Corporate Threats Don’t Deter Some Underdogs


Set against the relative banality of today’s network programming, Fox’s new baseball-themed drama “Pitch” fairly shines with its edgy foray into gender, sports and ethics.

Played by relative newcomer Kylie Bunbury, fictional hurler Ginny Baker rises through the ranks of the San Diego Padres’ farm system, eventually earning a spot on a struggling pitching staff and a place in history.

The show’s writers try too hard in their attempt to capture baseball culture, and obligatory primetime side stories often swamp the show’s more credible plotlines. Yet for all its clichés and predictable turns, “Pitch” gets some things right.

One of the series’ more substantive subplots depicts the avaricious interplay between sport and sponsor. In an episode aired last month, Ginny’s fame is seized upon by agents and corporate reps eager to cash in on her stardom. Beset by dozens of off-field demands and decisions, she slips her handlers to go on a very public binge followed by a very public emotional meltdown.

Desperate to protect their “brand” (i.e., Ginny), art imitates life as her inner circle’s first priority is to keep her corporate sponsors in the fold. (Ginny’s advisors know that media, fans, coaching staff – even teammates can lose faith in a sports figure; but not the shoe, pizza and car companies whose wares they hawk.)

It’s hard to overestimate the real-life leverage multinational corporations exert over America’s professional sports teams, venues, merchandising and personalities. While it’s impossible to track every dollar that passes hands between entities, the 100 top-earning athletes of 2016 alone will rake in an estimated $924 million in sponsorships – up from $917 million in 2015.

So lucrative are some athletes’ long-term contracts, they more than double the face value of their contracts, incentives or winnings. (Case in point, NBA superstar LeBron James’ $23.2 million annual contract amount is dwarfed by the $54 million he’ll receive in endorsements.)

But as depicted in “Pitch”, there are ethical catches to these cascades of dollars: nearly every endorsement contract contains a list of “moral clauses” that pertain to an athlete’s personal conduct.

While designed to protect sponsors’ self-interests, such provisionsal assault, substance abuse and animal cruelty.

Yet for all the upsides, those same proscriptions are now being cited as grounds for terminating endorsement deals with “kneelers” – professional athletes whose only brush with their morality clauses is their protest of race-related shootings by kneeling and/or raising a fist during the singing of the national anthem.

Begun in September by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the gestures have cost some players dearly: simpatico Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was dropped by two sponsors, both appealing to the vaguest of legalese to do the deed. (Marshall has since announced he will no longer kneel.)

Critics have rightly condemned the use of morality clauses to force athletes’ conformity in this instance, calling the practice financial and vocational hostage-taking.

But to date no concerted legal recourse is in the works; nor has any professional players’ union indicated a willingness to become entangled in so complex and unpopular a cause.

All the more reason to root for the kneeling underdogs who, even in a sports culture increasingly marked by militarism, corporate meddling and shallow patriotism, are at peace with their simple acts of witness.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist ministe

have had an overall positive impact when used as deterrents against, and punishment for domestic violence, child abuse, sexur and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2016

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652