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Baseball's Toxic Culture Shows a Lack of Action for Gender Equality

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 8, 2021

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Opening Day is a month away, and it's already been a bad year for baseball.

MLB and the MLB Players Association are careening toward contentious labor negotiations when the collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of 2021. Billionaire owners are complaining about revenue losses at a time when hundreds of thousands of fans are unemployed.

The New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cleveland team and the Los Angeles Angels have been tied to allegations of sexual harassment. This is a widespread cultural issue, and it needs to be addressed.

A report in The Athletic by Brittany Ghiroli and Katie Strang revealed a pattern of harassment by former Mets manager Mickey Callaway, now the pitching coach of the Angels. Callaway has been suspended for a month as the league conducts an investigation, but it looks like Cleveland and the Mets may have had an idea about his conduct all along.

Jared Porter lasted just 37 days as the Mets' general manager. He admitted to sending 62 unreturned texts, including nude photos, to a female reporter in 2016 when he was working for the Cubs. New owner Steve Cohen chose not to tolerate this conduct. The Mets also dismissed hitting coach Ryan Ellis after a number of sexual harassment allegations against him by employees of the Mets.

On average, women make $0.81 for every dollar men make, just $0.07 more than five years ago, according to PayScale's Gender Pay Gap Report. The controlled gender pay gap—meaning women who do the same job as men—is better, as women make $0.98 for every $1.00 men make, but it's not the same for every race.

The uncontrolled gender pay gap shows some stark contrasts by race: Per PayScale, American Indian women, Black women and Hispanic women make only $0.75 for every dollar white men make. For Indigenous Hawaiian and Pacific Island women, the gap is $0.80; for white women, it's $0.81; and for Asian women, it's $0.95.

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It's even worse for women who have kids. The "motherhood penalty" can cost up to $16,000 a year in lost wages, as mothers make $0.71 for every dollar men are paid. Employers and co-workers can perceive women as being less devoted to their jobs after having children, and they're often pigeonholed into lesser roles that don't involve decision-making, which has an impact on the pay gap and earning potential.

If companies are looking to improve their maternity policies, then they should look to model them after those recently enacted by the WNBA. The league guarantees players will earn their full salaries on maternity leave and provides a child care stipend of $5,000; two-bedroom apartments for players with children; and up to $60,000 in reimbursement for veteran players who incur family planning costs related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing and fertility treatments.

For every 100 men promoted to manager-level roles, 85 women are promoted, per McKinsey and Company and LeanIn.org's Women in the Workplace study, and the numbers are worse for Black women (58) and Latina women (71). Women make up only 7.4 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. That is a small figure, yet the 37 women on that list are an all-time high.

Many may have thought the #MeToo movement would bring more immediate, more systemic transformations to workplace culture. But as the movement encourages survivors to tell their stories, we hear more and more.

One study reported that up to 35 percent of women in full-time corporate sector jobs have experienced sexual harassment, and that increases to 55 percent for women in senior-level roles.

Anyone can sexually harass or be sexually harassed, but especially in workplaces where men are overrepresented, harassment is more likely to be done by men and to women. And regardless of its intent, it's extremely uncomfortable for women to be treated in manners far different from their male colleagues.

Women stand out in sports, whether they are in front offices, training rooms or press boxes. They are scrutinized for their clothing, their mannerisms, their demeanors and the ways they speak. Men in locker rooms can get away with wearing just about anything, but a woman is considered unprofessional for dressing down and asking for attention if dressing up.

It's as if there is a target on our backs we can never remove. Journalists are taught to take themselves out of the story, but women, whose many other stories are often underrepresented, are increasingly finding themselves at the center of this particular story, which puts them in an uncomfortable position in their workplace.

One example of the treatment women face is the replies to this tweet by the New York Rangers when Madison Square Garden hosted a women's hockey game for the first time in the venue's 53-year history. The notion that women's sports are being "forced" onto fans feeds into the myth and takes away the magnitude of the moment as well as the quality of play in the game.

Last summer, Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle (now with the Cincinnati Reds) described sports as a "reward for a functioning society." Doolittle said this as baseball was beginning its summer restart, and his trepidation for the season was apparent. Like many athletes, the notion of playing while the pandemic was taking lives daily didn't sit quite right with one of baseball's most vocal players.

But the league forged ahead with the season, as others forged ahead with their plans to resume their seasons in bubbles. A multibillion-dollar economy all its own, sports proved too powerful to be stopped. So with that in mind, maybe sports aren't necessarily a reward for a functioning society—they are a microcosm of society. And if we learned anything from 2020, society seems to be malfunctioning.

Women are leaving the workforce in droves as a consequence of the pandemic. Years of progress are being undone during the pandemic as the unequal conditions of our culture cause many women to quit their jobs and assume caregiving responsibilities for their families.

Men are more likely to make more money than women, so if someone in a heterosexual partnership needs to take a step back to support children or older family members, it's probably going to be the woman. Their careers become expendable with lower wages.

Some women aren't even choosing to leave the workforce. They're being laid off. The pandemic has hit the education, hospitality and retail sectors hard, industries that tend to be more represented by women. Women accounted for 100 percent of the jobs lost in December, and while white women as a demographic saw employment increase in December, women of color again are being disproportionately impacted at the intersection of race and gender.

Plenty of people will read this and say women should be at home, and many caregivers, women included, relish being able to do so. But for others, it's not the right path.

It feels as though we can't get through a week without more news of gender-based discrimination or misconduct.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is being investigated for sexual harassment. The governor issued an apology Wednesday afternoon, getting to the crux of the issue: He lacked an understanding of how his actions made women feel.

"It doesn't matter, my intent. What matters is if anybody was offended by it," Cuomo said in his first public address since the state attorney general launched an independent investigation. "And I could intend no offense, but if they were offended by it, then it was wrong. And if they were offended by it, I apologize."

Only a day later, details of a 2013 internal investigation into former LSU football coach Les Miles were made public. The report, which was obtained by USA Today reporters Kenny Jacoby, Nancy Armour and Jessica Luther, contained allegations of sexual harassment and sexist comments about student workers.

Kansas, where Miles now coaches, placed him on administrative leave.

The thing about change is that there has to be a desire for it. It's clear there is an appetite for it among fans.

NBC Sports confirmed in January it had parted ways with NHL analyst Mike Milbury over the summer after an outcry from fans. Comments the former New York Islanders coach made about players having no distractions in the postseason bubble without women in attendance did not go over well.

The U.S. women's national soccer team has been waging a battle for the same pay and treatment as the men's team. A December settlement gained it equal access to working conditions, including chartered flights, similar accommodations and professional staff support. But those players are still fighting to close that pay gap.

If the sports industry, of all industries, can work toward eliminating toxicity and hostility toward women, others will take note.

How can it start? Stop employing players who have blatantly violated personal conduct and domestic violence policies, such as Antonio Brown. Don't allow them to be representatives of your organizations.

Start holding everyone accountable for their actions, regardless of their positions or status within the team. Leagues have enacted domestic violence policies and diversity and inclusion training, but teams often miss the mark by giving players and coaches who have violated those policies second, third or even fourth chances and then issuing hollow apologies.

That's not accountability—that's just bad PR.

MLB recently established an anonymous tip line to report misconduct called "Speak Up." While the tip line itself is run by a third party, reports will be investigated by the team or the commissioner's office. Club executives must also complete anti-harassment and discrimination training. It's a good start for a league grappling with a toxic culture.

Raise the standard on what will and will not be tolerated and enforce those standards from the top of organizations down to lower-level employees and the players on the bench.

End the boys club hires. Professional sports leagues are copycat leagues. They recycle the same general managers and head coaches with the old boys club providing the endorsements needed. Not only has it proved to be shortsighted when it comes to vetting candidates, but it leads to little diversity in thought.

The only thought that matters is winning at all costs, but voices from different backgrounds can still help teams win.

The NHL's Seattle Kraken haven't dropped the puck on their inaugural season, but they're bucking convention when it comes to building their team, their brand and their front office. The Kraken are trying to build an organization that mirrors the culture and diversity of Seattle with employees from different backgrounds and ethnicities, some of whom are new to hockey but still bring valuable attributes and skills.

A recent article by Marty Klinkenberg in the Globe and Mail detailed some of the hirings. Part owner, team president and CEO Tod Leiweke opened up about the staff diversity.

"We are building a little different organization, and it has led to a better culture, self-esteem and pride," Leiweke said. "This is about doing the right thing, and doing the right thing for the game we love. We are better for it, no question."

Two of those hires are Alexandra Mandrycky and Cammi Granato. Mandrycky, a data scientist, is the director of hockey administration for the Kraken, while Granato, a former player who became one of the first women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, is a scout for the Kraken. There are several other women working in high-profile positions for the newest NHL franchise.

Geoff Baker, the Kraken beat reporter for the Seattle Times, has covered the hirings extensively. Baker summarized the NHL's push for diversity as "a survival tool borne of decades spent overcoming its past as a de facto six-team house league dominated by white Canadian men."

The Kraken believe a diverse candidate pool will give them a competitive edge.

Professional sports teams are often viewed as prestige brands in their industry, but can we really continue to hold them in such high regard when their hiring practices are so outdated?

There is a saying in sports that pressure is a privilege. It's time for teams at every level to understand what comes along with the privilege of playing sports or working in sports and do the right thing. The world is watching, and sports across the globe can be the prime example of a future we want to see for our society.

If not, then baseball—and all other sports for that matter—can expect more ugly headlines in the future because there's no going back now.