When People Become Commodities

Far too often in baseball, players are viewed as commodities rather than people. (via Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office)

At the end of July, I–like everyone else in the baseball world–was wrapped up in the fanfare of another major league trade deadline. There was so much to think about: How would teams approach the deadline this year with the new rules in place eliminating August waiver trades? Which teams were going for it? What would my team do–or not do? 

On my commute home from work on the afternoon of the deadline, as I listened to a podcast about the science of human empathy, something that has nagged at me for years and feels more salient than ever came to the forefront of my mind: The language we use to talk about baseball players–not just at the trade deadline, but almost all the time–makes me deeply uncomfortable. Players being referred to as “commodities” in headlines and articles makes me cringe. It’s language that turns people into property.

Social science has a lot to teach us about how deploying empathy in our sports fandom more often and more effectively can inject some humanity into baseball–a humanity for which the game would be much better off. Not only can it improve the fan experience by broadening our horizons and becoming more invested in the successes of individual players, but when players feel their humanity is recognized, they are more likely to exude the love for the game and its fans that makes this sport meaningful.

The great double-edged sword of human empathy is, of course, that it is incredibly parochial. The in-group versus out-group mentality is useful when there is a shared trauma or threat, but our natural instinct to be more empathetic toward people inside our tribe than outside of it breeds the inability to see the perspectives of those different from us.

It’s hard to imagine a more obvious manifestation of the tribalism and bias involved in empathy than sports fandom. A classic study of soccer fans in the U.K. showed that fans were more willing to help a stranger in distress if that stranger was wearing a jersey of their own team, rather than a jersey of a rival team. However, prior to the experiment, when fans were asked to write about how much they love the game of soccer in general as opposed to focusing on how much they love their particular team, willingness to help a stranger sporting a rival jersey rose. This demonstrates our ability to expand our in-groups and–even implicitly or subconsciously–seek common ground. 

Sports and sports fandom create a perfect storm. Both incredibly tribal and brimming with dehumanizing language in multiple lines of discussion and analysis about the game, the end result is players being treated as the out-group. This hasn’t arisen by accident. It is a phenomenon borne of a long an entrenched history of players literally being treated as property. Players were not able to successfully unionize until the 1950s and the free agency system as we know it today did not exist until two decades later. Prior to players obtaining these rights, players were bought and sold like cattle. 

John Montgomery Ward, the star player primarily responsible for the first effort—dubbed the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players—to organize baseball players, described the buying and selling of players exactly as a “live-stock transaction.” Curt Flood, the hero in the fight for free agency in baseball, famously wrote in a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn requesting to be a free agent, “I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold.” After Flood sued Major League Baseball to challenge the reserve clause in a landmark challenge to the status quo of labor relations in baseball, he declared to sportscaster Howard Cosell, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.” Flood’s comparison of baseball players to slaves not only highlights the utter lack of agency players have had historically, but also alludes to the underlying racial dynamics inherent in this discussion, of which he was acutely aware. 

Parlance that treats players as commodities still reigns supreme–“selling high,” “buying low,” etc. The language used to describe young players and prospects only fans these flames. Read any scouting report and it’s hard to miss comments about a player’s body, his makeup, and his projected future value as a number or grade. National baseball writers working for prominent outlets are crafting lists of which players provide the most “bang for the buck,” and even advocating for such calculations to factor into voting for performance awards. This language is pervasive—even among the self-professed “woke” members of the baseball community—and it is dangerous. It seeps into our vernacular, insipid on the surface, but causes irreparable harm on its way to the justification of more insidious acts, such as the exploitation of children–once again underscoring the role racism has played historically and continues to play in the dehumanization of players.

As sabermetrics continue to become more advanced and public access to data increases, the temptation to view players as numbers can become more prominent. Fantasy sports, which put fans in the seats of front-office personnel, only exacerbate this distancing effect. “In fantasy football, we’re valuing players according to what they can do for us,” said Renee Miller, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in an interview with the New York Times. “The fact that we are using football players for our own purpose necessitates our distancing ourselves from them. They are people, but people who work for us, and with whom we have no personal contact.” Fantasy baseball is certainly no different in this regard and increased access to data, along with sports betting becoming more mainstream, have fueled the expansion of the fantasy sports industry at a breakneck pace.

What sets baseball apart from the other major team sports in America, though, is its unique adherence to a sense of tradition and the “unwritten rules” so often discussed in baseball circles. There are countless examples in baseball of players being actively discouraged from showing their personality and in some cases even being demonized or punished for doing so. Simply ask Tim Anderson or any other player who flipped his bat a little too vehemently or celebrated his achievements a little too much. Or ask Manny Machado, who recently discussed the double-standards inherent in how MLB doles out its punishments for breaking rules, written and unwritten. This goes far beyond how players choose to express themselves on the field and extends to their personal lives. Players have been criticized in the past for taking paternity leave for the birth of their children.

When Adam Jones faced backlash for using his 10-5 rights to reject a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018 he said in an interview with The Athletic, “I did what was best for Adam Jones and his family. If people don’t like that, you know me, I don’t care about that. That was a personal decision. It was a right that I earned. The thing is, most people get mad when athletes have rights. They think we are little puppets. I’m not a puppet. I earned those rights.”

He went on to say, “We are athletes, we are seen as these superstar athletes. But the second we start to act like normal people, we are assholes. Why? I bleed just as you bleed.”

Why indeed? The baseball media, baseball fans, and even teams foster a culture that treats players like machines rather than human beings who bleed just as we bleed. Players are routinely encouraged to “rub some dirt in it” and play through injuries, often to the detriment of their long-term career prospects. They sacrifice not only their physical health, but their mental health as well. Robert Whalen has been open about the fact that he did not get the help he needed to address his depression while he was playing. He is certainly not the first player, nor will he be the last, to put the game ahead of his basic well-being. One particular phrase from Whalen sticks out: “I was kind of losing my identity as a person.”

As analytics increasingly become part of the fabric of baseball–and for good reason–it is essential that we do not check our humanity at the door. We may all be nerds here (well, at least I am), but sports fandom is, at its core, an emotional experience. More empathy toward ballplayers would go a long way toward making the game we all love better in innumerable ways. “It is simply the right thing to do” should be a good enough reason on its own, but deploying more empathy in fandom has tangible positive effects. By rooting for the back of the jersey as well as the front, a fan instantly gains more sources of joy in the game through seeing players he or she may have fallen in love with on his or her own team succeed elsewhere. By putting pressure on the league to treat players fairly, fans have the power to allow players to funnel more of their passion into the game and less of it into bargaining with Major League Baseball. And when players are happier, it manifests itself on the field in a way that makes for a better fan experience.

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There is evidence that players directly link fan support and interaction to their own enjoyment of the game. During the heat of a playoff race this time four years ago, Bryce Harper famously expressed his disappointment with fans leaving early, saying, “Hopefully our fans show out for the next three days and we can have some fun and enjoy the game of baseball.” Conversely, all it takes is witnessing the reaction of a child when a player acknowledges them in some way to realize that it is the human moments of baseball that make a fan for life, even beyond team loyalties. 

Social science arms us with strategies we can employ to be more empathetic consumers of the game without sacrificing a lot of the in-the-weeds analysis that we enjoy. Evaluate the language you’re using when talking about a player and be cognizant of the fact that the player is a human being. Be a little less online (I know, I know, not always easy). Instead of just reading players’ words, listen to interviews with those players. Or better yet, go see them play in person rather than just behind a TV screen. The joy that players exude is infectious. Every once in a while, watch games where your team is not playing. Of course, as a passionate fan myself, I would never advocate for renouncing team-specific fandom altogether. But finding ways to express our love for the game as a whole allows us to extend our “tribe” to include baseball players and fans, rather than just fans of our own teams. 

Every time I think about what makes me cynical about the state of the game today—teams tanking, extensive $/WAR treatises, propositions of doing away with minor league baseball—I remind myself of the moment I became a lifelong baseball fan in the first place. It was, in fact, around this time 18 years ago. I was a month away from my 11th birthday growing up in suburban New Jersey, less than 30 miles from Manhattan. Ten days earlier, I heard the screams of my classmates whose loved ones worked in the World Trade Center and watched them taken out of the room by crisis counselors. I learned what the word “terrorism” meant. I was processing concepts and feelings well beyond my emotional maturity level—old enough to understand, but not really understand, what was happening in my community and my country. And I was scared. On September 21, my family did what we always do on an evening during baseball season: we watched the Mets. It was the first professional sporting event in New York since the attacks.

I don’t need to recount all of the details here because you know them. Mike Piazza’s home run was the first time I felt normal again. It was the first time I felt OK again. And it was a moment that transcended team or tribe. It was a moment where the beauty of the game of baseball helped heal a city and a nation. It was a moment where human empathy ruled the day. And it was the moment when I became a Mets fan and a baseball fan forever. 

We do not need another monumental national tragedy to capture that connection and joy in the baseball fan experience. We can live it in small ways every day by enjoying players’ unique personalities and seeing their humanity. Let the kids play.


Allison McCague is a Science Fellow with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University working in the New Jersey state government. She has a PhD in Human Genetics from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. An avid Mets fan, she writes and podcasts about Mets baseball for Amazin' Avenue.
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kylerkelton
Member

You can have it both ways. Fans can celebrate the achievement of players and the joy that they bring to our lives by playing this beautiful sport that we love, while also recognizing that this is a business and the ultimate goal of teams is to win games. So and so reliever may be the nicest guy in the world but if he has a 9.69 ERA then he’s probably going to get DFA’d. You can love and appreciate him as a person while also being realistic about his shortcomings as a baseball player. I get your point but you… Read more »

Bigperm8645
Member
Member
Bigperm8645

Yep, just don’t boo them for taking paternity leave, or if they holdout for more money, or if they leave “your” team for more money and/or better opportunities. That’s the point. It’s not hard to be decent.

baubo
Member
baubo

I would be treated as a commodity too by my employer if I actually had enough value to be treated as such.

If tomorrow my boss told me he will give me a 1000% raise and guarantee it for the next 5 years but in return I may be asked to work in a different city each year, I would sign that contract in a second

v2micca
Member
Member
v2micca

I was just thinking this morning that I wanted a blogger to lecture me about how I was enjoying the game of baseball the wrong way.

Famous Mortimer
Member

I’m doubly happy because I was hoping for snark from a boring commenter.

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

I don’t think she’s attempting to lecture anyone. She’s simply raising awareness of the fact that it can be rather easy to forget these players are human.

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

I agree that people should view players as humans rather than property. But the Curt Flood comment has always seemed rather ridiculous to me. A “well-paid slave” is not a slave; slaves don’t get paid. And ballplayers, however unfairly they were treated before free agency-and I support the players in getting their money-they could always quit baseball. Slaves were not able to quit their employer. You can say that quitting baseball is not a realistic or fair option, but that’s true for many jobs. It doesn’t make them slaves. But, fans often view players as not being human because they… Read more »

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Re: Mickey Mantle. Good point. Our perceptions of ball players are intertwined with our youth. We initially view them through a lense that is, in hindsight, distorted by imagined innocence and purity. Sort of like living a life of drudgery and thinking back to fond memories your first girlfriend when you were 16.

Bigperm8645
Member
Member
Bigperm8645

Lot’s of good points here…except the slave part. Its semantics. Slaves do get “paid” in food, housing, etc, its just that they don’t have a choice to quit or not, which, as you mention, is the difference between baseball players. Many people feel as though they are “slaves” to their jobs, because if they didn’t have the job they couldn’t support their family with food and housing, etc. Many people feel as though they cannot “quit” their jobs, because of that. Baseball players are no different, just because they make more money than the average worker. For example, if you… Read more »

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

There are people that have quit careers. The keyword in what you said was ‘feel’. Yeah, someone may feel like they can’t quit, but they very well CAN. It may be hard and it may mean less money, but no one is forced to work a certain job. As an electrician, I would hate to quit my job, as it’s the only real money-making skill I have… but I could always quit. It would suck, but no one is forcing me to be an electrician. And it’s not all about “priviledge”, either. Sure there are people in the world that… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

Slaves got paid in order to keep them alive to perform work at the behest of their master. Yes, people often feel they are “slaves” but it doesn’t mean that they are. It’s not a matter of semantics. People retire from playing baseball. Slaves cannot-unless their masters permit them. I have no idea what you mean by saying “you can always quit” comes from a position of major privilege. What “privilege” am I exhibiting. I agree that most people cannot realistically simply quit their job. That does not make them a slave. Second, a major league baseball player can easily… Read more »

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City

Some slaves were paid. Some slaves earned enough to buy their freedom. Many slaves were able to hunt, trap, grow vegetables and sell them for cash. Slaves were generally given food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, and some pay they could use on their own. Most slaves retired from working at some point (assuming they lived long enough) and were afforded what amounts to pensions along with the money they had earned. Slavery is evil and cannot be justified. But when you make clearly false claims like “slaves don’t get paid” you are doing history an injustice. There is no need to… Read more »

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

I see what you did there!

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

Even if some slaves were “paid” they had no right to quit their job. I don’t see how you can honestly equate slave “pay” with Curt Flood making $90,000 a year. Flood may have been exploited but he was not a slave. And that’s not even discussing the fact that slaves were often brutalized if they didn’t work hard enough. I don’t think Curt Flood was beaten for missing the flyball in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.

bsheeek
Member
bsheeek

Wow, tough crowd. I created this fangraphs account solely to comment that I really enjoyed this article. Sure, there’s room for different opinions and further discussion. But we never need less proponents of human dignity. Thanks for writing

jtwood426
Member
jtwood426

I hardly ever comment, but I’m doing so just to agree with you. I’ve also spent a bit of time marking down the other comments and upvoting yours.

cjl933
Member
cjl933

wow, you’re so brave

baubo
Member
baubo

I personally believe in human dignity very much. I have worked in China for almost a decade and I cannot even begin to rant about the ways many human laborers are treated there.

Which is why I find the idea that major league baseball players are the ones that should be getting our sympathy because they deal with the trade deadline and teams only offering them 3mil instead of 10mil to be a bit offensive for actual inhumane treatments that exist in the world.

lilpudge
Member
lilpudge

This is fair, but it also doesn’t take much effort to make a small change to the language we use for athletes, relative to the work it takes to improve conditions for workers who face more serious oppression. I think we can find the time and energy to be a little more careful and kind without losing the opportunity to care deeply and act to help people in more serious trouble.

baubo
Member
baubo

Sure, but it also takes no effort to improve the language we use for our family, friends, co-workers/fellow students, people we talk to in our lives. Things that are much more beneficial to ourselves and to society. If you can name a group of people that if you treat them better, your life and their lives will become much better as a result, professional athletes that you don’t know personally probably ranks very, very, very low on the list. There are many times in life where I think back and feel like if I just did something different, I would… Read more »

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

But this is a baseball site… so I’m not sure what your point is. Sure, there is some messed up stuff going on in other countries (and in the US!), but I think it’s ridiculous to expect an article raising awareness of global issues to be found on The Hardball Times…

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

Very well said bsheek. I think it’s because this is a sensitive topic that results in people making intentionally unnecessary generalizations. I mean obviously the author of this article isn’t personally accusing us of dehumanizing players. She simply wrote a well-written article about an appropriate subject. It’s nice to read a non-baseball-stat piece.

But it’s hard for some people to just simply disagree.

runningfrog
Member
runningfrog

The median salary of a Fortune 500 CEO is $11.5 million. There were over 100 baseball players who made more than that last year.

Players are valued based on their ability to generate ad revenue targeted to men over 50. Until the demographics of baseball fandom change (and they have shown no sign of doing so for years), that’s what’s driving the bus.

Famous Mortimer
Member

An excellent article. Wrong crowd, though, as Fangraphs Brain means you’re encouraged to think like you’re a GM rather than a fan of baseball. Allowing billionaires to generate even more obscene extremes of wealth is more important than how entertaining the game is.

cjl933
Member
cjl933

What a fucking stupid take

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

Being a fan of baseball means thinking about how teams can improve. That involves trading players. It’s a condition of being a professional athlete, no different than a condition of being any professional. I sympathize with players who are traded; it’s obviously disruptive to their lives and their families. But it is a part of the profession they chose to enter. I don’t even know what being encouraged to “think like a GM” means. Part of the entertainment of the game is how teams change and improve. I certainly think people should think more about players as humans, but your… Read more »

Mac
Member
Mac

There are so many dimensions to this. Goes far beyond baseball to the fundamental question of humanity in a workplace where we have strict dollar values on our labor. And boy is that a tough philosophical conundrum. And why even have work? Work is social construct that enables a more specialized society. An ability to divide responsibilities. Which gets at an even deeper human question – what is the right to individuality versus the need/desire to perform tasks for the collective good of the whole group? Both empathy and selfishness are hard-baked into our human consciousness and often are put… Read more »

cjl933
Member
cjl933

Lol what a ridiculous waste of characters on a page. Another bullshit strawman argument where the only point of evidence is, predictably, a stupid podcast.

channelclemente
Member

What’s interesting is the almost schizophrenic shifting back and forth of a single fan at times to decry a players contract as overvalued, and in the next breath to talk about the players family and its value.

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

I don’t see why it’s “schizophrenic.” You can believe that a player’s family is important and still think their contract, especially when it millions or hundreds of millions, is excessive relative to his value. I don’t see how the two things are necessarily inconsistent. I mean, we aren’t talking about coal miners or migrant laborers or factory workers. These are men making enormous amounts of money at a job that they most likely love. I don’t begrudge it to them but let’s not act like they are just simple workers. I certainly agree that fans should see the players as… Read more »

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City

I notice a trend among sports writers, commenters and broadcasters to refer to players as “PIECES” when discussing trades.

“Pieces” of what?

That dehumanizes players as (at best) abstractions (as “pieces of a non-existent puzzle), or (worse) “pieces of meat”… Or even sexualizes them as “pieces of ass”.

We are talking about people, not “pieces”.

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

Awesome piece. Very well written. I agree with 𝗸𝘆𝗹𝗲𝗿𝗸𝗲𝗹𝘁𝗼𝗻. I don’t think it’s necessarily this simple. Of course fans, writers, front offices…etc shouldn’t treat players as pure commodities, but at the end of the day this sport is a business. We see guys like Kiley McDaniel and Eric Logenhagen used terms like “FV”, and while they are in a sense talking in terms of monetary worth (using a scale to rate a prospect, which is used to determine his worth, as well as prospect capital for an org), I don’t really believe McDaniel and Logenhagen are dehumanizing these players. I… Read more »

Reuben Walker
Member

Really beautifully and simply put. Thank you. I needed this reminder this morning.

chrlud64
Member
chrlud64

Let me get this straight. Highly paid professional athletes, who market themselves and set themselves up as commodities to determine their own worth and how much they should be paid, are all upset when their performances are evaluated in the same manner? And they’re deserving of human empathy even after their own routine betrayals of fans and disrespect of the sport itself? The players made their bed with free agency and high salaries so now they have to sleep in it. I’m just old enough remember baseball pre-free agency(late 60s/early 70s) and I remember the fans having a lot more… Read more »

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

I don’t disagree that pro athletes often exhibit very entitled behavior. I also agree that anyone operating in a market economy essentially is a commodity, like it or not. But your comment that people had more respect and empathy for players pre-free agency is essentially saying they weren’t as jealous of players as they are now. And I’m not sure I necessarily agree anyway. Players who held out for more money-even though they were clearly being paid below market-were often condemned just as much as now. The point is, free agency wasn’t a gift bestowed on players by fans or… Read more »