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Here’s the worst take you’ll likely ever see on netting at the ballpark

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 07: New protective netting stretches the length of the dugout to protect fans at Citizens Bank Park before the Philadelphia Phillies Opening Day game against the Washington Nationals on April 7, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

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There has been much discussion about extending the protective netting at major league parks over the past few years. Many teams have, in fact, extended their netting either voluntarily or in response to Major League Baseball’s “guidelines” encouraging clubs to extend it, issued a few years ago.

There has been no mandate for clubs to do so, however. MLB isn’t requiring extended netting. Some local governments, such as the city of New York, have made noises about requiring extended netting, but as of yet nothing has come of it. Courts which for decades have held that fans assumed all risk of foul balls and flying bats, have started to soften that stance on that somewhat, but there has yet to be any sort of definitive ruling which has forced clubs’ hands.

In light of all of that, it’s wholly inaccurate to characterize the topic of netting at the ballpark as some sort of nanny state or top-down authoritarian effort. It’s a largely organic movement inspired by many factors. Partially it’s about seats being closer to the field and some high profile incidents involving batted balls and flying bats. Partially it’s about the concern of liability on the part of teams resulting from those things. Mostly, though, it’s the result of everyone involved -- teams, clubs, players, fans, public officials -- realizing that it’s not a good thing for people to be injured by flying projectiles and seeking, in fits and starts, to find the best way to deal with it. Almost all efforts to this end have originated, in fact, with the clubs or leagues themselves, which are of course private entities, not the government or the courts.

But don’t tell that to Johnathan Tobin of The Federalist. He believes that extending netting is tyranny, to be blamed on “smart phones, trial lawyers, and the rise of the nanny state.” He argues that the effort is depriving fans of good views and depriving teams of revenues from expensive seats which he believes to be depleted once those seats are placed behind nets and made less desirable. He does not, however, note that the most expensive and desirable tickets in ballparks are those behind home plate, which have been protected by netting for over a century. Guess that would mess with his argument.

Most of his argument, though, seems to hinge on (a) fans being responsible for their own injuries at ballgames; and (b) those injuries being an acceptable cost of doing business. It’s a dumb argument on one level, in that he and people who parrot this stuff vastly overestimate their ability to focus on the game 100% of the time and their ability to react to a ball traveling at 100 m.p.h.

It’s also a shockingly callous argument, especially given his acknowledgment of the dire consequences being hit by flying projectiles can have for those who we
do not, legally, expect to assume the risk like everyone else and who we’d never expect to pay attention as much as we do or to react to the ball even as quickly as we do: children.

No decent person can look at a picture of an injured child, or anyone else who absorbed the impact of a ball or bat, without compassion. But at the heart of this issue is whether the state ought to regulate voluntary conduct because of the chance that someone might be hurt, particularly when the chances of a mortal injury are statistically insignificant. Records indicate that only one spectator has ever been killed by a ball or bat while attending a professional baseball game. But if you believe it is the obligation of government to prevent even one fatality every half-century, that decides the question.

That’s what happened in ice hockey when a freak accident in which a child was killed by a flying puck in 2002 forced the National Hockey League to erect vast nets at both ends of rinks. There had been no fatalities before that and none since, but it also meant that a great many spectators must now put up with viewing the game through an obstruction.

While it has become cliche to offer “won’t someone think of the children?!” arguments in response to every potential risk, Tobin’s explicit dismissal of the risk to children -- including the death of Brittanie Cecil, the girl he references in that second paragraph who died when hit by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game -- is twisted. They’re not the ones hiring lawyers or looking at cell phones during games. Tobin’s blanket “hey, you should just pay attention, folks” argument does not speak to them nor should it.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to read this piece as anything other than paint-by-numbers ideological conservatism which cares little for the reality on the ground. It’s all here, really:

  • Fear-mongering about the “nanny state” despite 95% of the effort of extended netting at ballparks being driven by private companies making relatively informed decisions and weighing tradeoffs;
  • Fear-mongering over “out of control trial lawyers” -- note his ignorant shoutout to the McDonald’s coffee case at the end, a sure sign of a man who does not know what he’s talking about -- despite there being little if any successful litigation related to batted-balls;
  • Rejection of reality -- reality in which people, in practice, rarely if ever complain about netting and which teams and players all like it -- in favor of some theoretical impingement on “freedom,” which the author believes to be constantly imperiled;
  • Concern over the theoretical profits of corporations despite the fact that there is little if any risk to baseball teams’ profits due to the extended netting. Again: the most profitable and expensive seats at ballparks have always had netting in front of them.

I am the last person who will ever tell someone to stick to sports or to politics or to whatever subject in which the author happens to claim expertise. But if you’re going to inject your political obsessions into a sports story, you had best know what the hell you’re talking about first. Tobin obviously doesn’t in this instance and obviously doesn’t care. And as such, he should be ignored on this topic.

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