MLB, Twitter, and Baseball’s Looming Age Problem

If you’re like me, you use Twitter. Twitter’s awesome! It gives you breaking news, reports on the latest trades, and also whatever this is:

And without Twitter, we wouldn’t have unfettered access to Brandon McCarthy’s observations of the world, which are worthwhile…

Twitter can be good, in other words.

As anyone familiar with that particular platform knows, however, it’s not always. As MLB learned this week, sometimes tweeting can become a pretty risky exercise. Not only have three young players been forced to contend with the ugly sentiments of their younger selves, but the league’s main account has also found itself in the middle of something, as well.

It started with this:

The tweet prompted what might be termed as “mixed” reactions, varying from this…

… to this:

Obviously, debate ensued.

The problem here was with the use of “triggered,” which has a number of different connotations depending on the context. It has a designated meaning in medical parlance. As Ali Vingiano wrote in an excellent piece for BuzzFeed News,

The clinical notion of triggering dates back far as 1918, when psychologists tried to make sense of “war neurosis” in World War I, and later World War II, veterans. The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into use after the Vietnam War, but was not recognized as a diagnosable affliction until 1980. Then, psychologists started to work with clients to identify possible PTSD “triggers,” or a sensory input that somehow resembles the original trauma. But anticipating them is notoriously difficult. They assume disparate and unpredictable forms. An essay, or film, or other piece of media might trigger a person, as could a sound or a smell, a physical space, a specific object, or a person.

***

Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editorial/creative director of the feminist publication Bitch magazine, said the phrase often popped up on a community forum on Ms. Magazine‘s website.

“The first time I saw trigger warnings used was on Ms. Magazine‘s bulletin board in the late ’90s and early ’00s,” she said. “It might have been on other feminist sites, but I only remember seeing it on Ms.”

But that trigger warning actually had a use similar to the original psychological meaning — in the context of sexual assault, and, later, eating disorders. In other words, it was intended to provide a warning to previously traumatized people that content contained in a particular post might cause distress to a person recovering from a similar trauma. As one Twitter user explained,

Since then, trigger warnings have become more ubiquitous, to controversial effect. Part of that is unfortunately political, but part is also due to an evidently popular misunderstanding of what trigger warnings actually do. As Lindsay Holmes explained for the Huffington Post, “Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence.”

And that’s significant, because some, including those in the self-identified “alt-right,” have taken the position that trigger warnings are an issue for the political left. The problem is that many who most support their usage are veterans, who, regardless of political affiliation, were their intended original users. And “safe spaces,” a term which today is tied together with “triggers,” were conceived, essentially, as a place where LGBTQ people could be themselves, away from political repression and arrest; later, they were used by the women’s rights movement to refer to a place free from sexual violence.  So much of the current discourse on safe spaces, including free-speech arguments and collegiate debate, entirely ignores what trigger warnings were actually intended to do: protect people.

The problem with this use of the term “trigger” is that it conflates the disappointment of losing a baseball game with the legitimate pain of those who’ve endured trauma of some sort, characterizing those experiencing either as emotionally fragile or weak-minded. Of course, most reasonable people would not take the stance that a sexual assault survivor is weak.

There’s an analogous approach in law: the so-called “eggshell skull rule” is the legal principle that a tortfeasor cannot use a person’s preexisting condition as a defense in a legal action. In other words, if you punched Mr. Glass in the face, causing him massive injuries, you’re liable for those injuries whether or not you knew he had osteogenesis imperfecta.* Similarly, in many jurisdictions, if a person has an underlying emotional trauma, you’re liable for triggering that trauma, and thereby causing further emotional injury.

*Osteogenesis imperfecta is actually a very real, and very serious, medical condition.

Now, this is not to say that the person who manages MLB’s Twitter account knew any of this. And ordinarily, I’d be inclined to believe that this was an inadvertent oversight by someone who didn’t know any better. After all, we’ve all said stupid things on Twitter, your redheaded contributor most assuredly included.

And then this happened.

The backlash to this tweet from the MLB account was far more widespread, with NESN, Awful Announcing, and even the Daily Mail all chiming in to call the tweet “racist.” MLB deleted the tweet soon after.

(In case you’re wondering, the reference in the tweet refers to this image from a 1967 Spiderman cartoon.)

Suffice to say, the implication is that Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro Suzuki look identical because both are Japanese.

Despite the backlash to both tweets, MLB issued no comment with respect to either. There was no statement made, no apology, no explanation. I reached out to MLB PR about the tweets, and they didn’t respond to my request for comment either.

Travis Sawchik has written, a couple of times, about baseball’s missing fans. What also merits some attention, though — and is, perhaps, related — is baseball’s aging problem. MLB had the oldest fans in professional sports before the 2017 season, with half of all television viewers 55 or older. By one measure, it was up to 57 by June 2017. Of greater concern, that aging trend is accelerating; Statista data lists fully three quarters of all baseball fans at 49 or older. By comparison, just 7% of viewers were under 18. That’s a stark different — and not good news for the future of the sport. If MLB is going to survive past the next couple of decades, it has to attract younger fans. And it’s something MLB recognizes, making a deal to stream games on Facebook in an attempt to better reach millennials.

But while Ashley MacLennan, in a great piece last year for this site, argued that millennials’ lack of interest in baseball might be primarily financial, MLB’s tweets this week certainly don’t help. Consider: in the United States, the majority of Facebook users were 25-34 years old, far younger than the average television viewer. And Twitter users are younger still, 37% of them (a plurality) falling in the 18-29 range. When Pew Research did a survey on Facebook and Twitter users a few years ago, they found that Twitter’s users were predominantly people of color. As Shea Bennett of Adweek described it,

According to Pew’s findings, the typical Twitter user continues to be an 18-29 year-old educated minority with a well-paying job, and is slightly more likely to be male than female.

It’s not hard to consider how young, educated people of color would generally respond to MLB’s tweets this week. But the reality is that MLB doesn’t have many young fans — let alone young fans of color — to lose. Already, baseball is considered by some to be a white man’s sport, a perception that will only hasten its loss of younger fans. If MLB is to attract those people, it will learn that messaging matters — including on Twitter. Too many weeks like this one, and some young fans might be gone for good.

We hoped you liked reading MLB, Twitter, and Baseball’s Looming Age Problem by Sheryl Ring!

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Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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The Guru
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The Guru

the percent of millennials who use twitter is extremely low compared to other social media places. 3 people use twitter, reporters,adults who want to get the latest news, and high profile accounts to build there brand. Go to any random college and high school and take a poll of how many use twitter vs ig vs facebook vs snap chat. You’ll find the millenials do not use twitter as much as the others.

Bryz
Member
Member

Correct. Among my students, they always talk about Snapchat and Instagram, while Twitter is a distant third and Facebook is almost unheard of for them.

Gina
Member
Gina

I think you’re thinking of gen z, not millennials. Most millennials aren’t students, they’re like 22-37 and would be the next wave of big household consumers ad exec targets which is why capturing them would be important.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

The distinction between “generations” are mostly made up anyway. With the exception of the Baby Boom, there’s no accepted cutoff for any of them.

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

Yeah its pretty silly. Me and my youngest brother are both technically millennials (1981 and 1990) yet our childhood/teenage years could not possibly have been more different. I grew up having to dub cassettes and he grew up downloading MP3’s. Same generation, my ass! haha.

There is probably less difference between me and my dad then me and my brother.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

There’s a lot of evidence that when you were born (birth cohort) matters a lot to your life. There is no agreement on what the right units are, or what historical points demarcate generations, etc. (With the exception of the Baby Boom, which was a spectacular demographic event that we can measure)

Bryz
Member
Member

Funny, I was going to say the exact same thing to The Guru but decided against it.