Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 21, 2021

Two Stories That We’ve Heard Far Too Many Times

When the stories broke, the principals were separated by five time zones, and the precipitant events by as many years. Their equivalence might be a subject for debate by some, though that is not the point here, as both were surely abhorrent enough. Whether it was star golfer Justin Thomas uttering a homophobic slur after missing a putt at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii the weekend before last, or recently hired Mets general manager Jared Porter harassing a female reporter with increasingly graphic text messages while he was with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, what made the accounts especially depressing was their familiarity. Two more tales of entitled males in the sports world behaving badly.

In fairness to both the PGA Tour and Major League Baseball, sports are scarcely the only field in which men regularly use hateful and hurtful language or abuse positions of power and authority for their own gratification. But despite Charles Barkley’s famous 1993 ad campaign for Nike, which quite reasonably asserted that the job of role model properly belongs to a child’s parents, the heroes of our games will always be looked up to, and not just by the young. Barkley may have gazed into the camera and said, “I am not a role model,” but every athlete who has ever been placed on a proverbial pedestal by fans of any age has assumed that function, willingly or not.

That inescapable and obvious reality makes Porter’s conduct especially egregious. While he never played baseball beyond the college level, he moved steadily up the front office ranks after starting as an intern with the Boston Red Sox in 2004. By 2012 he was the Scouting Director for Boston, and then followed Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein to Chicago where he served in the same role for the Cubs. Prior to the 2017 season he was named Assistant General Manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, before being picked by Mets president Sandy Alderson to replace Brody Van Wagenen as the team’s GM just last month.

Front office staff may be largely unknown to the fans in the stands, but they are important sources of information for reporters covering a team, no matter the sport. This week ESPN reported that while in Chicago, Porter attempted to capitalize on the power inherent in that relationship by sending over sixty unsolicited and increasingly salacious text messages to a female reporter covering the Cubs. The woman, a foreign correspondent in this country specifically to cover baseball, ignored the messages, though her lack of response clearly did nothing to dissuade Porter. His pursuit included sending pictures in addition to texts, first selfies, then a photo of an apparent erection bulging beneath a pair of pants and, finally, a picture of a fully erect penis.

When ESPN reached Porter for reaction prior to publishing the story, his response spoke volumes. He first acknowledged texting the woman but said he had not sent any photos. Then, when told the sports network had seen the selfies and other pictures, he claimed the explicit ones were “kinda like joke-stock images.” Finally, he asked for more time before the story was released. In short, denial followed by a grasping attempt at self-preservation.

Against that laughably low standard, Thomas’s reaction at least came across as one of genuine dismay. During the third round of the PGA Tour’s opening 2021 tournament, played on the island of Maui, the winner of the 2017 PGA Championship and a dozen other Tour events missed a short putt for par. His reaction was to utter the slur in a voice loud enough to be easily picked up by the greenside microphones. Interviewed after the round on the Golf Channel, Thomas said “There’s just no excuse. I’m an adult, I’m a grown man. There’s absolutely no reason for me to say anything like that.” He then added “It’s terrible. I’m extremely embarrassed. It’s not who I am. It’s not the kind of person that I am,” while promising to “be better” in the future.

Both Porter and Thomas soon learned that their actions and words came with a price. The ESPN story ran Monday evening, and by Tuesday morning the tenure of the Mets GM ended, barely more than a month after it had begun. The PGA Tour doesn’t employ Thomas, so firing him wasn’t an option, though he has surely been assessed a hefty fine (the Tour never reveals its disciplinary actions). But he did lose his longstanding endorsement deal with Ralph Lauren. The clothing company, which has sponsored Thomas since before he was a major champion, announced late last week that “his actions conflict with the inclusive culture that we strive to uphold.”

Actions have consequences, yet as always happens in these cases the Mets’ firing of Porter and Ralph Lauren’s cancelling of its contract with Thomas prompted questions about the appropriateness of each response. While sympathy for Porter was limited, there were a few outliers who focused on either the reporter’s decision not to act in 2016 or the timing of ESPN’s story. The first point ignores the power relationship involved, which was made that much greater by her unfamiliarity with both American mores and the English language. It also pretends that this saga is somehow unique. In fact, as Tyler Kepner wrote in the New York Times, “it graphically illustrates the garbage many women endure while working in and around baseball.” As numerous female journalists have vouched, Kepner’s only error was limiting the problem to one sport. And ESPN had no obligation to perform the Mets’ due diligence by informing Alderson of the percolating story before Porter’s hiring was announced. After saying, following the firing, that the ballclub had received glowing character reviews of Porter during the hiring process, Alderson was asked if the Mets had spoken with any women. He admitted to Hannah Keyser, the female baseball writer for Yahoo Sports who posed the question, that they had not.

Because of his apparent contrition Thomas’s loss of his major sponsor was met with more second guessing. But the clothing company has a long history of activism on LGBTQ concerns, so could hardly be expected to ignore the outburst by their paid spokesperson. More important, as a wise observer pointed out, while Thomas may have uttered the slur in the heat of the moment, it was manifestly in his vocabulary. Equally manifest is the reality that there is not a single major men’s sport in which gay men are welcomed without prejudice. Perhaps that was part of the reason Ralph Lauren, in its statement, held out the possibility of a reunion with Thomas, provided he “uses his platform to promote inclusion.”

If it is naïve to think that stories like these will disappear, one can at least hope that those whose names are associated with them ultimately learn a positive lesson. But for Justin Thomas, and Jared Porter, and all the other names that preceded theirs and the far too many that are no doubt still to come, the proof of that lies not in a sound bite, but in their future actions.

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