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The way we talk about athletes matters

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How rhetoric influences a sports culture that views humans as anything but

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This isn’t a post about baseball players so much as it is the words we use to describe them. Yes, a series of words strung together to form sentences and paragraphs about word choice and its broader ramifications.

At the expense of sounding like an angsty, dorm-dwelling contrarian perched atop an ivory tower, the significance of rhetoric often goes understated. It frames discourse on various subject matters and, at the very least, can offer a proxy for understanding our collective epistemological orientations. Even if you are less inclined to believe the former notion that language can, to some extent, influence the way we think, analyzing the more nuanced minutiae of communication still holds utility in the form of insight into how we perceive our surroundings. Examining how we present ideas is a prerequisite to comprehending the impacts of rhetoric.

In the context of Major League Baseball, last week we witnessed this concept unfold like clockwork with the trade deadline–and the media’s coverage of it.

Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of the word asset reads: “the property of a deceased person subject by law to the payment of his or her debts and legacies” and “the entire property of a person, association, corporation, or estate applicable or subject to the payment of debts.” In fact, all four of its definitions make some reference to property, items, or resources. However, this has overwhelmingly become our word of choice in discussing professional athletes with regard to their potential involvement in a trade.

I sampled 23 articles pertaining to the trade deadline (this list did not include news brief-esque pieces merely announcing a trade) published on July 30 or 31 by ESPN, CBS Sports, and MLB.com. Of those 23, 19 referred to a player using a noun generally associated with monetary capital and/or material objects (e.g. asset, bargaining chip, etc.) This does not account for other phrases carrying similar connotations such as speculations of Team X “shopping” Player Y, which would have resulted in the addition of several other articles on top of the 82.6% that already met the outlined criteria.

There is no denying the cliché that baseball is a business–an 11-figure one–but our current interpretation of this mantra has reified the dehumanization of the human beings that comprise the backbone of said industry. The financial incentives that can drive roster decision-making ought not be falsely conflated with the real people whose lives are altered in the process.

It’s not my assertion that the ontology of professional athletes is dependent upon sportswriters fetching a thesaurus. Rather, I am critiquing an overall framework for sports consumption that views the athletes themselves as material commodities in an economic market, as means to an end. I would push back against the counterclaim that the utilization of advanced statistical metrics and rejection of linguistic and attitudinal norms upholding the aforementioned framework are mutually exclusive. Professional sports are inherently competitive, but it’s our rhetoric–not Statcast or WAR–apropos of the desire to win that contributes to a culture reducing humans to a cost-benefit paradigm.

Without digressing towards a systemic discussion of neoliberal society writ large, language funneling our evaluation of workers down to inputs and outputs risks reinforcing the deeply-flawed notion that one’s worth is intrinsically tied to their productivity and value as a proverbial asset. This mode of thought inevitably diminishes the emphasis placed on the wellness of the individual. For example, the stigmatizing culture confronting athletes can result in woefully low rates of mental health help-seeking.

I won’t stake any claim whatsoever to the moral high ground on this front. I myself have numerous times written about baseball players in the same fashion as the articles I read. While no singular case study gave birth to this issue overnight, its gradual normalization should be acknowledged and addressed. The words around us do shape the way we think; we have a moral imperative to communicate accordingly.