The sports world stands united in its mourning of “Mr. Padre”, Tony Gwynn. Lauded as being one of the all time great hitters and an even better person, Gwynn was taken far to young, at the age of 54, and will be missed. A winner, and a first ballet hall of famer, he lost his four-year battle to cancer on June 16th, 2014. Gwynn believed his use of smokeless tobacco was to blame for his cancer.
To Major League Baseball’s and the MLB’s player’s associations credit, according to Jacque Wilson of CNN, in 2011: “MLB implemented rules related to smokeless tobacco products. Worried about the message it was sending to young fans, MLB collaborated with the Major League Baseball Players Association to prohibit teams from providing tobacco to players.”
However, Wilson goes on to report: “Yet the players’ union stopped short of banning tobacco use on the field.”
This next step needs to occur. This brings us back to the never-ending reference to the Charles Barkley commercial and whether or not athletes are or should be role models.
First of all, there are two different questions inherent to this debate:
1- Should athletes be role models? Probably not.
2- Are athletes role models? No question they are.
It is inescapable psychology. People who children look up to can influence their behavior. Fair to say with interest in autographs, and sales of team jerseys and memorabilia, athletes are people who children look up to. If this dynamic of idolizing didn’t exist, sport wouldn’t be as popular. The league and the players benefit and profit immensely from the admiration and loyalty of its fans.
Yes parents and teachers bear far greater responsibility, but that should not completely absolve athletes and leagues from their responsibility to their consumers. There is no foolproof way around heroic persona’s, and the influence star players can have on youth. And good for MLB and the union for stepping up to the plate and taking the steps it did it 2011. Now the union needs to go one step further and ban it from the field of play altogether.
If players want to use it on their own time that is their business, but the league and the union are right to be worried about the message. And considering the skyrocketing rates of cancer diagnosis, they should be more worried about the consequences of smokeless tobacco and of the influence its players have on youth, and eventually the consequences to the players themselves.
In addition to the ban, MLB and the union should offer more access to programs that educate and help players quit. It should be mandatory only to players who violate a new ban, but voluntary otherwise.
As for the argument about whether or not a union or a league can ban something that is over the counter and legal, that is specious at best. Work place rules have been in existence since before I was born and can vary depending on the particulars of the business. This would not be any different. Some examples or work place rules include:
- No smoking.
- No use of cell phones.
- Dress codes and uniforms.
- No food or beverages other than water in the work area.
- Personal conduct.
If the New York Yankees, can have rules for the length of hair and beards, MLB and the union can ban cancer causing tobacco use. Bottom line is there is no need to throw a pity party for players if they can’t chew tobacco for a few hours while at work.
Ideally, the union would agree to a straight ban. But change can be challenging, and people can be stubborn and in denial. Athletes in particular can be superstitious. So perhaps at minimum baseball can phase it out.
Many years ago the National Hockey League made all new players wear helmets. Players who were in the league prior to the rule change had a choice. Eventually, when the last players who received a grandfather clause giving permission to not wear a helmet retired, all players wore them.
Since smokeless tobacco is already banned at the minor league baseball level you can say that the process has already started. A rule can be made banning it for all players entering MLB starting 2015. Not ideal, but a compromise position.
Baseball created a culture conducive to fostering this habit. It did so prior to knowing the harm, but now that it knows, it’s the responsible thing to take steps to eliminate it.
Whether Gwynn’s cancer was definitively caused by tobacco or not, in his memory, let Gwynn’s message serve as a wake-up call and impetus to progress and help to others. Both to athletes and the fans that follow them. It would be a worthy legacy for an admired star.
Interested in some facts about smokeless tobacco and the cancer it causes? See this link from the National Cancer Institute.
For a good podcast discussion on the topic, download the 6/18/14 episode of the Best of Mike and Mike on ESPN