In a pair of recent essays, both Rian Watt (in “Life at the Margins”) and Craig Calcaterra (in “The Intersectionalist Manifesto”) challenge the idea that baseball writing ought to, as it’s often said, stick to sports. Watt’s specific interest, which initiated the discussion, was to ask what kind of baseball writing comes after Sabermetrics. He notes that among readers and writers there is a sense that sabermetrically-inclined analysis has reached a point of saturation, in which much of the recent writing has been dedicated to tinkering with a well-established paradigm. Watt proceeds to argue that discontent within the baseball writing community signals that a paradigm shift is underway. “The best baseball writing,” Watt notes,
this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score.
He then refers to this approach as intersectional writing, which, as Calcaterra notes, captures the sense in which baseball intersects with broader social dynamics such as race, gender, and economics. Much of the pushback against intersectional writing is premised on the claim that sports journalism ought to stick to sports (a claim which is itself questionable, as will become clearer below). An additional dimension of the pushback to which Calcaterra responds is the mistaken idea that intersectional writing is merely a fancy name for licensing a writer to introduce his or her particular “social justice” concerns into analyses of the game, or that it is cultural writing with baseball as a focus. The response offered by Watt and Calcaterra is, in Watt’s words, that “all baseball writing is culture writing,” namely, that all baseball writing is immersed in broader cultural dynamics and norms that may or may not be explicitly analyzed by the writer.
I’d like to offer a few belated comments on these essays. It’s true that, while I watch baseball and read about baseball, that I don’t usually write about it. What I find interesting, in this case, is the use of the term intersectionality, and how it found its way outside of the academic contexts in which we usually talk about it, to become the name for a new paradigm of baseball writing. In what follows, I will argue that intersectionality means something more than cultural or socio-political baseball writing. I think that if intersectionality names a new paradigm of baseball writing, that it should explicitly confront both the norms that orient how the game is played and the norms that guide the conceptual choices that writers make. That sounds abstract, but I think the recent debate over the so-called unwritten rules of baseball will illustrate what I mean.
However, I’d like to take a brief detour through the article that introduced intersectionality as a concept: Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”* I think this detour is warranted because Crenshaw makes a crucial point about how an uncritical approach to social norms produces biases in the way we think about discrimination, social activism, and social change (among other things). Crenshaw argues that the dominant approaches to problems of discrimination “treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” To treat discrimination as the result of either gender or race distorts and marginalizes the experiences of those who are adversely affected by both gender and racial discrimination.
For our purposes, we should note that the uncritical adoption of these “single-axis” frameworks introduces theoretical and practical norms that undermine the social agency of marginalized groups. Crenshaw’s interest is in how these single-axis theories marginalize black women. She argues that black women are marginalized because feminist theory is largely shaped by the experiences and struggles of white women.** In a similar fashion, antiracist struggles are largely shaped by African-American men. This places African-American women in a double-bind: there are ways in which their consciousness as women conflicts with their consciousness as members of the African-American community, and there are ways in which their consciousness and experiences as African-Americans conflict with their experiences as women. This is, undoubtedly, a very schematic summary. But it is enough to introduce Crenshaw’s critique of the normative failures of single-axis frameworks:
These problems of exclusion cannot be resolved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism…. (140)
Thus for Crenshaw, intersectionality is a direct attack on the presumed norms that guide single-axis frameworks.
The Unwritten Rules
The response to the recent comments by Bryce Harper and Goose Gossage about the unwritten rules of baseball will illuminate what I mean by reconsidering the social norms that guide our thinking about baseball. Though I will not recount those comments here, I will point to a recent post concerning the racist undertones of policing the so-called “unwritten rules” of the game. Sam Adler-Bell writes:
These flare ups of concern about the erosion of baseball values—translation: that baseball players occasionally act like they’re having fun—almost always center on non-white players’ perceived violations of baseball etiquette. Gossage’s comments are plainly racist.
If what I am saying about intersectionality is correct, then criticizing the so-called unwritten rules requires doing more than merely condemning the comments themselves. It involves, as Adler-Bell notes, reconceptualizing how those comments are understood. Here are the ways that we could consider the context of players enforcing the unwritten rules.
1) Stick to sports: The unwritten rules are part of the game.
On this view, the fact that (white) American players evoke the unwritten rules to police the behavior of Latin American players is accidental. The proponent of this view looks for an exception and finds that in 2012 Cole Hamels deliberately hit Bryce Harper with a pitch so that Harper would get a better idea of his place—so it’s not all Latin Americans who are on the wrong side of the unwritten rules.
Obviously, this approach is incompatible with an intersectional approach. There is a fine line distinguishing the next two possible ways to interpret the norms of the unwritten rules.
2) The unwritten rules as applied by Player X are socially unacceptable.
It is possible to begin by looking at the unwritten rules through the lens of broader social dynamics. Then, given that many of the off-field complaints involve (white) American players policing the behaviors of Latin American players (most recently, it’s Gossage criticizing José Bautista’s— admittedly awesome and jubilant, I say—playoff bat-flip), we can conclude that policing the unwritten rules displays racist undertones, or at least, some degree of white privilege. The problem, however, is that proof that race is a factor often turns on whether or not a particular player (our Player X) who has decided to police the game has racist motivations or not. Once it becomes about the player's intent or attitudes, we've lost sight of the system of social norms.
3) The unwritten rules allow (white) American players*** to set the norms of the game.
The standpoint of the second view starts with a particular practice (the unwritten rules) and then introduces broader social dynamics into the equation. However, the unwritten rules are not rituals that have existed since time immemorial. As Adler-Bell writes,
Enforcing traditional codes of conduct is the primary way that whiteness continues to exert its authority over the game. When baseball old-timers talk about the “right way” to play the game, they mean the “white way.” And in this, I see less a genuine loyalty to the game’s existing norms, than an attachment to the privilege of defining what those norms are. (My emphasis)
Thus when white (American) players claim that they are policing who plays the game the right way, they are claiming the privilege of defining the norms of baseball. Moreover, we could suggest that the reason (white) American players continue to enforce the unwritten rules (that is, define the norms for how the game is played) is that they derive a competitive advantage—as a group—from the unwritten rules. This point, of course, has been noted by historians of baseball’s integration, but it is still relevant today. If even Bautista, in his essay in The Players' Tribune, appears obligated to note that his famous bat flip doesn’t represent disrespect for the unwritten rules of the game—“It wasn’t out of contempt for the pitcher. It wasn’t because I don’t respect the unwritten rules of the game. I was caught up in the emotion of the moment”—what of the lesser-known Latin American player who is on the bubble of a major league (or even minor league) roster? Could we conceive of these players, for example, modifying their behaviors to avoid incurring the physical violence of Law and Order Ball (what Dave Zirin suggested on Twitter we call “Ball and Order”) by standing off the plate to avoid potential injuries—thus putting themselves at a disadvantage as batters.
The Politics of Unwritten Rules
By focusing on how norms arise in baseball, and by focusing on who claims the privilege of setting those norms, we undermine the idea that it is possible to just merely stick to the game. What the intersectional approach demonstrates is that social norms are themselves social forces. To phrase this in different terms, we could call the second approach reformist: it aims to reform the game by halting a bad practice or correcting what player attitudes we consider acceptable. That is an admirable goal in itself, and I’m not condemning that. However, the intersectional approach aims to show how different practices within the game reveal the privilege that (white) American players have on and off the field, and perhaps—I raise this as a possibility because this is a question we should seek to answer—the competitive advantage they gain by having this privilege. Perhaps this is precisely what Calcaterra’s critics believe is “social justice” advocacy. So be it. The entire point is to make the normative structure visible so that we can interpret it, rather than treating social and political dynamics as if they are magically rebuffed by the chalk on the field. When we say that the Goose Gossages, the Jonathan Papelbons, and the Bud Norrises of baseball play “Ball and Order,” it’s a reminder that the unwritten rules of the game are themselves never neutral.
* This article appears in The University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 139–167.
**Crenshaw, p. 154: “When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women.”
*** Or, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, players who believe they are white.