It’s not a surprise that Jo Adell noticed the coded language of baseball. It’s a sign of the times that a 21-year-old prospect, in a sport where the young traditionally have been seen and not heard, would feel comfortable voicing that it’s a problem. It’s definitely a new frontier for Major League Baseball to amplify Adell’s message.
“It’s important to know that by the time most Black baseball players are being scouted professionally, many have been playing the sport for over a decade, just like white players,” Adell said. “So why are we ‘raw and toolsy’ and considered ‘high-risk?’ When a scout uses these terms to describe a player, more times than not they’re describing a Black baseball player.”
The racially-imbalanced usage of language in baseball is not limited to scouts. On an episode of R2-C2 earlier this month, hosts CC Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco brought together a group of Black players — Prince Fielder, Edwin Jackson, Cameron Maybin, and Chris Young — for “an honest conversation about race.” The entire episode was revealing, as the five current and former major leaguers spoke bluntly about some of their experiences with teammates, media, and police. And the subject of differently applied descriptors came into play.
“The biggest one is, they say, ‘he’s so well-spoken, he’s so well-dressed, he’s so well-behaved,’” Jackson said. “It’s like, how the fuck am I supposed to act? Am I supposed to act the fool? Like, I can’t talk right? I can’t have a good vocabulary, just because I’m Black? Am I supposed to speak in slang? I can differentiate between the two. I can be well-spoken when I’m supposed to, and I can talk slang when I’m supposed to. You’ve got to be able to flip the switch. That’s the definition of a real professional.
“I’m sure everybody you hear on TV don’t talk the same way off TV. It’s like, you can’t be well-spoken. It’s a privilege to be well-spoken and to be Black. It can’t just come naturally, like, ‘oh, you had to learn.’ The same way you learned to speak well, I learned the same shit.”
Having been a media member for nearly two decades, all of this rings true — not just in baseball, and not just in the United States. Two years ago, during the World Cup, Zito Madu wrote a great piece about “pace and power” at the World Cup. No writer I’ve worked with in my career has called out racial coding more than David Steele, who during the NFL draft nine years ago tweeted, “Unless (NFL Network analyst Mike) Mayock can give us conclusive proof, on air, about Newton’s ‘football IQ,’ he should be fired. It’s 2011. I’m tired of this shit.”
Cam Newton won an MVP and took the Panthers to the Super Bowl. Mike Mayock never offered any conclusive proof, didn’t get fired, and now is the general manager of the Raiders. Steele is still tired of this shit, he confirmed on Friday.
I’ve been on board with this for a long time, but at the same time, I know that I’ve stumbled over the course of my career into using racially coded language. I also know that I want to always strive to improve, which is why my first question when talking to Kelly Wright, who developed an algorithm that predicts an athlete’s race based on the words written about them, was about what journalists can do better.
“I think having candid conversations with Black athletes is a place to start,” said Wright, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan who wrote last fall for The Undefeated about the racialized language used around the Myles Garrett helmet incident. “People have been speaking up about this. … The players themselves who are written about have an idea of when language is being used that makes them feel objectified or exoticized because of their race. So there’s already this whole population who knows what words they are and what that feels like because they call them out. And I think the other thing is it’s part of the language of sport. It’s part of how people make meaning out of reporting about athletes, about how they are expected to perform.”
How much is it part of the language of sport? Consider the Heart & Hustle Award, given annually by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association to “active players (one per team) who demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and traditions of the game.
If that sounds a lot like “playing the game the right way,” which as has been pointed out, usually “means playing it the ‘white’ way,” well, since 2006, 60.7 percent of the Heart & Hustle honorees have been white, with six years where two-thirds or more were white players. Only once have white players not been at least half of the Heart & Hustle winners, and encouragingly, that was last year.
But even in places where there is vigilance and concern about being socially conscious, the racial coding of language in sports can still find its way through. Baseball Prospectus has been very forward-thinking throughout its history, and while still primarily staffed by white men, their annual handbook features a diverse cast of authors writing essays and player comments about each team, its players, and prospects.
Going back to the words Adell addressed specifically, it’s perhaps understandable that the 2020 BP Annual would apply “raw” (for talent, not individual tools like “raw power” or “raw stuff”) to only six white players, but 19 Black and Latino players. The discrepancy easily could arise because the majority of the players getting that tag are teenage signees from other countries, who turn pro two years earlier than their American counterparts are allowed to.
But what about “toolsy,” which for a prospect would be akin to saying “naturally talented” across a range of skills. The 2020 BP Annual uses this word to describe only two white players, but 11 Black or Latino players. “Athleticism” is applied to 23 white players and 29 Black or Latino players. For other charged words, it’s a testament to BP’s work that “gritty,” “gifted,” and “work ethic” barely appear in the book, each being applied to a half-dozen players or fewer.
“The use of coded words to describe players of different ethnicities is something we’ve made a point to address at Baseball Prospectus, going so far as to remove the ‘makeup’ box from our Eyewitness reports, because it was too easy to see it abused,” BP editor-in-chief Craig Goldstein said. “The disparities in application of coded words, and their use at all, in the Annual reflects the pervasiveness of the concepts at hand. We have additional work to do going forward as authors and editors.”
It’s a challenge for all of us in the industry, because it’s a challenge for all of us in the sports world.
“Something that a lot of people ask me about is, well, are all journalists doing this?” Wright said. “Are people who are underrepresented themselves, are they ‘better’ at not using racialized language? I don’t think so. I think that it’s part of how we use language, to speak and read, and create thoughts in our mind. We categorize. It’s how our brain works. We’re expected to put things in boxes with all the associations we’ve made.”
So, is that it? Are we just doomed, no matter how hard we try to avoid the pitfalls, to still fall into these kinds of patterns of language use? No. In fact, it’s worth continuing to try, but even more worth it for journalists to go and have the conversations that will deepen their understanding, because that’s the real way to get better.
“Because it comes from our understanding of people and the way they interact, that means it’s malleable,” Wright said. “The more that we learn about how people actually experience the things we write about and speak about, it makes us better describers and writers and teachers.”