The biggest name in sports needs to pull its weight in the fight for tolerance
Oh, did you hear? Former ace pitcher and current ESPN analyst Curt Schilling finally got fired yesterday for an anti-trans meme that went up on his Facebook page. And we say “finally” because the network has seemed to look the other way with Schilling for years now, despite the fact that he can’t stop putting his corporeal foot as well as his digital one in his mouth—a trend of personal idiocy intersecting with institutional cowardice that has become commonplace at the media giant specifically, and in professional sports generally.
The firing offense from Schilling involved a meme photo meant to mock outrage against North Carolina’s new “bathroom law”—the one that prevents trans people from entering bathrooms that don’t match the gender specified on their birth certificates—and it’s really just the latest from the once-vaunted pro baseball star. Eight months ago, Schilling tweeted another meme-style photo comparing the percentage of extremist Muslims in Islam to the percentage of Nazis in Germany under Hitler’s reign. Then there was his comment from two months ago about Hillary Clinton, who he said, “should be buried under a jail somewhere.”
Before being fired, Schilling took to his official blog to comment on the outrage over the posts involving Muslims and trans people. The post is called “The hunt to be offended…” and it's mostly a lot of anger and yelling about what amounts to haters who are too sensitive. Though he does say, oddly, that he "didn’t post that ugly looking picture" right before acknowledging that he "made a comment about the basic functionality of mens and womens restrooms, period." So, he didn't post the picture but he did make this comment?
“A man is a man no matter what they call themselves,” Schilling wrote. “I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”
It seems strange that he would make a comment without being the one to create the post, and considering his track record on social media we're going to stay pretty skeptical about that denial. After all, Schilling has a proven track record of loving discriminatory and/or conservative slanted shitty meme pictures. (He's a lot like that cousin you can't un-follow on Facebook because it would make Christmas awkward.) So going anti-trans doesn’t exactly feel like a bridge too far.
If you want to dive down the Schilling rabbit hole, Deadspin has been documenting his follies for some time now with stories like "ESPN's Curt Schilling Shares Bigoted Anti-Trans Meme On His Facebook Page", "And Now, Curt Schilling With Some Cool Thoughts About Muslims And Nazis", "Six Memes That I Swear Curt Schilling Shared To His Facebook Page", and "ESPN Shuts Down Curt Schilling For The Rest Of The Season". That last one explains how Schilling, who was about to be brought back into the announcing fold after being suspended for the Muslim gaffe, got his suspension extended after sending a rambling e mail to a journalist clarifying his position on members of the Islamic faith.
For months, it's like this guy has been begging to get fired. The Washington Post even reported that around the same time he was benched by ESPN, Schilling filed a form with the Federal Election Commission (to make a $250 donation to Ben Carson) that specified his employer as “ESPN (Not Sure How Much Longer)” and his job title as "Analyst (For Now Anyway).” What?!
But the strangest part of all this isn't even Schilling. It's the seemingly arbitrary decision ESPN made by letting him go. Yeah, Schilling shouldn't be a public face for a media company that isn't called Brietbart or Fox News, but he's given The Worldwide Leader In Sports approximately 1,000 reasons to can him up to this point. Hell, basketball analyst Chris Broussard still works for the network despite the fact that he called homosexuality "an open rebellion to God" on the air.
He also logged that perspective in an article for ESPN.com that essentially said the NBA is ready for a gay player because everyone has gotten so PC (thanks, Hollywood!) they’d be afraid to react with honest judgment or derision—even if they were totally going to get over it in the future when they realize their teammates aren’t sexual predators. Admittedly, Broussard doesn’t use the words “judgment and derision”, but you can read his thoughts and decide if he’s expressing anything but. This is all apparently acceptable, but when former ESPN employee Bill Simmons blasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell by calling him a liar he was fired after 14 years of service.
Deadspin has been monitoring this larger issue of ESPN’s hypocrisy for some time. (Like we said, they’re on it.) And in their post about Schilling, perfectly headlined “ESPN Fires Curt Schilling, Who Finally Became Too Much Of An Embarrassment”, the entire last half of the post explores why some discrimination is okay at ESPN but some isn’t. It’s a disturbing non-policy that suggests one of the biggest media organizations in the world only cares about hate speech and intolerance when suits them to, instead of being proactive about promoting a more welcoming environment for non-white, non-straight, non-male athletes and viewers.
Next to religion, Sports are the biggest thing on Earth. We have global tournaments that put different nations in front of each other in a way that only the United Nations is ever able to accomplish. Every two years we cheer our athletes on in the Olympics as they compete for the chance to honor their countries. Athletics and fandoms unite millions of disparate people from all around the world under one common banner, and while it is not all wine and roses when teams clash, it is still perhaps the biggest opportunity we have as a global society to promote a better, more tolerant world.
All this means that massive enterprises like ESPN (and there are hardly any like ESPN) have a real ability to move the needle on progress, and therefore a responsibility. If our heroes and gladiators are told, “We have to set a better example, and as a representative of this institution your regressive comments and hate speech will not be tolerated,” minority communities would have an incredibly powerful ally advocating for them on one of the biggest platforms in the world. The same goes for the professional organizations themselves, the NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL. These institutions cannot be holdouts from progress. They can no longer stay passive.
People who don’t claim allegiance to a team like to joke and throw out the term “sportsball!” Those people underestimate the staggering power of the allegiance between athletes and fans. Being passionate about a player can make people cheer for someone who assaults their child (Adrian Peterson), beats women (Ray Rice, Floyd Mayweather), is openly racist and homophobic (Richie Incognito) and kills dogs for sport (Michael Vick). We just watched an NBA regular season unfold in which a smiling Kobe Bryant went on a farewell tour through a disastrous season with arenas chanting “Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!” all over the country, despite the fact that he sexually assaulted a woman. Opposing fans cheered for him as they would a hometown hero.
There was tribute after tribute, and teary farewell after teary farewell, as we honored a man for months who, at the very least, did some things to a woman during sex that she asked him not to. Before the civil case that ended in a settlement, Kobe even acknowledged in his own words that what happened that night was not agreed upon by both parties: “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” (The case didn’t go to trial because Bryant’s alleged victim refused to continue cooperating with the process. It likely didn’t help that Bryant’s lawyers publicly burned her at the stake as a defense tactic and she also started receiving death threats from Bryant supporters. Because this is what fans are willing to do.) As Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote, “In 2003 Bryant essentially admitted that, while he does not believe a rape occurred… a rape may in fact have occurred.”
This. All of this is why we need an actively progressive ESPN—and UTA and every other major sports organization—that doesn’t just (subjectively) bat down intolerance, but functions with the expressed mission of promoting acceptance. People are starting to wake up on a massive scale, slowly but hopefully surely, and demanding better policies and greater acceptance of all people. The democratization of media through social platforms gives people the chance to better police injustice, but it also gives them a platform to cast hate speech. This is why we need our monolithic, trendsetting cultural institutions to set the tone and say, “It’s not just that we can be better. We have to be better.”
So, Curt Schilling is out. And it’s about time. But ESPN and all the enterprises that feed its machine need to start setting a better example. It’s time for the Worldwide Leader in Sports to start leading something a lot bigger and more meaningful than its brand, because that is no longer enough.