WASHINGTON — A scene in “Bull Durham” shot into my head when it was announced on Wednesday that former MLB pitcher and analyst Curt Schilling had been fired by ESPN, an inevitable and long overdue conclusion to a series of online political outbursts.
At a crucial point during a game in the film, Crash Davis, the catcher played by Kevin Costner, dives to make a tag on a runner sliding into home. The umpire calls the runner safe, and Davis leaps to his feet to argue, situating himself chest-to-chest with the ump. After his initial objection, at the point where he could have let the issue go, he doesn’t. He prods further, profanely insulting the umpire’s judgment.
He pokes the bear.
While Davis refuses to apologize for his remark, at first he says the insult wasn’t directed at the umpire, just his judgment.
“You can’t run me for that!” he says.
But as the situation escalates, the insults become pointed at the umpire himself, not his judgment call.
“You’re pushing it buddy; you’re pushing it,” the ump retorts. “You want me to run you, I’ll run you.”
At this point, Davis lets his emotions get the better of him, and gives the ump exactly the ammunition he needs to send him packing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re not embedding the clip because it has a ton of profanity. If you want to watch it, do so here.
It wasn’t Schilling’s Facebook sharing of a heinous meme about transgender people earlier this week that got him canned. He had already shared similar Internet viralities over the past few years — denying evolution, comparing Muslims to Nazis, propagating other false equivalencies — and said on a radio show that Hillary Clinton “should be buried under a jail somewhere.”
Regardless of your political beliefs, it is clear that each of these sentiments was shared in order to stir up controversy, to poke the bear. Each one is designed not simply to create solidarity with those with similar viewpoints, but to enrage those with opposing beliefs.
ESPN often let him slide for the posts themselves, even going so far as to suspend Keith Law instead for calling Schilling out on his evolution stance. It is, rather, Schilling’s follow-up to the reactions to these situations, after he has been called out for his inflammatory remarks, that were his downfall.
The great irony in Schilling’s firing is his insistence that anyone getting mad at his inflammatory remarks was simply looking for a reason to be outraged. He claimed in a blog post Tuesday that “if you get offended by ANYTHING in this post, that’s your fault, all yours,” and followed that up by saying he doesn’t “represent anyone but myself here, on facebook, on twitter, anywhere.”
Of course, neither of these statements is true. His statements have always been designed to stir up controversy. And as one of many public faces as ESPN, he represents the company whether he wants to or not. As Christine Brennan wrote for USA Today, this is a standard we are all beholden to in the sports media. Personal social media accounts are public representations of ourselves, and we are accountable to our employers for them.
And, just to nip it in the bud, this is not a First Amendment issue. “Freedom of speech” only extends as far as the protection against the government punishing you for it. ESPN, despite its omnipresence in the world of sports, is not the government. It is a private company, not beholden to such standards, with guidelines long in place that Schilling consistently violated.
I’m not of the mind that everyone should be fired for any indiscretion. The pitchfork-mob mentality often ignores the nuance of individual situations. And besides, the companies themselves can make that decision for themselves. If enough people complain, or threaten to stop watching/buying their products, they will make their own cost-benefit analysis on whether it’s worth it to keep an employee.
Which is why it’s important to understand what happened here. Ultimately, this is what Schilling wanted. He is just the flip side of the coin to the “social justice warriors” he imagines are fabricating anger to his screeds.
He believes he should be able to say anything he wants, at any time he wants, with no recourse, lest he become the persecuted one.
But so long as he remained employed, his ability to paint himself as a martyr was compromised. ESPN’s tacit endorsement of his freewheeling bigotry by keeping him on the payroll actually undermined his ability to make it look like he was fighting the imaginary man he believed was out to keep him in line.
So he pretty-please begged ESPN to fire him. It finally did.