trouble began when the Dodgers invited, disinvited, then re-invited an LGBT activist group known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to celebrate the team’s “Pride Night.” The group’s members dress in habits that mock Catholic religious sisters, take on names that sexualize and pervert the Catholic faith and clergy, and cheekily encourage their followers to “go forth and sin some more!” In 2023, this ribaldry is, apparently, brave: the “Sisters” will get the team’s “Community Hero” award this Friday.
Traditionalists received another brushback pitch when Anthony Bass, a modestly successful relief pitcher, shared a video encouraging Christians to boycott Target over their Pride Month–themed merchandise, which has drawn criticism across the U.S. He was subsequently removed from Toronto’s roster, with the team’s general manager citing, at least in part, the “distraction” his actions caused.
Though not formally conservative, MLB has traditionally had an older and more conservative fan base. These events thus provide a useful case study for how an institution, egged on by sportswriters, succumbs to “O’Sullivan’s Law” (named after former National Review editor John O’Sullivan): all groups that are not explicitly right-wing will, over time, become left-wing.
Key to the process is the press. The Athletic, a site now owned by the New York Times, ran articles defending the L.A. group as “doing God’s work” and wondering if other MLB teams were “doing enough” to support the LGBT community. USA Today’s Mike Freeman called the Sisters a bigot-fighting “civil rights organization.” Meantime, Kaitlyn McGrath, who covers the Blue Jays for The Athletic, deemed Bass’s initial apology for his social-media activity “unsatisfactory,” arguing that he needed to show “real support and engagement with the LGBTQ2S+ community” to be forgiven. And the New York Post’s Jon Heyman exulted over the fact that Bass was cut not for on-field reasons, but because the Blue Jays “wanted him off their baseball team.” All this coverage never considered how observant Christians felt about being told that the price of big-league employment is their conscience.
National media outlets have long set the tone by stressing certain messages and giving prominence to particular activist groups. But the real change is in sports media, a once-culturally-conservative profession that has adopted a progressive mindset. Grizzled beat writers have been replaced by graduates of top journalism schools, who are more likely to see sportswriting as a means to advance social justice. Sportswriters, like political journalists, can now use social media to blend news with opinion. Posting about the progressive cause du jour wins plaudits in a way that profiling the backup catcher never will.
But wokeness hasn’t entered baseball solely through media pressure. No Twitter campaign forced the Columbia Fireflies, a Single-A affiliate in deep-red South Carolina, to use a rainbow-themed profile picture on social media. PR staff for minor league franchises are susceptible to the same pressures as light beer executives: model your behavior on practices that will garner you media acclaim.
What can those who want institutions like baseball to be free from divisive cultural posturing learn from these events? The first lesson is that when a media firestorm erupts, the only way to win is not to play. Before designating Bass for assignment, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins initially stressed his “disappointment and anger” about the reliever’s comments. The GM appeared hopeful that promises of Bass’s “apology and him being accountable and taking the steps to become more aware” would satisfy critics. Instead, their cries just grew louder. Waiting out the tempest—another will come along shortly—is always a better option than apologizing.
Counterbalancing voices are also desperately needed. Left-leaning advocacy groups can count on sympathetic coverage from mainstream media outlets, as the Dodgers and Blue Jays controversies made clear. Those who don’t have the media’s favor have to work harder to get their message heard. In the Dodgers’ case, some public figures did oppose the initial invitation of the Sisters, such as Catholic League CEO Bill Donohue and Senator Marco Rubio. But media outlets were eager to paint those offended as reactionary, and the lack of a more sympathetic national figurehead made their job easier. After the team re-invited the “Sisters,” such players as Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Williams, and Blake Treinen braved the mob’s fury by speaking out, though it was too late to reverse the decision.
The institution of baseball has conservative elements. (Even new rules, like the pitch clock, seek to restore the game rather than to change it.) But the sport should be neither politically conservative nor politically progressive. America’s civic health depends on maintaining some pre-political institutions, and that depends on executives’ standing up to media-generated pressure campaigns, players’ ability to speak freely, and fans’ possibly finding some creative ways to express their interest in keeping baseball open to all—not just those who agree with current orthodoxy.
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