Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: The Case for Throwback Baseball Uniforms

January 11, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, “The Case for Throwback Baseball Uniforms.”

Some Major League Baseball teams wear retro uniforms as alternates, allowing for increased opportunities to market jerseys to fans. I’ve seen some teams wearing Negro league jerseys as retro alternates. Ostensibly, they’re celebrating the tradition of Negro league baseball — but it’s an odd premise, given that Major League Baseball is the same organization that didn’t allow black players until after World War II. Is it ethical for M.L.B. teams to wear Negro league uniforms and potentially reap profits by selling them? PETE TOSIELLO, NEW YORK

My Answer: What criteria do you use to decide if something is ethical? Your question implies you don’t know. Why wouldn’t you be able to figure out on your own what you consider ethical or not? Why would you look to someone else? Why would you consider somebody else’s opinion more definitive than your own?

Is there a reason to consider anyone’s definition of ethical more definitive than anyone else’s? At least any adult’s? Does my next-door neighbor’s opinion count less than the Pope’s?

How have we reached the point where instead of thinking for themselves what they consider right or wrong, people ask others to figure it out for them? I guess no one has to think these things through, but it seems to me that figuring out your definition of right and wrong would improve your life. You don’t have to impose it on anyone else. I would think it would help life your life with more integrity, so you don’t have to guess or ask others.

Maybe you have an idea of what you think is right. You seem to imply you consider profiting off using the uniforms unethical, but you’re not sure. Maybe you’re just making conversation and getting your name in the paper. If so, great, you succeeded. If not, and you want help finding an answer, why not look inside yourself? You can answer for yourself as well as anyone.

If you care for my opinion, my main criterion is how the actions in question affect people. You can’t change the past, so using the uniforms doesn’t make the past better, worse, or anything else. The question is if using the uniforms or profiting off of them helps people or hurts people. As for me, I can see both effects. It certainly reminds people of a past many would prefer to forget, but that I would suggest we’re better off remembering to prevent it from happening again. Some people probably find them offensive. It’s safer not to use them. In the end I don’t come to a definitive conclusion. But that’s just my opinion, which I’m liable to change anyway, especially if someone points out to me an issue I didn’t think of.

That’s the deal with an abstract concept like ethics. There’s no absolute measure of it. If there was you would have consulted it and not asked anyone else. There isn’t so you did. But you only get people’s opinions, nothing definitive except for the person with the opinion. If you ask me, you’re better off challenging yourself and coming to a conclusion on your own.

The New York Times Answer: Your argument misinterprets one important detail: Major League Baseball is not the same exact organization that once barred black players from the game (at least not in any meaningful sense). It’s a continuation of the same brand, but every individual involved with baseball before integration — every player, every manager and every owner — has been replaced, in most cases, multiple times. The institution has been entirely reinvented, as institutions must be allowed to do. The modern game has a historical relationship to segregation-era baseball but not a working relationship. Given that fact, the most important thing Major League Baseball can do — at least in terms of its racial history — is continually remind people that this kind of segregation once occurred and that many of the greatest players of all time were forced to play in alternate leagues for purely racist reasons. These throwback uniforms advance that goal.

The second part of your question is a little more difficult. In 1995, M.L.B. donated $143,248 to surviving Negro league players and to various organizations supporting their legacy. This revenue was raised by selling Negro league merchandise through M.L.B. channels. The rights to many Negro league logos are now owned by the Negro League Baseball Museum, and royalties from the sale of items featuring those logos (regardless of who sells them) continue to support the museum’s existence. Legally, everything here is fine. But when you buy a throwback sports jersey, you’re usually paying for a fabricated artifact of that league’s history.

What makes this instance complicated is not just the specter of race but also the fact that M.L.B. doesn’t have any institutional continuity with the Negro leagues. It would be different if the National League had merged with the Negro Southern League or if the American League had annexed the Kansas City Monarchs franchise. But that’s not what happened; instead, the various clubs simply folded, and the players moved on. So when Major League Baseball celebrates the Negro leagues, it’s celebrating a past that technically doesn’t belong to it and that exists only because of its past prejudice. Does that make the celebration unethical? Considering the league’s espoused motives, I would say no. But it is a little strange. Your discomfort is not without merit.

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