After two decades of covering people in sports, I can tell you one thing: It’s a low bar.
No one requires that the players, coaches, execs or media who work in the field be terrific human beings. It’s nice when they are — and many of them, many more than you hear about — truly are. But being a fantastic person is not the requirement.
The expectation is more like “mildly civil.” Or “not aggressively insulting.” Or — and this one has been particularly hard for some — be a person who does not regularly beat women and children.
So it’s remarkable when we have a stretch like the past few days, one that slithers under that pretty low bar.
And the thing is, it started out as a good week.
Comments about ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza
On Tuesday night, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza became the first woman to ever call a nationally televised Major League Baseball playoff game. Even better — she was excellent. Her analysis was focused, her insights nuanced, her delivery seamlessly integrated with her two male colleagues in the booth.
That Mendoza was so sharp shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
She grew up within baseball — her dad was a coach — and she played it as a kid. As she got older, she switched to softball, becoming an All-American at Stanford and a two-time Olympic medalist. And while softball and baseball are not the same thing, they are inarguably very close cousins. All told, the woman knows what she’s talking about.
Mendoza was met with largely rave reviews from media columnists when she woke up on Wednesday morning. Female sports fans all over the country — and there are a lot of them — noted her accomplishment as a landmark step toward being accepted in what is still largely a boys’ club. However, a vocal minority begged to differ.
The Internet trolls hit all their usual bases: get out of sports, go back to the kitchen, etc. But there were also sports radio hosts with bigger platforms chiming in, most notably Atlanta’s Mike Bell, who sent out a string of insulting tweets, the worst of which was, “tell us Tits McGhee when you’re up there hitting the softball you see a lot of 95 mile an hour cutters?”
Bell calling Mendoza “Tits McGhee” is a reference to the movie “Anchorman.” It is demeaning, of course. It’s also butchering a great movie, since he clearly doesn’t understand that the scene he’s referring to specifically highlights how stuck-in-the-past and sexist the main character is. Most confusing, he expects us to buy that even though he spends his works days getting paid to talk about sports, despite never playing any sport at an elite level, he’s more qualified to do that than a two-time Olympian just because she has a second X chromosome and longer hair than he does?
Bell eventually retracted his comments and apologized, and his radio station suspended him. And support for Mendoza poured in. The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons tweeted the team was “embarrassed by Mike Bell’s comments, given he’s on our flagship station. Inappropriate and disappointing.”
Comments from Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy
Meanwhile, in Texas, another controversy was simmering, this one around Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy.
You may remember hearing Hardy’s name a lot last year as the NFL wrestled with its response to domestic violence. Hardy was one of the players at the center of that: In July 2014, he was found guilty of assaulting ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder and threatening to kill her.
Holder testified that Hardy had dragged her by her hair into a bathroom and slammed her head against a wall, leaving visible marks, before throwing her on a futon piled with assault rifles and choking her.
After being convicted by a judge, Hardy appealed. Holder declined to testify in his second trial. In February, prosecutors were forced to drop the case, but a subsequent internal NFL investigation still found Hardy culpable. The league suspended him. That suspension ended this week.
You would think that after coming off a suspension for such a heinous series of acts, Hardy would want to keep a low profile. Or sound contrite. Or at least fake sounding contrite.
Instead, in his first media availability this week, Hardy declined every opportunity to express even the smallest amount of regret. He then started talking about how pleased he was the Cowboys were about to play the New England Patriots, because quarterback Tom Brady might be bringing his supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, for Hardy to look at during the game.
“I love seeing Tom Brady, he’s cool as crap,” Hardy said. “Have you seen his wife? I hope she comes to the game. I hope her sister comes to the game, all her friends come to the game. One of my favorite games of the year, guys.”
Hardy went on to say that he votes for fellow players to make the Pro Bowl based on the level of attractiveness of the wives or girlfriends they might bring along with them to the game. Oh, and he also noted that he wants to go out on the field this week “guns blazing.” I’m sure wherever Nicole Holder is, she was thrilled to see that reference.
On Wednesday evening, I asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell what he thought of Hardy’s comments. I was hoping for a strong rebuke.
Instead, Goodell said he wasn’t aware of what Hardy had said, despite that Hardy had said it in front of dozens of media outlets more than 24 hours earlier. Goodell then spoke at length about how most NFL players are good guys — something I couldn’t agree with more, but not at all relevant to a question on how he felt about Hardy’s comments — before rounding into a very broad discussion of NFL standards. Here’s Goodell’s response:
“… The vast majority of NFL players are outstanding young men. They do great things in their communities. I’m proud of what they do. They’re good family men, and they’re people that we should all be proud of. And that’s what we’re trying to highlight are the people that are doing things right.
“There’s a very, very, very small percentage of men who don’t follow the policies and when they don’t, they have to be held accountable. And we’ll do everything I can to prevent that, to intervene and to try to make sure that we get them to follow our policies and see the way the NFL does things, the standards that we hope to hold and we won’t compromise things.”
Things got worse after Goodell spoke.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who told SI he feels much the same way Hardy does. Jones said that when he saw Brady marry Bundchen, “Tom went up in my eyes 100 percent. She’s very, very attractive, and it shows what an outstanding individual Tom is.” Jones then doubled down on Hardy on a Dallas radio show on Friday, saying, “Here’s the deal, unless [Hardy] looks like he’s contrite, unless he looks like he is just absolutely whipped, and really obviously sorry for what his situation is, he’s going to be criticized.”
Um, yes, Jerry. We do expect someone with Hardy’s track record to at least sound like he’s sorry. But, wait, Jones didn’t stop there. He added that it was okay to talk about women solely in terms of their attractiveness because — wait for it — “Elizabeth Taylor made her life wanting people to say she was pretty.” You know, the same Elizabeth Taylor who worked to build a 60-year acting career, founded a company that has done more than a billion dollars in revenue and became a pioneering voice in the fight against AIDS, earning her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the French Legion of Honor and the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
So to summarize: Here is a high-profile NFL player, backed up by his high-profile owner, explaining that women are possessions/trophies, meant to be looked at and increase a man’s worth. Oh, and a commissioner who doesn’t feel any of that requires a strong or specific reprimand.
There’s a reason that thinking is so dangerous, and calls back to the reason Hardy was suspended in the first place: If women are merely objects, then beating their head against a bathroom wall isn’t that big a deal. After all, it’s not as if they’re actual, you know, people.
Also remember that Hardy’s comments came after going through the NFL’s domestic violence program, which is supposed to include a large dose of education and counseling. If this is the best the program can do, it’s not good enough.
At least at one point this week, the Cowboys tried some damage control.
On Thursday, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said he’d spoken to Hardy about the comments, noting “that’s not how we want to operate as an organization. Players and coaches in our organization understand that. We want to distinguish ourselves with our play, not with what we say.”
Personally, I think it’d be great if players wanted to distinguish themselves with both how they play and what they say. You know, “chase excellence in everything” and all those slogans we hear about in sports movies. But maybe Garrett is right, we can’t expect that much. Maybe for some, it has to be only about playing well on the field and keeping quiet off it.
After all, it’s a low bar.