In regards to Matt Joyce’s part in Slur-gate, I thought Bob Melvin summed it up perfectly on the manager’s show when Ken Korach referred to Joyce being contrite: “Well he should be.” If there is one thing all of us (except the homophobic and hateful around us) can agree on it’s that Joyce made himself, and the A’s, look bad in failing to handle a difficult situation with the good judgment expected of the professional.
What gets lost in the shuffle, though, is the unnecessarily low standards to which fans are held as they routinely blur the line between “heckling” and “good old fashioned verbal abuse” – and the distinction is really not that hard to make.
According to Joyce, his comments were in response to a fan’s repeated insults towards him and his family. Call me crazy (but please do it nicely) but I don’t see the admission price of a ticket buying fans the right to insult someone’s family just because they play for the “wrong team”. However, even if the right to insult a player, and even to insult his family, is a slippery slope to try to regulate and suppress, not all “heckling” is borderline enough to constitute any sort of a gray area.
Tucked at the end of Susan Slusser’s article on the topic is the note that “A’s left fielder Khris Davis has discussed the racist comments he hears on a regular basis while playing in the outfield.” That’s the end of the piece, not a segue into the vile and inexcusable epithets thrown the way of a player whose only apparent contribution to the issue is that he is black. Stay strong, Khris: Adam Jones feels your pain. As do dozens and dozens of players who have not had an article devoted to the abuse they have suffered at the larynxes of racist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful fans.
The defense I most commonly hear against abusive “heckling” is that fans pay for their tickets, as if money buys you not just a seat and some popcorn but also full immunity from civil conduct and societal rules. That’s nonsense. No one is suppressing your freedom of speech to insist that you refrain from hurling epithets at the performers, or even from leaving their family out of your drunken rants. Your ticket pays for your seat, under the rules set forth by the stadium operators.
Why are the stadium operators so forgiving of the flat out verbal abuse players are enduring on a daily basis?
As a fan you waive a lot of rights when you choose to attend a game. You waive the right to bring in your favorite hunting knife, because you are joining a large crowd of people and weapons are not considered to be a good fit with large crowds of strangers. You waive your right to be fully protected from flying balls and bats, or to join the action on the field even for the instant you fall over the tarp stretching for a foul ball.
Why the heck, then, don’t you waive your right to hurl vile insults around a player’s race, sexual orientation, religion, or family, without far greater accountability? In an era where public conduct in a large group can so easily be captured conclusively on phone video, identifying and prosecuting offenders is relatively easy. And it should be done. When you hear a fan at Fenway Park using Adam Jones’ race as the basis for shouting hateful speech an the outfielder, as a fan your first thought should be, “Wow, that dude’s about to be arrested.” Khris Davis, and every Khris Davis out there, should know that the stadium has his back. Matt Joyce should hear silence in the late innings, a testimonial to the fact that the fan who harassed him the first half of the game is no longer in his seat because he is in custody – or, if the abuse did not reach the level of actual prosecution, at least thrown out of the stadium.
You are not going to stop hateful people from speaking hatefully, but you can step up the response and accountability for hateful speech – just as MLB did appropriately in levying the 2 game suspension, and as the A’s themselves did beautifully with a quick and clear statement condemning Joyce’s words and actions.
Baseball has too long allowed fans to conflate “heckling,” “verbal abuse,” and “epithets,” promoting the “boys will be boys” mentality that fails to see the distinction. The distinction is really not that hard to make and the price for failing to hold fans properly accountable is not just that guys like Joyce will sometimes crack. It’s that guys like Khris Davis get overlooked because they stand there and take it. Because they have to.
They shouldn’t have to.