Anna Polumbo-Levy: Clean up the game

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 7:41am

“Did you see the fight between Hunter Strickland and uh, what’s his name?” my dad asked me a few weeks ago.

I hadn’t, so when I hung up the phone, I did a Google search and the results were instantaneous. During the game, the San Francisco Giants’ pitcher, Hunter Strickland, hit Bryce Harper, a batter for the Washington Nationals, with the ball. A fight ensued and both teams cleared their benches to join in the fight. It had become an all-out brawl of sorts, guys on each side throwing punches and pulling players off each other.

The first article I clicked on started off giving a play-by-play of the fight, and a few paragraphs in, the author wrote, “the most entertaining part for me was…” Then the author went on to crack a joke about how Harper’s helmet throw at Strickland was so bad it was “funny.” I stopped reading. This was a fight, where people threw punches. People piled on top of each other, and without the extra protection provided by padding and helmets for football players. Both Strickland and Harper were suspended for multiple games. This fight was no joke, and it certainly didn’t feel like something we could call “entertaining.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have loved baseball since I was a little kid. Some of the most memorable parts of my childhood were sitting on my dad’s lap in his tiny home office watching the game on his fuzzy first-generation TV and eating hotdogs and popcorn at the park until I was sick. But as a lifelong fan, it’s incredibly upsetting to me that we aren’t treating violence as violence. It shouldn’t be chalked up to people simply getting heated, or people who are passionate about their sport.

I read a few more articles, hoping for something of substance. And while some took on a better tone, there were still far too many articles that were much of the same. Another guy weighed in the on the helmet throw. We should all “appreciate” the horrible helmet throw, he wrote. Another article was entitled, “The 5 Best Photos from the Bryce Harper-Hunter Strickland Brawl.” Then in one of the videos  of the fight that I clicked on, I could hear one of my favorite hometown announcers during the fight saying, “this is a good one folks.”

In fact, just a few days ago, an article in The Washington Post described how the MLB was planning to auction off Strickland’s jersey from that game, advertising it as the jersey he wore when he “was ejected from the game after fighting with Bryce Harper.” People on the internet also went wild with memes of the fight.

And imbedded within these articles and memes was something I found equally, if not more upsetting. People were quick to pounce on the Giants’ catcher, Buster Posey, who stayed out of the fight, and MLB fans were also unnecessarily critical. Instead of questioning why he didn’t get involved, instead of roasting him for not “helping his man,” as one fan wrote, we should be questioning why everyone else didn’t stay out of it. We should be applauding him for not getting involved, not shaming him for not putting himself at risk and adding fuel to the fight. And maybe, we should be taking a page from Posey’s book. We need to discourage, not encourage, this type of violence.

Yes, I know that for these players, this is their career, and like many passionate people, they can get heated and sometimes violent, especially if they think something big is on the line. But that isn’t something we should be comfortable with. And where else in a professional setting is violence such as this egged on? How often do you see a lawyer charging at the opposing counsel and throwing punches at them during a trial treated as entertainment? Sports and baseball shouldn’t be any different.

Instead of indulging fighting and violence in sports, as journalists, citizens, leagues, associations and fans, we should be working on sanctions and programs to minimize it. Journalists, calling the fight “entertaining,” the internet making memes of the fight, the MLB for advertising a jersey for auction as one that they brawled in, are part of the larger problem and encourage a sports culture where violence is not only acceptable, but a part of what makes the sport fun.  

Furthermore, this culture of normalized violence in sports has already made a big impact and will continue to do so unless something changes. In response to the fight, Harper said “sometimes you just gotta go and get them and can’t hesitate,” even if you might be suspended. And Strickland, in an interview, said he also didn’t regret the fight. Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs called the fight “awesome.” But they should have regretted what they did; fights aren’t “awesome.”

After all, would this Giants-Nationals brawl be considered “funny” if someone was seriously injured and it ended his season? Because as far as the game goes, everyone should realize they have a stake in making sure athletes are healthy: teams that want to win, the players who want to stay in the game, fans who want to see their favorite players play, owners who don’t want to pay a player to sit on the bench, the list goes on.

And even though sports such as football involve tackling and other somewhat dangerous play, there are still guidelines put in place to minimize the violence. In football, there are penalties for punching and other unsportsmanlike conduct; the NBA has fouls for excessive or violent contact that could result in injury. In the MLB, if you’re a batter hit by a ball at the plate, in almost every case, you get to advance to first base.

What’s more, professional sports are constantly working to make game play safer. In 2012, MLB adopted new concussion protocols. In 2014, new rules were made up for home plate collisions. In 2009, the NFL acknowledged the long-term effects of concussions for the first time and since then began implementing stricter concussion-prevention measures. Some of these rules have come after injuries such as Posey’s home plate collision in 2011, or when journalists and player advocates have put a spotlight on the dangers of concussions in all sports, and especially football.

So, if we are constantly trying to make the game itself safer, shouldn’t we also want the same for the moments in between the plays? The seconds before two players with a long rivalry seem like they’re about to charge at each other?   

And masking violence as entertainment and player passion will have consequences that will carry on for generations. Young kids who are watching and taking their cues from their parents, friends, favorite players and idolized journalists will grow up thinking this is acceptable behavior in sports — and likely in other aspects of their lives. In fact, in a 2015 Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans said they were sports fans. Sports seep into everyday life and has the power to influence so many people, even outside of those who follow or participate in sports. And thanks to the internet, it’s easy for anyone to stumble across videos and memes of these fights. So, it’s up to everyone, players, coaches, fans and journalists to change the way we talk about violence and fighting in sports. Otherwise, we all pay the price.  

Anna Polumbo-Levy can be reached at annapl@umich.edu