The Pen: The Astros don’t think they have a ‘cultural’ problem. Here’s why they’re wrong

I wasn’t the one wearing a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet in the Astros’ clubhouse after they clinched the American League Championship Series, but I was there when assistant GM Brandon Taubman yelled about how “f------ glad” he was that the team signed Roberto Osuna, who had given up a ninth-inning game-tying home run and who joined the team while serving a 75-game suspension for violating baseball’s domestic violence policy.

I don’t know what kind of morality lives in Taubman’s heart, but I know the scene played out just as Stephanie Apstein reported in Sports Illustrated earlier this week — an account that kicked off an investigation by Major League Baseball, resulted in Taubman being fired by the Astros before MLB could issue a recommendation, and was initially discounted by the team as “an attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”

On Thursday, the Astros tried again. They apologized to Apstein, they said their internal investigation had been wrong, they promised that they will “continue to make this cause a priority for our organization.”

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros talks to the media during the press conference during the World Series Workout Day at Nationals Park on Thursday, October 24, 2019 in Washington, District of Columbia. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros talks to the media during the press conference during the World Series Workout Day at Nationals Park on Thursday, October 24, 2019 in Washington, District of Columbia. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Later, GM Jeff Luhnow addressed the media in D.C. His statements and answers and evasions indicate an obvious desire to put the matter to rest. I’m not interested in relitigating Taubman’s actions and whether he “deserved” to lose his job. But in order to believe that his termination concludes the relevance of this incident you would have to believe that there are no broader implications for how the Astros handled the accusations and how they continue to frame the conversation.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

This is not about hanging onto hurt even after repercussions doled out, it’s about considering what a situation like this playing out in the spotlight can tell us about the times when all of baseball isn’t around to hold the Astros accountable.

It is helpful to think of firing Taubman not as a punishment for a crime — the Astros are not a law-enforcement agency and he didn’t break the law. Often people default to that sort of punitive language and end up lamenting that a man lost his job over a single outburst. Hopefully that’s not what happened. What it should have been was a good-faith effort by a company to seriously consider whether someone they employed was projecting bias or contributing to a hostile work environment. Unfortunately, Luhnow’s statements feel more like a capitulation to the public outcry than a careful consideration of the merits of those complaints.

“This is not something that's endemic. This is not a cultural issue,” he said in no uncertain terms. He described the comments as “out of character” for Taubman, using that phrase twice.

He also said of the initial statement, the one that lashed out at SI’s reporting, “I saw it before it went out. And there's a lot of people that saw it before it went out.”

It is not hyperbolic to suggest that if the Astros front office were actually committed to “using our voice to create awareness and support on the issue of domestic violence” that they would have welcomed reports and corroboration that someone in their employ did not reflect those values. They would want to know if and why journalists might not feel comfortable in their clubhouse. This is not actually too much to ask — for well-meaning, or purportedly well-meaning and certainly well-paid, people to treat the broader societal culture that too often tolerates or downplays domestic violence as the adversary instead of the people who take issue with it.

Much of what Luhnow said on Thursday attempts to perpetuate the convenient delusion that what happened at the ALCS was a standalone incident and not a sobering tip of the iceberg. And yet, why should the public believe that when the team has repeatedly demonstrated this week precisely why someone who is made to feel uncomfortable in their clubhouse wouldn’t usually come forward on her own? They successfully telegraphed to anyone made uncomfortable in that clubhouse in the future that you’ll need a small army of witnesses, the attention of the entire country, and an MLB investigation to be believed, or to receive an apology if you’re accused of journalistic malpractice when you’re not.

The nature of the allegations never changed and neither, frankly, did the evidence (only interviewing internal witnesses prior to their first statement was a decision borne not out of availability but intent to obscure). What happened between Monday and Thursday was that the Astros realized the league was not wholly on their side, and that it would be a bigger distraction to play whack-a-mole with corroborating evidence than it would be to fire Taubman.

“I think when a story comes out that's negative you have two choices: You either respond immediately if you think it's potentially not true; or you wait and figure out what the facts are and then respond,” Luhnow said. “And we made the wrong decision, we responded quickly thinking that it was not true.” In addition to straining the merits of what you can even call a mistake (treating knee-jerk defensiveness predicated on self-aggrandizing assumptions and actually knowing the truth as equally valid options that an intelligent person might reasonably be confused by), their admitted proclivity in these situations betrays their priority — and that is to cover up.

Here is a blanket statement: If you are so shocked to learn that there is misogyny in the hypermasculine space of a baseball clubhouse (or really any modern workplace) that you automatically disbelieve it, then you are simply not savvy or socially aware enough to have a CEO-level position. If you lied about that because it’s convenient or because you think naivety to these issues would be somehow seen as sympathetic, that’s disqualifying as well. To anyone reading this: Trust me that sexism has been baked into the fabric of society for centuries, it’s certainly present in your workplace. There. Now you can’t claim ignorance as an excuse for jumping to the conclusion that the woman is probably lying.

My job is to see and hear things and then relay them to the public. I’m not infallible as a reporter but I’m pretty confident in my ability to be a primary source. Which is a fancy way of saying simply that I don’t often wonder whether something that happened to me actually happened to me. I don’t agonize in retrospect over whether or not I actually ate a bagel for breakfast if I think that I did because It would represent an existential breakdown in consciousness to distrust my own senses and memory like that.

Which is why on a personal level it created a stressful, frustrating dissonance to see the Astros slander as “fabricated” something that I knew to be true. This is a high-minded complaint about what ultimately proved to be a regrettable (and perhaps even regretted) impulsive defensiveness, but I think it’s important to stress that what the Astros did in their initial statement was imply not just that they disagreed with Apstein’s conclusion of Taubman’s intent but that she and I and the other people they knew to be present are unreliable narrators about our own lives.

That Apstein made the story up is slander, that women or anyone — and especially reporters — should be distrusted as a default even regarding their own relatively recent experiences is an unhealthy and ultimately dangerous precedent. Even cynically speaking, the Astros’ first response was to publicly undermine the trustworthiness of people who are empowered to make their product (which has no inherent value if people stop caring) widely accessible. It’s just sports, but it’s also part of an ominous trend in rendering facts as something other than that by simply refusing to treat them as such.

At every turn, the Astros have prioritized downplaying the situation — first disregarding the SI story out of hand, and, even after admitting that was wrong, remaining unwilling to even consider that it was indicative of anything larger. In addition to backfiring as a PR tactic, this should be seen as an indictment of their ability to self-police the internal culture of the team. Commitment to an inclusive and progressive work environment doesn’t mean re-upping your bona fides at an annual unconscious bias seminar or even reacting correctly to public accusations. Stamping out the preexisting sexism in sports clubhouses requires being self-critical and proactive about the way teams treat female journalists. The Astros have shown that they’re unwilling to do that.

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