Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a controversial righty on and off the mound, has opinions and is not shy about sharing them.
Even playing here in the bluest of states, Schilling hitched his wagon to the presidential campaigns of George Bush, at the time being challenged by favorite son John Kerry, and John McCain, running against overwhelming support in Massachusetts for Barack Obama. Being a key cog in bringing home the first World Series trophy in nearly 90 years gets you some cachet.
But the conservative lightning rod apparently reached his limit with his employer, ESPN, which fired him after he posted a picture of a less-than-attractive crossdresser and a comment associating it with his opposition to the fight over transgender access to public accommodations.
The canning of Schilling has, predictably, brought the controversy into the larger field of public debate and posed an interesting question: Does it say more about Schilling and his old-school world view or the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ intolerance for positions contrary to inclusiveness?
For Schilling, it was three strikes and out. Last year, he was suspended and removed from the prestigious Sunday Night Baseball telecasts and the playoffs for tweeting a meme comparing Muslim extremists to Nazi sympathizers. He returned this season as a studio analyst and a member of the Monday night broadcast.
In March, during a radio interview in Kansas, Schilling said Hillary Clinton should be “buried under a jail somewhere” for the allegations about her using a personal server to email confidential State Department information. ESPN did not take action on that one but decided the meme about so-called “bathroom bills” around the country was the last straw.
But what responsibility does ESPN share here? It’s not like Schilling’s views were known only to a handful of intimates. Give him a keyboard or a microphone and Schilling just can’t hold himself back. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for and in ESPN’s case, they got an outspoken political conservative who doesn’t feel compelled to restrict his views to what goes on between the lines.
But ESPN has a bunch of those types, except many espouse views on the other end of the spectrum. This is the network that selected Caitlyn Jenner to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at last year’s ESPYs show.
Some have paid consequences, though losing their job is not one of them. Stephen A. Smith, one of the leading voices on ESPN in support of Black Lives Matter, received a short suspension for suggesting victims of domestic violence have to take some responsibility for the actions of their assailants. Howard Bryant, a former Boston Herald columnist and leading voice on racism in sports, was suspended but kept his job after being arrested on domestic violence charges and assaulting a police officer in western Massachusetts. Baseball guru Keith Law had his Twitter privileges temporarily revoked for getting in spat with Schilling over evolution, which Schilling insists is an unproven theory.
Schilling doubled down on his position by posting a lengthy defense on his 38 Pitches blog blaming his detractors for looking to be offended. He insisted he’s no racist, homophobe, or transphobe, just someone who merely reposted a meme somebody else had already put up, failing to understand adding his own comments made it his own. His family, including his wife and son, also took to social media to call out the media for jumping on something posted on a personal Facebook page, again failing to recognize that the post was made “public” in a way for all to see before it was deleted.
Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley, who came out as gay a couple years back with little drama after decades of covering Boston sports, talked with Schilling about the controversy and found him to be unapologetic and thoroughly confused by the backlash, blaming it on the “black hole of social media.” Buckley says it’s a case of the guy just not getting it.
“And that’s my big problem with all this: It wasn’t the black hole of social media that got Schilling into trouble,” writes Buckley. “It was Schilling. He re-posted somebody’s grotesque caricature of a transgender person, and in doing so he stepped away from being the person who told me he’d embrace an openly gay teammate.
In an interesting side story, one of ESPN’s MLB editors is a transgendered former sportswriter, Christina Kahrl, a voting member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and one of the founders of the data geek favorite Baseball Prospectus. That may be one of the things the Disney-owned network had in mind when it released the statement touting itself as an “inclusive company” when it announced Schilling’s firing.
But in a bit of irony, just hours after firing Schilling, ESPN posted a meme on its Facebook page of NFL Houston Texans’ star J.J. Watt that read, “If people don’t like what I’m doing, they should just unfollow me.” ESPN took the advice and unfriended Schilling. Will viewers do the same to them?
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