How we talk about contracts between players and teams
The language we use affects the way we think about concepts on both a conscious and subconscious level. For example, an MIT study from 2007 studied English speakers and Russian speakers. The Russian language doesn’t have a single unifying word for the color blue, but English does, of course. Their study found that Russian speakers were 10 percent faster at distinguishing between light blues and dark blues than distinguishing blues within the same shade category.
With that in mind, I’d like to discuss the way we use language with regard to contracts in baseball. Last week, Jose Altuve signed a five-year, $151 million extension with the Astros. Bob Nightegale of USA TODAY tweeted, “The Houston #Astros reward Jose Altuve with 5-year, $151 million extension.” I responded, “This is me being pedantic, but this is bad phrasing. Altuve earned and negotiated $151 million. Saying the Astros ‘rewarded’ Altuve implies a one-sided affair with teams holding all the power.”
This, by the way, is not to single out Bob. Nor is it to lift myself up as somehow being morally superior or more “woke.” Doing cursory research for this piece, I went back through the ways I described contracts when I was writing on my blog Crashburn Alley and on Twitter in the past. I’m just as guilty as anyone for using slanted language to describe contracts and I wish I had been more aware back then.
Motivated by some people who responded to my tweet, I got to thinking about other ways we speak about contracts and how it shapes or perception of the dynamic between players and team ownership. There are plenty of examples. One such example, which we’ve complained about here in the past, is when new ESPN play-by-play broadcaster refers to a player as “property” of a team. What Vasgersian means is that the player is in a team’s minor league system, but what that language elicits is a picture of a player powerless against ownership, subject to their whims. Whether or not that picture is accurate is neither here nor there (and I would argue in this particular instance, it’s accurate, sadly). Allowing such terminology to become part of the language with which we talk about baseball serves to further the disparity in power and weaken our ability to empathize with players.
As with most analyses of language, this will be taken by some to mean I am calling for a ban on this language. I am not; I am simply writing all of this to make you think about the language you use and the world you implicitly paint by using it. If you want to be more mindful of the language you use, great. If not, I appreciate you keeping an open mind. Changing one’s language habits seems daunting at first, but it’s remarkably easy once you dip your toe in the water. What you gain for it is invaluable: you do your part in creating a more equitable world for all of us.
With that being said, here are more examples.
- Calling a contract a “flop,” “coup,” or “liability”
This takes, by default, the point of view of the front office. In using this language, one is likely to empathize with general managers and team owners, not the players. It is biased language. A “coup,” for example, is defined as a “violent seizure,” usually of power from a government. In this context, calling a contract a “coup” for a player implies he got one over on the team. In reality, he and his agent used their available leverage to bargain for a salary to which the team voluntarily agreed.
In a similar vein, describing a contract as a “flop” or “liability” not only takes the point of view of the front office, but assumes that a player’s production is all that matters. His likeness is still used to market the team to fans in the form of tickets, merchandise, TV ratings, and advertisements. A player can legitimately be described as a liability if he does something that impacts that end of things as well, like being arrested for domestic violence.
- Talking about the “value” a team gets out of a contract
As above, this language forces the reader or listener to empathize with the front office rather than the players. It takes the humanity out of the process, reducing a player to what he provides for the team. And it usually focuses solely on his on-field production, not taking into account the other ways in which a team may capitalize off of a player, like merchandise and ticket sales.
- Analyzing the “winners” and “losers” of a contract
Continuing the theme as above, teams are almost always the subjects of a winners/losers analysis of contracts. Let’s use the five-year, $125 million contract between the Phillies and first baseman Ryan Howard as an example. The Phillies are considered to have been “losers” of that agreement. Howard suffered injuries and his performance declined from day one when the extension kicked in in 2012. The Phillies likely felt like they didn’t get a good enough return on their $125 million investment. Howard prided himself on being able to be in the lineup on a day-in, day-out basis and surely wasn’t exactly happy to accrue a total of only 151 games in the 2012-13 seasons. Like all major transactions, this was a complex and complicated one. To simply call the Phillies “losers” implies that Howard did absolutely nothing and the Phillies didn’t get any return on their investment at all, which further reinforces a pro-team, anti-player narrative. Howard still hit 96 homers with a .719 OPS over the life of the contract and the Phillies were able to market him to fans for five more years. It wasn’t a black-and-white issue.
- Talking about a player being “locked up”
This language is in the same vein as calling a player “property” of a team. Saying a player is “locked up” to a deal creates the imagery that he’s a prisoner being forced into labor against his will. I don’t believe people using this language have nefarious intent, but language matters. The two sides agreed to a contract of their own volition. Ostensibly, there was no coercion or force. Unrelated, but people also use this term when talking about getting engaged, as in, “I got her locked up.” That’s also worth thinking about.
- Describing a team as having “given,” “granted,” “handed out,” “dealt out,” or “shelled out” money to a player
This is fairly obvious, but this language puts discretionary power on the teams. The player earned that money by being a Major League Baseball player and performing at a level that created enough leverage for him and his agent to negotiate that salary. This language also gives the implication that the team made the choice out of its own good will, as if it is not also benefiting from the agreement. The team gets a player who performs feats of athleticism on the field and is able to be marketed to fans off of the field.
Historically, fans have sided with ownership on labor issues heavily. Fans blamed players for the strike in 1994-95. They scoff now at the idea of collusion among owners even though that very thing resulted in three grievances from the MLB Players Association in the 1980’s. The rise of analytics hasn’t helped, as it has further allowed fans to fantasize about themselves in the role of GM. Baseball video games now allow players to wheel-and-deal like Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, giving the option to bypass actual gameplay by simulating entire seasons. We’re putting ourselves in the players’ shoes less and less.
Perhaps in the near future, spurred by more mindful language selection, baseball fans will begin to empathize with the players. Instead of worrying about the bottom line for a billionaire team owner, they finally understand the plight a Single-A player faces when forced to choose between eating dinner or filling up his gas tank. Maybe they’ll cheer when a player signs a big contract instead of worry about how his team will be able to fit under the competitive balance tax. Maybe they will stop booing him if he slumps, no longer caring if he’s “justifying” his paycheck. And at the end of all of this, perhaps the MLBPA stands tall with a never before seen groundswell of public support when the current collective bargaining agreement ends on December 1, 2021. And maybe we’ll be able to overturn the awful piece of legislation that exempts minor leaguers from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which would force teams to pay them minimum wage and overtime.