Bats, balls and gloves.
Caps, pine tar and resin.
Bubblegum, sunflower seeds and smokeless tobacco.
They are Major League Baseball’s starting lineup, nine ubiquitous elements of the nation’s pastime at the highest level.
However, we subtract the last, toxic ingredient when the focus is minor league, college, high school or youth baseball. The disgusting and debilitating habit of chaws and dips is reserved exclusively for “The Show,” giving young players an additional aspiration to reach the big leagues and emulate their role models.
No one except tobacco executives wants to hook new customers. But you can be a health advocate and still be concerned about lawmakers’ motivation to prohibit the substance.
Chicago’s city council is set to vote this week on a measure that bans the use of smokeless tobacco in big-league ballparks and other sports venues. Similar legislation has been passed in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angles; New York mayor Bill deBlasio says he will sign a ban passed last week by city legislators. Oakland, Anaheim and San Diego are set to join the number in 2017 when a new California law takes effect.
“It’s very important for the health of our players, and for the city as a whole,” de Blasio said Sunday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” “Young people look up to baseball players, and they look up to all athletes, and we want to protect everyone’s health.”
Here’s the thing though: We can’t even protect folks from ingesting illegal substances. How in the world can we force them to stop using over-the-counter products?
Bans on smoking are much easier to defend. You can puff cigarettes to your lungs’ content in your house or car. But you don’t have the right to choke me on your fumes at the ballpark or restaurant. Secondhand smoke is a legitimate health risk that non-smokers shouldn’t be forced to tolerate in public places.
Maybe there’s an epidemic of smokeless tobacco users splattering innocent bystanders at games. Maybe nasty cleanups have risen sharply due to spittle-filled bottles that are dropped accidentally. Maybe the sight of brown expectoration makes waves of onlookers physically ill, making medical attention necessary.
But those possibilities aren’t behind the smokeless tobacco ban. Players are the reason and the target. For the children’s sake.
“It’s time for Major League Baseball and its players to accept the inevitable, set the right example for our kids and promptly agree to prohibit smokeless tobacco use at all major league ballparks,” Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement after the New York City Council approved the ban in a 44-3 vote.
“Our national pastime should be about promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, not a deadly and addictive product,” Myers said. “Today’s vote sends the right message to youth that chewing tobacco is dangerous and should not be an accepted part of sports culture. It also provides further momentum for our nationwide campaign to get tobacco out of baseball for kids, the players and the future.”
I understand the concern. But this is dangerous territory, subjecting the players’ clubhouse and umpires’ locker-room to questionable legislation. This is singling out workplace activities that are legal and carry no harmful secondary effects to bystanders. This is one step away from banning the consumption of beer and coffee in private offices due to health concerns.
Employers have the right to police the place of employment. They can mandate dress codes prohibit facial hair and ban alcohol from the premises. Employees represented by unions have the right to negotiate what’s acceptable and unacceptable as to working conditions.
But lawmakers don’t belong in those discussions any more than legal opinions on “assault” in football and hockey.
Whether you agree with the position, the players union rejected a proposed league-wide smokeless tobacco ban during collective bargaining in 2011. The owners are expected to repeat the proposal in upcoming negotiations for a new labor deal, and the union is expected to say “no” again.
On their own, the two sides have done a good job of removing tobacco from public view. Players, managers and coaches are forbidden from having tins, cans or pouches in their pockets while on the field or anywhere in plain sight. They’re also banned from tobacco use during TV interviews.
But MLB will have a fight on its hands – rightfully so – if it attempts to punish those who defy the ban through the discreet use that’s currently allowed. “Players or anybody in baseball found to have violated a law are subject to discipline from the commissioner,” MLB chief legal counsel Dan Halem told ESPN. “Smokeless tobacco laws are no different.”
The laws in this instance are arbitrary, though. They’re attempts to legislate players’ freedom of choice – albeit ignorant – at the workplace, prohibit their ability to use a product that the government approves for people of legal age. What’s next, fines for excessive scratching and spitting?
Yes, we’re worried about the kids.
But good luck explaining how this all works.