At 2:27 p.m. Saturday, a Facebook page called St. Louis Cardinals True Fans linked to a story with an attention-grabbing headline: “Cardinals Outfielder Expresses Discontent With President Trump.” Within two minutes, the first comment appeared underneath the post.
“Keep your mi d (sic) on baseball…”
Three more streamed in succession.
“Exactly! We don’t care why (sic) your political views are!”
“Shut up and play”
Then came the fifth comment, which asked an important question.
“Did any of you actually read what he said?”
Dexter Fowler, the marquee acquisition of the St. Louis Cardinals’ offseason, a center fielder to whom they guaranteed $82.5 million, neither had mentioned the president by name nor criticized his policies. Over the next 24 hours, True Fans commenters proved that mattered none. An ugly, sometimes-racist, often-ignorant torrent of judgment spewed from some of the 100,000-plus fans who populate the page. This was America in 2017 foisting itself on America’s pastime.
Fowler hadn’t sought to make a grand political statement. His wife, Aliya, was born in Iran, and he was talking about how the president’s executive order seeking to severely curtail immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries affected his family. The law had mucked up his sister-in-law’s travel plans, and Fowler said he no longer was comfortable visiting Iran with his young daughter.
“It’s huge,” Fowler told ESPN.com. “Especially any time you’re not able to see your family, it’s unfortunate.”
Those 14 innocuous words – ones that, absence of context, speak to Democrats and Republicans, black and white and Latino, man and woman, anyone and everyone – turned Fowler into a target. The refrain was simple. “Play ball,” wrote 77 people. “Just play baseball,” said another 15. They were among the most civil.
The post illustrated the hazards in an athlete speaking out on any politically charged matter, even if his words were essentially apolitical. The blowback can be disproportionate. The fear of harsh and loud criticism can silence those considering whether to use their platform.
This is the story of one man, one organization and one fan base told through 10 Facebook comments. It’s also the story of America in 2017.
Pattie Redenbaugh Tierney Shut up and just do your job. No one cares what you think.
Among the 600 or so comments on Facebook post, 54 of them told Fowler to “shut up.” More than 30 told him to go back to the Chicago Cubs, where he played the past two seasons. Another 13 told him to keep his “mouth shut.” Six threatened to boycott the Cardinals. About three-quarters disparaged Fowler in one fashion or another. The crux: Know your place, stick to sports.
This is a common refrain in the sports world today, wielded as a defense against the criticisms from stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the activism of coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, the refusal of some New England Patriots players to celebrate their Super Bowl championship at the White House. How participation in a sport robs a person of his ability to speak out against perceived injustices is unclear. Logic often takes a detour in such arguments.
Which is what makes them so dangerous for athletes: Discussion is best nurtured with rational actors, and as Dexter Fowler learned quickly, reason and clarity struggle when no one cares what you think.
Bonnie Stotler There is no politics in baseball
Politics is everywhere. It is in protests and town halls, offices and bars, schools and churches, dinner tables and bedrooms. It is in the city and the country, in conversations intimate and throwaway, in our computers and tablets and phones, where Facebook doesn’t foster conversation so much as typewritten grenade-lobbing.
And, yes, politics is in baseball, too, in every sense. Just like the rest of America, an enormous ideological divide exists in the game. A vast majority of players are Republican. Front offices skew Democratic, though by a fairly slim margin. A half dozen veteran players asked to estimate the party breakdown inside of a clubhouse guessed each was at least 90 percent Republican.
Behind the scenes baseball truly shows its political identity. During the 2016 election cycle, Major League Baseball’s political action committee took in more than $550,000 in donations, according to public records. Of the money distributed to individual House candidates, about 60 percent went to Republicans. More than 70 percent of Senate spending was on Republicans, too. This is a new position for the league. From 2002-2012, MLB put significantly more behind Democrats than Republicans.
Individual donations from owners are far bigger, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which found top executives from teams contributed more than $2 million in the most recent election cycle. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. gave more than $70,000 to Republican candidates, according to Federal Election Commission records. His son Bill DeWitt III, the Cardinals’ team president, donated $2,700 to the campaign of Jeb Bush and another $5,000 to a super PAC supporting him.
Their donations make up the majority in recent years from those who list the St. Louis Cardinals as their employer. Almost all went to Republicans, save for those from one employee: Lou Brock, the Hall of Famer, the beloved Cardinals legend, who in 2014 donated $5,200 to the Democratic National Committee and two years before that gave $1,000 to Barack Obama.
Anne Burke Trade his black ass!
This is so much more than a Muslim ban or politics. This is a city still trying to find itself after Ferguson, still unpacking its inability to stanch the decades-old wounds that caused the pain to spill into the streets. This is an organization that serves as the cultural lifeblood of the city and tries to represent the whole region, hundreds of miles in every direction, red as far as the eye can see. This is a black man in a sport that is decidedly not black. This is their intersection. It’s usually harmonious. It was not over the weekend.
Cardinals fans like to call themselves the Best Fans in Baseball, a sobriquet onto which they hold dearly. They pride themselves on being educated baseball fans – clapping at the proper time, cheering when the opponent makes a great play. It’s all very self-congratulatory and not entirely warranted, and it seems harmless until it’s the ideal against which they hold and judge players.
This happens regularly, and it hews to a particular set of standards. A Cardinal is scrappy. A Cardinal is a fighter. A Cardinal plays the game the right way, which they especially appreciate when his hustle makes up for a comparative lack of physical gifts. A Cardinal is David Eckstein and Stubby Clapp and Bo Hart.
A Cardinal is also white.
This is an uncomfortable truth for Cardinals diehards who cringe at the segment of the fan base that disparages Fowler. To shrug this off as just a few bad apples undersells the undercurrent of intolerance that exists. Other fan bases suffer similar maladies. The Cardinals’ just happens to be louder. And what’s worst, what’s most revolting, is when the guiltiest try to use fandom of Brock and Bob Gibson to indemnify themselves from their words and actions when the truth is those words and actions would make Brock and Gibson sick.
Matt Jordan I’m ashamed to be a Cardinals fan after reading all of these racist and hateful comments. I know a lot of us are good people, but sadly “the best fans in baseball” aren’t acting as such.
Good ones exist. They do. They’re everywhere. It’s worth remembering, especially when they’re drowned out by the cacophony of sadness.
The Facebook post went viral thanks to a Twitter account called @BestFansStLouis, which compiles screenshots of the most despicable opinions from St. Louis fans, whether it’s racism, threats against underperforming athletes or general stupidity. It reads like a parody and plays into its absurdity, with an avatar that’s an angry-looking facsimile of a Cardinal wearing jorts, standing atop a toppled-over can of “Bush” beer and holding a white flag that reads: Best Fans In Baseball. It is very real.
The account captured multiple screens worth of comments. The post blasted out to more than 30,000 people, most of whom follow for the Schadenfreude, at just past 9 a.m. Sunday. By nightfall, it had more than 1,000 retweets.
Ivan Cook Go back where you came from
Dexter Fowler came from Atlanta. His father, John, worked in international business before starting a large janitorial-product-distribution company, where today he is CEO. His mom, Trudy, taught phys ed in grade school. Fowler was a tremendous student and could have played basketball at Harvard or baseball at Miami. Instead, he signed with the Colorado Rockies, taught himself to switch hit, grew into his awkward, angular frame, cracked the major leagues, proved himself a dutiful center fielder, got married, had a kid, won a World Series and signed with the Cardinals, a team he believes can win him another.
He is doing just fine here, thanks.
Jason Fudge Erin McCarley you are wrong. He signed a contract with the Cardinals so that makes him property of stl cardinals and mlb so he needs to keep his mouth shut. His personal opinion, problems, beliefs and political views should be kept to himself as long as he’s under a mlb contract and before anymore b.s. is said I’ve read the article and it’s not our fault he married someone from another country. Trump isn’t doing this to be a dick and he’s not picking to be a racist. He’s doing it because it’s his job to keep every single one of us safe here in the United states. So fowler needs to understand that, keep his mouth shut and play ball. Any problem with it the break the contract and move. Stl is a great baseball town and we don’t need his b.s.
This is where it gets scary, where the guy who celebrates the Confederate Flag on his Facebook page starts talking about a 30-year-old black man like a slave, where he regurgitates the propaganda he’s spoon-fed daily, where his words are Fowler’s in a funhouse mirror, ugly and rotten and awful but nevertheless afforded the same First Amendment privileges.
For the record. I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but athletes are humans, and not properties of the team they work for.
— Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) February 19, 2017
On day -45 of a five-year deal, Dexter Fowler showed he will not allow his name to be dragged. He wants to prove that his faith in St. Louis was not misplaced, that the instinct to sign in a place despite its reputation among other black ballplayers was right. He will fight because he believes, and if that is not enough for a city to stand behind him, what is?
Pat Elifritz Friendly reminder that if Cardinal great Curt Flood didn’t express his “political views”, players would not have the right to represent themselves as athletes, professionals, and human beings. We love it when our players “give back to the community”, but if they go “outside of the game” with their “political views”, we don’t approve. Dexter is the real deal. Be on the right side of history. Go Cards.
Without Curt Flood, Dexter Fowler wouldn’t be a St. Louis Cardinal. Flood challenged the idea that players were property of a team and paved the way for free agency. It took great bravery to fight for players’ rights. He refused to cow to the owners or the public sentiment that even within the last 20 years still used the word “uppity” to describe him. Flood’s advocacy was heroic, and it can be a lesson.
“I’m a grown man before I was a baseball player,” said Tony Clark, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “If I have a view, I should be willing to share it while understanding what I’m part of and what my responsibilities are. I think any player, whether in baseball or otherwise, understands when they take a particular position, it may not be a popular one. There may be pushback. There may be those that agree with them. There may be those that don’t. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to have an opinion.”
The value proposition of an opinion is complicated. In Fowler’s case, he must weigh money (his contract casts a shadow on him wherever he goes), the racial powder keg (only 8 percent of major leaguers are black, and he’s one of two black players on the Cardinals, along with Tommy Pham) and the polarization of politics.
“Some may make decisions not to offer it because of that. Some may,” Clark said. “That is fine. We support, even if we disagree, a player’s right to say something publicly, and we will continue to do so. …
“As a minority, as a minority in leadership, as a minority with my background, these types of conversations are very personal to me, and that’s why I said what I said a little while ago, which is that I’m excited about the conversations that are being had. If the conversations aren’t had, the likelihood of us eventually finding common ground that moves us forward is limited. The fact that we’re having the conversations and the dialogue now gives us a chance to be better tomorrow than we are today.”
Kevin Miller I stand with you Dexter.
He is not the only one.
On the Facebook page, Kory Beavers wrote: “Keep it up Dex! Speak your mind!”
And Andrew Carbajal wrote: “You guys can all go to hell. I’m resigning from this group. Remember when Stan Musial stood up for black player integration into the game? He wouldn’t stand for this racist crap.”
And Julie Ehrlich Price wrote: “All these ridiculous comments!! Athletes have just as much right to talk about politics as anyone! I suppose cops should stick to fighting crime, teachers should stick to teaching, construction workers to building, etc. I am proud of athletes and others that are standing up for what is right and fair. Yes, they are making millions of dollars a year playing a game. It would be really easy for them to just live in their castles and not care about anyone else. Instead, they risk losing their endorsements and stupid fans to help the causes that they believe in.”
And there were others, too, others who understand an athlete cannot be owned, that he came from this country, that he’s not just black but proud of how unique it makes him, that politics and sports are not strange bedfellows and that Dexter Fowler will not shut up because too many people care what he does think.
Tony Reynoso This is not Chi town Mr Fowler. This is home to the most professional baseball club in the league. We don’t want to hear your personal political opnions. You better focus very fast on living up to what it means to be a Cardinals, son.
When Fowler signed with the Cardinals in December, one executive who knows him well wondered how he would take not just to a new organization but the culture it preaches. St. Louis long has been a model franchise for baseball, following the so-called Cardinal Way, a top-to-bottom manual that outlines the development plan for minor leaguers and holds major league players to a high standard.
This, in the minds of fans, is what it means to be a Cardinal. It is a privilege, an honor, something worthy of reverence and genuflection, even if the organization lost its moral authority by breaking into another team’s computer system and stealing information, even if the organization sees the corrosive element in its fan base and doesn’t publicly disavow it to discourage them from such behavior.
All that, and speaking out of turn is the crime, even if the words Dexter Fowler spoke were universal, ones that could cultivate the sort of conversation Tony Clark was talking about, the kind that should endear him to people who believe in integrity and family and the fundamental truth that disagreement is not necessarily dissent.
Being a Cardinal should not have to mean standing up for something that was right in the first place, though more and more, that seems to be the norm.
Jim Eloisa Robertson He’s playing for the wrong team to start this [expletive]. Cardinals are America.
Yes. Yes they are.
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