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Loss of trust and a call for change: A roundtable discussion on the Mariners’ front office harassment scandal

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Apologies have been issued, but the Mariners have more work to do to regain fans’ trust, and that starts with personnel shakeups

One thing that’s been a point of pride for female Mariner fans is the number of women the club has in high-level positions. From Amanda Hopkins, one of the first female scouts in MLB, to director of High Performance Lorena Martin, to the various women in front office positions, women play meaningful roles throughout the organization. That’s a diversity that’s mirrored here in the staff at LL, which made the news that broke the other day about the sexual harassment settlements from several years ago upsetting to all of us, but especially disheartening to myself, Isabelle, and Amanda.

We, along with many other Mariner fans, now have to grapple with questions about how this news impacts our fandom, and where we want the organization to go in the future. Each of us took some time to reflect on these questions individually, but we thought coming together in a roundtable format would be a good way to center women’s voices on the issue in a media landscape that’s often dominated by men [Ed. note: we did invite the men of LL to be a part of this discussion, but while we discussed matters extensively as a staff in Slack, the prevailing wish was that women’s voices be centered in this conversation]. We want to note that there aren’t any hard and fast answers here; we’re still working these things out ourselves, but it’s our hope that our discussion will offer some insight for those lacking direct experience in matters like this, and some resonance for those who have experienced it and who, like us, are puzzling out how to move forward in our fandom.

In structuring this conversation, we used the following three guiding questions:

  • Can I remain a fan of this team?
  • How do I remain a fan of this team? Do we believe things have changed?
  • What is the action we want to see moving forward?

Kate: First off, I want to give voice to some important statistics about sexual harassment in the workplace. A new study shows that 41% of women in media and entertainment have been sexually harassed at work, with 64% of female writers in Hollywood reporting workplace sexual harassment. And those are the reported numbers; sexual harassment at work is highly underreported for a multitude of reasons, including fear of retaliation or job loss, the sense that nothing will change, or a workplace culture that normalizes such interactions. The Mariners are a high-profile organization and this is a high-profile case, but I think it’s important to recognize how widespread a problem this is. Seven years ago was well before the dawn of the #MeToo movement, and I admire the bravery of these women for speaking up in an environment that was even more focused then on keeping them silent.

Speaking of keeping them silent, though, one thing I am struggling with a lot is the timing of this story. I don’t know if it’s fair to hold this current front office accountable for the sins of a different regime almost a decade ago; yet at the same time, there are multiple men involved in this story who are still involved with the organization.

I’m also angry it took this long to come out. If the Mariners had owned up to this rather than wait for it to be outed, I think the tenor of the conversation we’re having now would be very different; fans would feel less lied to. As it is, with the story pouring cold water all over the good feelings of the 2018 season, it’s been an unpleasant shock and a loss of trust in the organization for not being forthright. And yet also, because the events transpired so long ago—nearly a decade ago!—and were shrouded in secrecy, it’s hard to know who beyond the direct perpetrators to fault and how much, and even harder to figure out if justice was done, if more justice needs doing.

Isabelle: What do you do when an organization that has been a source of solace becomes embroiled in what you sought solace from?

I’ve read a lot, in the last day since the news broke, about people who are angry this is being “swept under the rug.” It’s not. But in a time when we are forced to engage with our news the minute that it breaks, a swift response often feels like the only response. Perhaps it’s poor journalism, my inclination to stop, and think, and attempt to unspool my thoughts before sharing them with the public, but if anything it feels irresponsible to do otherwise. This isn’t the acquisition of a new player, or poor bullpen management, this is about three women who were harassed in their place of work, and whose lives were ultimately changed by the unacceptable actions of top officials within the Mariners organization. For years, sexual harassment accusations weren’t taken seriously. Fortunately that has begun to change, but years of disbelief - of fighting to be heard, defending the validity of our experiences - make me want to ensure that when I contribute to the discussion it is in the best, most beneficial way possible.

Do not mistake a lack of noise for a lack of thought.

Kevin Mather should no longer be with the organization. It is difficult to develop action items for something that occurred so long ago, but as the only accused man currently working within the organization in an active role, eliminating Mather is one of the few ways the organization can do something concrete.

Kate: After thinking about that extensively, Isabelle, I think I agree, to an extent. Mather’s statement expresses what I choose to read as genuine regret over his actions and a growth mindset. Yet he has enjoyed promotions over other candidates; his past has not held him back from rising to the very top of the organization. That’s not a tolerance for failure that women or people of color are privileged to have. Some might see demoting or firing Mather as scapegoating him, but I believe in restorative justice, and for me, restorative justice is seeing someone in a position of power who didn’t have to be taught not to behave in a way that makes other people feel disempowered, ashamed, or uncomfortable. Also, as the representative of ROOT, Bob Aylward deserves to be out of an advisory role not only for his actions, but also for the much more recent violations of women’s privacy named in the article, not to mention the uncomfortable scene from about a month ago where the ROOT broadcast extensively made fun of female fans. As far as that arm of the organization goes, it doesn’t seem like this is a cultural problem that has been solved.

Isabelle: Certainly not. If anything, I think we’re just scratching the surface.

Amanda: The Mariners definitely have a cultural problem, as do all sports teams. I see this story as a chance to start making the necessary corrections.

I come at this story from the perspective of a gymnastics fan who has struggled the last couple years coming to terms with the sexual abuse (among other abuse) that came to light around the last Olympics. I’ve wrestled with how to justify my love of the sport with my horror at what was allowed to happen on all levels of the organization. I think it’s still okay for us to be fans of the team and go to games and enthusiastically cheer for them, if we are also pushing the team to be better. That means writing calls for change. It means publicly discussing this on social media. We all have a platform if we choose to use it. The Mariners are plugged in to social media so having those discussions there isn’t just shouting into the void.

Likewise, the Mariners owe their fans some things. The statement and apology were a good first step, but in order for us to trust them we deserve transparency and details. How exactly did they address this? Can Mather be more specific about how he has changed and evolved? Transparency is a huge part of moving forward and to bring it back to gymnastics again, it is a huge area where USA Gymnastics has continued to fail in their reckoning with systemic abuse.

Kate: I agree that it’s okay to continue to be a fan as long as we are also calling for accountability, and I wholeheartedly agree that we deserve transparency and details, which will go a long way towards repairing that broken trust. Almost a decade has passed since these allegations were brought forward, and in that time there have been changes throughout the organization. I think it’s important not to judge the current culture by what was acceptable in the past, but I also think it’s fair to ask for an itemized list and specifics regarding how things have changed. Some of these things we’ve seen, particularly the work done by the Dipoto FO to put women in positions of power, like Lorena Martin as the Director of High Performance or Leslie Manning as one of the lead voices developing our prospects in the DR. And the Times article mentions J. Tucker Miller, a lawyer with 20 years of experience in the field of professional development and training, has worked with the organization in the past (on her LinkedIn it says she is VP for a training company that “helps eliminate bad behavior in the workplace.”). I would like to know if there is continued professional development like what Miller provides in place, and if so, what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.

So where do we go moving forward? I think this, more than anything that’s happened in the past year, proves that baseball is intersectional, and you can’t discuss it completely devoid of context. It’s a privilege and a luxury to be able to “stick to sports,” but that’s not a position that reflects the reality of how many of us interact with baseball. I’ve watched other teams sign players with DV histories and each time breathed a sigh of relief that I don’t have to reckon with Derek Norris or Jeurys Familia wearing Mariner colors, but that doesn’t mean our own house is spotless. These allegations may be in the past, but they are a reminder to be vigilant and demand justice and accountability in all facets of life. It’s easy to recognize and call out sexism when it’s egregious, despicable harassment such as is detailed in this story, and even more so when the incident is safely in the past, and involves the easy villainy of rich and powerful men. But it’s the smaller things, the unremarked-upon incidents that contribute to building a culture where the certain people feel like their voices matter more than others, where the powerful feel entitled to prey upon the weak. Those are the things we, on the micro level, can be vigilant about—the casual, joking comments that carry whiffs of sexism; the subtle degradation of a woman’s work; the lack of women’s voices in important conversations. And this doesn’t just go for a favorite baseball team; these are the standards we need to hold people to everywhere, because that’s how cultural shifts happen. Sometimes that means having a tough conversation with someone you consider a friend and not dismissing it as “well I know him and he’s a good guy.” That’s how Kevin Mather continued to succeed in this organization: one man vouching for another.

Nor does this apply to women alone: just like there is a literal glass ceiling on the Mariners’ list of executives, so too do the names of people of color appear only beneath that bar (one woman is listed in the executive group, but her job title is “executive assistant.”) This is something I hope we don’t forget next time a GM search comes up or promotions are announced: to complain, loudly, if women and people of color are left out of that conversation.

Amanda: I would love to stick to sports. To be able to stick to sports though, sports has to suddenly become this utopia where labor, gender, racial, and so many other issues suddenly don’t exist. I don’t see that happening any time soon. Sports exist within our society and every issue society is grappling with, so to is sports. Like Kate mentioned above, many of us have felt a sense of self satisfaction at the mores of the Mariners because we can say we don’t have any (known) domestic abusers on our team. Our team is full of good guys. They are nice. They give to charity. They make us feel good about rooting for them. Learning that there was or is a culture in the front office that allowed sexual harassment to happen to that point is a blow and it’s hard to reconcile with the story we’ve told ourselves about our team. It lends itself to a deeper kind of hurt because we thought our team was the good guys and it turns out they are problematic too.

Isabelle: We are women writing about baseball. Our mere presence in this space makes the “stick to sports” refrain moot.

I don’t know how we move forward from these accusations, but after reading the articles, the posts, the commentary across social platforms, I’ve realized that I’m tired. So, so tired - of trying to understand and reconcile news like this; tired of my own responses being policed by others. This news has shaken me far more than I expected it would, and I cannot imagine how the victims must feel, reliving their experiences in such a public way

Amanda: It’s incredibly tiring. I know every possible response to every sentence I’ve typed here.

Kate: The most upsetting part of this story to me is that all the women who complained wound up leaving the organization. That’s a tremendous loss, but at the same time I understand it. There are days I wonder why I bother. I was honestly shocked by the response to my complaint about ROOT’s offensive, lengthy segment insulting a group of female fans and continue to be shocked by those who act like it’s no big deal, or who seemed intent on explaining my own experience back to me. I can’t describe how upsetting writing that ROOT piece was, both in writing it and in the tenor of some of the responses, as well as the subtweets and snarky “wah wah cry about it” response from Twitter trolls. It literally wears on you, and sometimes it’s easiest just to consign things to behind the scenes. But that’s where those who hold the reins of power want those things kept. Abuse, harassment, intimidation, emotional manipulation--these are things that live and thrive in the dark. It’s time to pull back the curtain. There’s nothing that can heal something from almost ten years ago, but elevating women to positions where they can shape the culture of the organization is a start.

Amanda: One of the ways I’ve steeled myself against the exhaustion is by starting off assuming the worst of the response to every issue raised. I’ve rarely been disappointed. But that also leads me to a pessimistic view and I want very badly to believe that things can get better. While I’m disappointed this happened in the Mariners Front Office, I’m not surprised in the least. It’s easy to blame it on the regime in place at the time. This was shortly after the Mariners hired Jack Z over Kim Ng, and before they traded for a pitcher who had been charged with rape and pled guilty to a lesser charge. Not a great atmosphere all around.

My desire to want to believe things can get better makes me want to focus on the positives. The team appears to have taken steps at the time to prevent sexual harassment from happening again. Mather’s apology was as good as any we’ve seen in these situations. Reparation was made to the victims, from the pockets of the offenders. This gives me hope. I just wish we knew more because the article in the Seattle Times was short on specifics.

It’s important to handle the 2010 accusation correctly. I’m also interested in what the team will do to make sure their office culture does not promote sexual harassment. I understand that legalities prevent the team from talking too specifically about the details in the harassment claims reported by the Seattle Times, but we should hear from the team about what they are doing going forward.

Isabelle: I’m surprised by how much this news has shaken me and I, like many others, find myself at a loss as to how to move forward with my Mariners fandom. Can I move forward with my fandom? Baseball has been a point of bonding, a means of recovery, a way of overcoming grief—to be left coping with one’s coping mechanism is utterly jarring.

We’re used to this game’s refusal to return our affection. But it’s one thing when baseball does not love you back; it’s another issue entirely when the people within an organization have harassed women to the point where they have left the organization altogether. Each individual will have their own means of handling these reports, but as a staff, we’ve come up with a few suggestions of action items that we’d like to see from the Mariners, moving forward:

  • Advance more diverse candidates to positions of leadership where they have the power to shape the culture of the organization at all levels, from the field to the boardroom. Show accountability in this respect by releasing relevant demographic information about candidates interviewed for positions.
  • Demonstrate a genuine commitment to creating a harassment-free workplace. Provide specifics about in-house trainings, guest speakers, etc., at all levels of the organization. Communicate with fans about what has been done and what is being done to make sure this will not happen again, in ways that go beyond one-off prepared statements.
  • Beyond the Women in Baseball night, provide an opportunity for networking and professional development for women and people of underrepresented backgrounds who want to get into working in baseball, or support organizations that do (example: sponsor SABR Northwest memberships).
  • Remove Bob Aylward from his advisory position.
  • Finally, opinions on the direction to take with Kevin Mather vary, but the general sense among the LL staff is that allowing Mather to continue in his role as Team President and CEO is unacceptable, and sends a message that is at cross purposes with the desire for transparency and accountability. Mather’s role is public-facing and involves a good deal of speaking at press conferences, and every time he steps to the podium will be a reminder that he remains in the organization, and the two women do not. Whether he is fired, voluntarily steps down, or is reassigned to a role in the organization that doesn’t place him in a position of leadership, asking fans to silently acquiesce to Mather’s presence in one of the most privileged positions in baseball on the promise that he’s a changed man is audacious, irresponsible, and not in keeping with the organization’s stated values. MLB ousted Bob Bowman after similar accusations of creating a toxic workplace environment, so this move would not be without precedent.

We want to clarify that this stance does not necessarily eliminate our belief in the perpetrators’ genuine remorse and redemption. If Mather, Aylward, and Armstrong have truly learned from their actions it is imperative that they speak up as allies of women in the baseball industry, and the workplace overall. However, it would be grotesque to reward professed change with the continuation of a high-paying, high-powered, public-facing role. The reward, if there must be one, for learning and changing is simply that there are now three fewer men who will harass women in the workplace.

*

It took us as a staff time to absorb this news, and even more time to formulate our thoughts and articulate the kind of actionable items we’d like to see. Change need not be swift, and indeed, is only meaningful when it’s thoughtful and genuine, which takes time. The environment within the organization is, from all accounts, much different than it was a decade ago. However, by burying this story in a time capsule only dug up by the enterprising pickaxe of the Times, and continuing to employ the perpetrators in high-profile roles, the Mariners have damaged our trust in the organization. Something more needs to be done in order to begin to rebuild that trust. We will be watching closely to see what it is.