A venerated American institution, strongly bound by gender norms, cronyism and codes of silence, faces an ongoing reckoning after women gradually a
A venerated American institution, strongly bound by gender norms, cronyism and codes of silence, faces an ongoing reckoning after women gradually assimilate into its lair, resulting in pushback, further toxicity and a gradual, stultifying course correction.
That arc could describe Major League Baseball, which is only now welcoming women into its dugouts and highest executive ranks, and in the past month saw women journalists come forward to share their tales of sexual harassment by a current general manager and former manager.
It also mirrors, at least in the abstract, the decades-long fight for justice and equality for women in perhaps the most male-dominated and machismo-driven group of all: The armed forces.
“In the military, they tell you when you’re going to wake up, what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to do anything,” says Paula Coughlin, a retired Naval aviator and lieutenant who now advocates for victims of sexual assault and discrimination in the military. “Professional teams have that kind of rigidity, too, that create who you are – or you start to believe that.
“When you have that much control over somebody’s life, it’s hard for them to break out of that model and say, ‘You know, that behavior is unacceptable.’ Especially in the military. But I think it applies to almost any scenario where a team player doesn’t want to betray anybody on the team. And ‘Boys will be boys’ gets folded into that.”
Coughlin is best known as the whistleblower in the Tailhook scandal, which resulted in 83 women and seven men reporting they were sexually assaulted by fellow Naval and Marine aviation officers at a September 1991 symposium at the Las Vegas Hilton.
She eventually reached a settlement with the Tailhook Association and successfully sued Hilton for security breaches, but speaking out ultimately left her unemployable within the defense realm. Coughlin now advocates for victims through non-profit organizations, and has seen slow, incremental gains, largely through legislation and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
An internal scourge
Yet the scourge remains: In fiscal year 2019, 5,699 instances of sexual assault in the military were reported, according to Protect Our Defenders, a non-profit organization aimed at ending sexual violence in the military. Just 138 convictions resulted from those reports.
While there is no evidence such rampantly violent behavior exists in Major League Baseball, the actions of former New York Mets general manager Jared Porter and manager Mickey Callaway that emerged in the past month paint a disturbing picture of the atmosphere that prevails for women working in news media or alongside men in major league organizations.
Porter was fired as Mets GM last month after a foreign reporter came forward with evidence he harassed her for nearly three months in 2016, including sending lewd photos and a string of 62 unanswered text messages.
Callaway, the Mets manager in 2018-19, was accused by five women media members of lewd actions, unwanted advances and offering to trade information for companionship during his stint in New York and as Cleveland Indians pitching coach.
Callaway, now the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels, has been suspended as the team and MLB investigate the allegations.
Porter and Callaway were hired by Mets president Sandy Alderson, a 73-year-old former Marine who said he was unaware of either man’s indiscretions. MLB said in a statement that it has “never been notified of any allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior by Mickey Callaway.”
Yet there will be internal soul-searching. A baseball official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly said the league plans to review and strengthen its existing policies and procedures regarding hiring and harassment. The league requires employees to participate in anti-harassment and non-discrimination training, while teams are required to maintain their own such policies that are no less broad than MLB’s and provide a locally appropriate complaint procedure.
While internal programming on respectful conduct is helpful, it may not prove as powerful as further integrating women into these spaces. In December, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as the first woman GM in major league history, some three decades after Ng first interviewed for a job at that level.
In the past year, women have been hired as assistant coaches at the major league and minor league level and as hitting coordinators.
‘Don’t pee in my yard’
But hiring women is only the first portion of that equation. With bad workplace behavior virtually inevitable, accountability is the next and probably equally important piece.
When silence is the default expectation, accountability is elusive.
“It’s changing the mindset that is part of the culture of loyalty to your teammate, at all costs,” says retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders. “We see that in sports and the military – ‘I trust you in the trenches with me. This is my bro in combat, and he had my back. I’m always going to have his.’ It’s understanding that when that other person has failed to meet the standards your team needs, the loyalty stops at that point.
“And that is a really hard thing to get across to people. It’s viewed as a virtue you’ll be with them through thick and thin. Which is great when conducting a mission or winning the World Series. But not when covering up misconduct.
“That is the hardest part to change.”
Coughlin sees male fragility as an equal culprit. She recalls another incident at a Tailhook convention when a fellow woman aviator was shouted down after inquiring when women would be asked to fly fighter missions.
As women are seen no longer as an aberration but a rising force in male-dominated institutions, pushback is almost always imminent.
“Right then and there, it became clear to me, all these guys don’t want women to do what they do, because it would make their manliness shrink, their persona of great warriors somehow be less,” says Coughlin. “There’s an element in men, in leadership in a male-dominated industry or field, that I believe feels their accomplishments are diminished when they realize a woman can do that.
“They have their own personal crisis. That, to me, is foundational, whether a man accepts or doesn’t accept a woman as an equal. And it becomes a power play to diminish what women bring to an industry, or their job, or their mission. To try and humiliate and tear down whatever work a woman is doing.
“And I think the pushback and hostility is still trying to claim, ‘This is my yard. Don’t pee in my front yard.’ ”
‘Good guy doesn’t hire bad guys’
Carving out that space begins with safety, a monumental challenge within military law. The armed forces are both the employer and the criminal justice arm, and the whims of commanding officers often determine whether cases go forward or not.
Until 2014, a commanding officer could even overturn convictions for sexual assault, “for any reason or no reason at all,” says Christensen, before revisions via the NDAA passed by Congress in 2013 ended that policy. Other adjustments include a victim’s latitude to make an impact statement without cross-examination, as well as access to a special victims’ counsel.
Like sports franchises, Christensen says prevailing culture can greatly differentiate branches of the military. He notes that the Air Force has the highest percentage of women in active duty force and also the lowest rate of sexual assault and harassment; the Marine Corps, he says, has the lowest percentage of active women, yet women are assaulted at the highest rate.
Beyond that are the issues of who holds the levers of power and does the hiring, firing and promoting. As more cases of workplace harassment emerge, so too will questions of what executives knew and when.
Porter’s publicly-known indiscretions came when he worked for the Chicago Cubs, where he reportedly only told a fellow front office member who was based overseas. He and Callaway both managed to be hired by the Mets, led then and now by Alderson, a widely respected executive who also worked in MLB’s central office from 1998 to 2005.
Coughlin believes a decorated resume is no deodorant for toxic hires.
“A good guy doesn’t hire bad guys,” she says.
While Christensen and Coughlin both express hope for women in hyper-masculine spaces, they also see too many steps backward after a step forward. Sexual assaults in the military rose nearly 40% – and by 44% for women – in the two years after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, which came one month after a videotape surfaced of him bragging of such exploits.
Ultimately, Coughlin says, it will come down to the willingness of colleagues to blow the whistle – and break that cycle.
“If you look at someone and view their behavior as inappropriate, you have to look at yourself and say, how much are you willing to take?” she says. “It’s the same mental process of these old guys teaching young people how to harass and how to belittle younger people in their industry.
“And people stand by and be complicit because they have to take stock of how they behave. The dynamic is self-perpetuating because they don’t want to rock the boat and say, that’s messed up.”