Mickey Mantle is carried off on a stretcher after injuring his knee during the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

What’s in a Name? Examining Reactions to Major League Baseball’s Change From the Disabled List to the Injured List via Twitter

This article was written by Mary A. Hums

This article was published in the Fall 2020 Baseball Research Journal


Mickey Mantle is carried off on a stretcher after injuring his knee during the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Mickey Mantle is carried off on a stretcher after injuring his knee during the 1951 World Series at Yankee Stadium. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

 

A batter takes a fastball to the ribs. An outfielder crashes into the wall trying to make a circus catch. A baserunner steps on the side of first base and sprains an ankle. All of these rather common occurrences take place on baseball diamonds on a regular basis. Sometimes the mishap results in a player being unable to play for a period of time due to the injury. In the past, a player in Major League Baseball (MLB) with this type of injury would be placed on what was known as the Disabled List or the DL. But is he injuredor disabled? And does it matter how he is labeled? Recently, MLB decided to examine its use of the term Disabled List and changed the name to the Injured List or the IL. While this seems like a rather insignificant change, baseball fans took to social media to express their opinions and perceptions of MLB’s decision. The purpose of this study is to examine that reaction. We will begin with an overview of the history and usage of the terms, provide context for the analysis of effects of language on societal attitudes, and review previous work in analysis of social media with regards to societal attitudes toward sport, before we present our own analysis of reactions to MLB’s announcement.

Policy Language Used to Describe Injured Players

MLB first used the term Disabled List at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Dawkins and Glass, disabled or injury lists first regularly appeared in MLB in the early 1900s.1 The National League codified the term Disabled List in 1915 and it referred to a list of players who were removed from a roster for a 10-day period.2 The Disabled List began to more closely resemble the current version back in 1941. Over the years, the length of time a player could be placed on the Disabled List has varied.

All of the major North American professional sports league have their own terms for their lists of athletes who are unable to play due to injuries. The NFL has an Injured Reserve List, Physically Unable to Perform List, a Non-Football Injury List, and a Personnel (Injury) Report Policy.3 The NBA uses a general Inactive List for players who are not able to play for various reasons which is “the list of players, maintained by the NBA, who have signed Player Contracts with a Team and are otherwise ineligible to participate in a Regular Season game.”4 The NBA also has what is known as the Disabled Player Exception whereby a “Disabling Injury or Illness means any injury or illness that, in the opinion of the physician…., makes it substantially more likely than not that the player would be unable to play through the following June 15.”5 Lastly, the NHL uses an Injured Reserve List.6

Major League Baseball currently defines the Injured List as follows:

The 10-day injured list (known as the 10-day disabled list until the end of the 2018 season) allows clubs to remove players from the 25-man active roster while keeping them on the 40-man roster. Players can be placed on the 10-day injured list for any type of injury, though players with concussion symptoms are first sent to the 7-day injured list. Players on the 10-day injured list must remain out of action for at least 10 days, though a player can also stay on the list for considerably longer than 10 days, if necessary.7,8

Two authors of the current study were directly involved with the nearly 15-year process advocating for the name change from the Disabled List to the Injured List. In 2003, an initial inquiry was made to the MLB Commissioner’s Office suggesting the name be changed.9 The Commissioner’s Office responded with a letter acknowledging receipt of the request and indicating the matter was of interest. Over the years, the authors, along with other disability advocates, reached out again to follow up. Finally, in 2018, the authors contacted the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability advocacy group based in Boston, about helping with getting the name changed. Link20, an initiative of the Ruderman Foundation, took up the effort and directly contacted MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and also copied Billy Bean, MLB Vice President and Special Assistant to the Commissioner.10 Bean is the representative in the Commissioner’s Office who works with MLB’s social responsibility and diversity initiatives. With Bean’s assistance in the League office, the change was agreed upon. Teams were notified in a memo from Jeff Pfeifer, MLB’s Senior Director of League Economics and Operations:

In recent years, the commissioner has received several inquiries regarding the name of the ‘Disabled List,’…The principal concern is that using the term ‘disabled’ for players who are injured supports the misconception that people with disabilities are injured and therefore are not able to participate or compete in sports. As a result, Major League Baseball has agreed to change the name ‘Disabled List’ to be the ‘Injured List’ at both the major and minor league levels. All standards and requirements for placement, reinstatement, etc., shall remain unchanged. This change, which is only a rebranding of the name itself, is effective immediately.11

When the renaming occurred, no changes were made to the actual policy itself.12 The only change was replacing the word Disabled with the word Injured. (Unrelated to the name change, via the recent Collective Bargaining discussions, at the end of 2020 the shortest length of stay on the Injured List for a non-concussion injury will be changed from 10 days to 15 days.)

 

LITERATURE REVIEW

The Importance of LanguageDisabled v. Injured

The importance of language cannot be overstated. “The words that we use shape the image of the world in which we live.”13 This holds true in the world of disability as well. Over the years, the proper terms to describe people with disabilities have evolved. “Proper” terms at various times included words such as crippled, handicapped, wheelchair-bound, lame, and impaired, language which by today’s standards is clearly offensive and marginalizing.14 Acceptable terms today use what is known as person first language. According to the American Psychological Association:

For decades, persons with disabilities have been identified by their disability first, and as persons, second. Often, persons with disabilities are viewed as being afflicted with, or being victims of, a disability. In focusing on the disability, an individual’s strengths, abilities, skills, and resources are often ignored.15

Hence, we now see the term “person with a disability” as opposed to saying “a disabled person,” although there are still some groups who hold that the person first language inadequately captures the breadth of disability identity.16 According to the United Nations:

The term persons with disabilities is used to apply to all persons with disabilities including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

According the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is defined as:

someone who has as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.17

On the other hand, the definition of injured is someone who is or has been “hurt or physically harmed.”18 WebMD supplies a list of sports injuries which includes ACL injuries, dislocated shoulders, muscle strains, rotator cuff tears, running injuries, turf toe, and the ulnar collateral ligament injuries that lead toTommy John surgery, among others. The most common injuries in baseball for hitters are muscle strains, meniscus tears, hand/wrist injuries, elbow tendinitis, and rotator cuff tendinitis, and for pitchers labral tears, dead arm, ulnar collateral ligament injuries (Tommy John), and oblique strains.19 Beyond these simple definitions, however, are the societal expectations that differ between persons who are “injured” and persons who are “disabled.” Persons who are injured are typically seen as having a finite time for healing, whereas people with disabilities often live with their conditions on a long-term, and sometimes lifelong, basis depending on how/when they acquired their disability (i.e. at birth or adult onset). Beyond living with a disability and its associated physical challenges, however, there is a societal stigma placed on people who are “disabled.” According to Garland-Thompson:

Because disability is defined not as a set of observable, broadly predictable traits, such as femaleness or skin color, but rather as any departure from the physical, mental, and psychological norms and expectations of a particular culture, disability highlights individual differences. In short, the concept of disability unites a heterogeneous group of people whose only commonality is being considered abnormal.20

People with disabilities face stigma in many forms including social avoidance, stereotyping, discrimination, condescension, blaming, internalization, hate crimes, and violence.21 As LeClair states “Disability is often equated with inferiority and deficiency rather than a neutral difference that may require some adaptation.”22 At times, people who are injured may become disabled as a result of their injury, but the injury itself and the disability are two different situations. The differences between the terms disabled and injured, then, are quite clear, and attitudes differ toward the people who wear those labels. In this particular study, MLB’s use of the term injured is actually a more accurate term to describe baseball players who are unable to play for a designated period of time. They are injured (or ill), but not disabled.

It is important to note, however, that just because a person has a disability does not mean they are unable to participate in sport. Sport for people with disabilities has been increasing in popularity in the recent years. To put the growth into perspective, the cumulative audience watching the Paralympics has grown by 127 per cent in the last 12 years.23 Reports on the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games indicate ticket sales demand at an all-time record high.24 While these numbers are encouraging, people with disabilities still face stigmatization when they seek full inclusion in society generally and specifically in the sport industry.25 One way that inclusion can be encouraged is through the use of proper language. This includes no longer using words such as handicapped or impaired, but rather using terminology like persons with disabilities or athletes with disabilities because these terms are more accurate.26

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The unique ability of sports to transcend linguistic italics added for emphasis], cultural and social barriers makes it an excellent platform for strategies of inclusion and adaptation.”27 With that in mind, it becomes paramount to understand how society reflects upon and discusses these terms within a sport context. Framing is a useful theoretical framework to employ when examining the context of narratives disseminated via media platforms and whether these narratives challenge or embrace the decisions made by entities within the realm of sport.

Framing

The framing process refers to the selection, emphasis, and exclusion of information within media messages.28 To frame a message is to essentially create a package of information that can thereby be interpreted by the audience.29 Framing has traditionally been examined within the context of a top-down model, which puts the emphasis on how narratives crafted by media outlets impact public perception. A plethora of research has applied a top-down approach to the examination of framing within sport. This line of research has primarily examined coverage of the Olympic Games,30 framing regarding social or political issues within a country,31 and the framing of race, nationality, and the personal scandals of professional athletes.32 The emergence of the Internet and social media platforms has provided the opportunity to examine narratives created by everyday content contributors rather than traditional media entities. This is referred to as bottom-up framing.33 According to Meraz and Papacharissi, bottom-up framing is evident on social media, as non-elite actors can produce and reiterate certain frames via these platforms.34

A growing body of research has applied a bottom-up framing model to sport. Much of this sport-related research has analyzed content via Twitter and Facebook. In terms of bottom-up framing via Twitter, one study examined Twitter content pertaining to the Vancouver Riots following Vancouver’s loss in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals.35 The authors found that many users utilized Twitter to counter negative perceptions of Canadian hockey fans, which included showing embarrassment and disassociating from those engaging in the riots. Ultimately, Twitter provided an avenue to counter traditional media coverage of the riots. Another study examined the hashtag #Sochi2014 during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.36 While most dialogue discussed Games-related material such as results and medal counts, dissent existed on the periphery. Much of the dissent discussed unsuitable accommodations in Sochi and Russia’s political stance on the LGBTQ community. Along similar lines, Frederick, Pegoraro, and Burch performed a comparative analysis of traditional media and social media framing during the Sochi Olympic Games.37 The analysis revealed an echo chamber from traditional media to social media in terms of political discussions. Organic content related to sub-par accommodations existed primarily on Twitter, without being amplified by traditional platforms. Additionally, Billings, et al., found a divergence between newspaper and Twitter content. Specifically, those authors examined coverage of Jason Collins coming out as gay. The analysis revealed that newspapers framed Collins’ coming out as a watershed moment, while Twitter focused on ancillary items such as TV appearances.38

With regard to bottom-up framing via Facebook, various issues have been explored such as athlete transgressions and the framing of controversial sport leagues. In 2014, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart hit and killed Kevin Ward Jr. after Ward Jr. vacated his car on the racetrack. Following this incident, Stewart posted a message on Facebook where he expressed sadness and offered thoughts and prayers to Ward Jr.’s family and friends. Frederick, Stocz, and Pegoraro found that users responded to Stewart’s message by levying judgment, displaying and debating racing knowledge with other users, and calling for a further examination of the “evidence” related to the incident.39 With regard to controversial sport leagues, Frederick, Pegoraro, and Burch analyzed user framing of the Legends Football League (LFL) on Facebook. The LFL is a professional league where scantily-clad women play football indoors. Overall, users discussed the games, athletes, and results, thereby framing the league as a legitimate entity despite the existence of peripheral dialogue that sexualized the appearance of the athletes.40

Recently, sport-specific framing research has explored bottom-up framing on Facebook as it pertains to issues of racism and athlete activism. Frederick, Sanderson, and Schlereth examined user comments pertaining to protests by football players at the University of Missouri following various racially charged incidents on campus.41 Utilizing Critical Race Theory (CRT) along with framing, the authors found that users often framed the protests as incompatible with the sporting environment and that the athletes engaging in advocacy were manufacturing racism where it did not exist. Along similar lines, Frederick, Pegoraro, and Sanderson examined responses via Facebook following LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony’s ESPYs speech during which the athletes discussed police violence against African Americans in the United States. The findings highlighted deeply ingrained racial stereotypes, as individuals debated the nature of race relations and racially charged incidents (i.e., police shootings). These debates focused on “accurate” crime rate statistics, the “facts” of recent racially-charged incidents, and the nature of racism in the United States. A common refrain was that racism against African Americans no longer exists.42 Finally, Schmidt, et al. examined bottom-up framing with regard to the protests by Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe during the playing of the US National Anthem. Utilizing CRT, the authors found that users framed Kaepernick’s activism efforts by questioning his masculinity and expressing often misinformed and racist arguments. These racist arguments again leveraged “accurate” crime rate statistics. Users also declared that Kaepernick was anti-American and should leave the country. Similar sentiments were expressed about Rapinoe, however, there was very little discussion of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. in her comments.43

Limited research has explored bottom-up framing in terms of social media reactions to policy change in sport. Cranmer and Sanderson employed bottom-up framing to examine user commentary on Twitter and online news comments pertaining to the Ivy League’s decision to restrict full-contact tackling during football practices. Their thematic analysis revealed two over-arching frames including traditionalism and progressivism.44 Comments within the traditionalist perspective focused on the detrimental impacts of the tackling policy and its long term consequences. Sub-themes within the traditionalist perspective discussed how the tackling policy would lead to an “erosion of masculinity,” while also undermining American values.45 Additionally, many advocated for preserving the norms of football, stating that the tackling policy would threaten the existence of football. Comments within the progressivism perspective framed this policy decision as a positive step forward. Specifically, users discussed this policy in terms of health advocacy on behalf of players, and as a significant benchmark for risk management within the Ivy League. Overall, the authors witnessed much resistance to this policy. Additionally, with regard to bottom-up framing, the authors argued, “discourse within the public sphere is much more varied than that within the media.”46

In summary, scholars have commonly applied a bottom-up framing model to analyze sport commentary via social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Bottom-up framing shifts the focus from traditional media outlets and their impact on the public to the public themselves who create their own narratives on social media. While research has explored the framing of political controversies, athlete transgressions, gender, and race, the authors could not locate research examining the framing of disability as it relates to sport. MLB changing the name of the Disabled List to the Injured List provided an intriguing opportunity to examine how individuals discussed disability within the realm of sport and beyond. The researchers were guided by the following research question:

What was social media reaction to Major League Baseball’s name change from the Disabled List to the Injured List?

 

METHOD

Data Collection and Data Analysis

Data for this research were collected from Twitter using Twitonomy, a Twitter data collection and analysis program. The tweets were collected using the search term “injured list” for a two-day period starting from the date of the announcement on February 7, 2019, and ending on February 9, 2019. Similar abbreviated time frames have been utilized when examining the immediate impact of an announcement, event, transgression, etc. on audience perception and subsequent framing via social media (see Frederick and Pegoraro 2018; Sanderson, Frederick, and Schlereth 2017). This yielded a dataset of 5,880 tweets. The researchers then examined this tweet corpus and removed any tweets that may have contained the search term “injured list” but did not pertain to the MLB announcement of the name change, resulting in a final dataset of N = 1,822 tweets.

This study was rooted in discovery rather than confirmation of a previously established codebook or framework. Therefore, the researchers conducted an inductive thematic analysis with each tweet serving as the unit of analysis. In order to generate themes, two researchers independently viewed the entire dataset (1,822 tweets). The initial step in the analysis consisted of the researchers reading through the tweets and familiarizing themselves with the nuances and unique qualities of the dataset. The first round of forma coding, referred to as open coding (see Strauss, 1987) consisted of the researchers generating initial descriptors from the tweets. During this stage, categories are “built, named, and have attributes ascribed to them.”47 In order to reduce the descriptors into themes, the researchers engaged in axial coding. This process involves placing similar categories of descriptors into emergent thematic categories. Specifically, axial coding takes place when connections are made between categories, effectively bringing separate categories together under the umbrella of an “overarching theory or principle.”48

The two researchers who conducted the coding have extensive experience and expertise in either social media use in sport or perceptions of disability as it relates to sport. Open communication took place between the researchers during the coding process if there were any misunderstandings of specific tweets. Categories were summarized and compared to ascertain similarity, and the researchers reduced the categories as much as possible while still preserving meaning. The researchers met and reviewed the themes and discussed any differences until a consensus was reached.

Results

A total of 1822 tweets were analyzed for the study. Of these, 379 were simple retweets which contained no additional content. An additional 77 contained disparate responses which did not group together to form themes. The following themes emerged from the remaining 1366 tweets:

  1. Opposition (615)
  2. Sarcasm (420)
  3. Support (331)

Several subthemes emerged under opposition and also support.

Theme 1Opposition

By far, the primary theme that emerged from the tweets was negative in nature. The 615 opposition tweets could be broken down further into two subthemes(1) hostility/denial (515 tweets) and (2) deflection (100 tweets).

Subtheme 1Hostility/Denial. In this subtheme, tweets reflected an open hostility to the change. For example, “So today MLB renamed the DISABLED LIST to the Injured List because DISABLED LIST may be offensive to people. If you are offended by the term DISABLED LIST please unfriend me now and choke on a cupcake.” “Another example of our snowflake pussy ass culture we live in. Changing the name because disabled is offensive? Disabled is a word and it describes players that can’t play. Are there REALLY people that sit out there who REALLY get offended by this stuff? Fuuuuuuck” was another example of this content.

Some of the tweets decried what people saw as the onset of politically correct (PC) culture into the game. “Here we go… this is just the begging of hypersensitive babies ruining the best sport on Earth” and “Is nothing sacred from the PC police anymore?” Others saw it as a reflection of US culture becoming soft. “Because disabled offends ppl? Lol what has happened to our country. So soft” and “When the world is run by pussies, shit like this happens.”

Other tweets gave a sense that people were so opposed to the change they would not even bring themselves to use the new terminology. “Always going to call it the DL. Stop trying to fuck up the sport” and “I am not calling it this” exemplify that opposition.

Subtheme 2Deflection. Some people indicated that MLB leaders should be spending their time on matters deemed more important to fans. “What about the advocates that are disabled from line drives and broken bats? When will you listen to us? And when are you going to address the fatal accident at Dodger Stadium?” and “MLB more offended by disabled than by Indians.” Another example stated, “Let’s not fix the NL’s DH, tanking, shifts, blackout restrictions, sharing highlights on social media, service time manipulation, minor league wages, pitcher substitutions, slow pace. None of that. The name of the list for injured players. Unreal. Get your priorities straight @MLB.”

Others just did not like the name change word choice saying, “Players go on the DL for mental issues, drug & alcohol issues, in addition to actual physical injuries” and “Calling it the Injured List creates ambiguity when a player requires time away for illness.” Another tweet stated, “If you want the name changed because it is offensive, fine. But don’t pretend the Injured List is more accurate or that disabled applies specifically to one group of people and it isn’t just a word with multiple definitions.” These statements indicate opposition but were more about the language used than the change itself.

Theme 2Sarcasm

A large number of tweets (420) appeared to be sarcastic responses to the change. People did not make specific suggestions but just seemed to want to vent in a sarcastic manner. “MLB now channeling their inner progressiveness… Look how woke we are!”, “Well, that will fix everything….”, “Next for MLB they will change the name of the first baseman to avoid position privilege”, “I am embarrassed for the world I live in” and “WowInjured List replaces Disabled List. That’s a game changer. Like saying I’ll rename cloudy days to overcast days” are all examples of the sarcastic commentary.

While some tweets that fell into the sarcasm category could possibly also have been classified under hostility/denial, many seemed to have a different tone. They were not attacking MLB for the change or saying they would not use the new terminology, but on some level mocked the change that was being made.

Theme 3Support

While two of the first three themes that emerged from the data were less than positive, numerous tweets did indicate a level of support for the change. These 331 tweets fell into two subthemes(1) understanding (207 tweets) and (2) advocating (124 tweets).

Subtheme 1Understanding. Tweets in this category tended to be rather matter-of-fact and in agreement that the change made logical sense because it is more accurate. Never thought about that but this change really shouldn’t bother anyone and should be welcomed by people who did take offense to it. Good on you MLB.” Other examples stated, “Well, I am not offended by the term….but to be accurate, they aren’t disabled. They are injured” and “Injured List is more accurate anyway. There’s no reason to be upset over changing a name that is both outdated and inaccurate anyway.” These tweets, along with others, agreed that the new name brought MLB in line with industry language. “Every other sport uses Injured Reserve. I mean even taking away the offensive nature, it makes MLB more in line with what everyone else does.”

Subtheme 2Advocating. People whose tweets fell into the advocating subtheme were supportive but went beyond and actually cheered MLB for its action. “THANK YOU BASEBALL FOR UPDATING THIS TO BE PRECISE AND ACCURATE. It’s time for sports culture and media to respect what disability really means.” “We never believed that a disability means you can’t play the game. Props to MLB for making this important change.” “MLB’s Disabled List is now the Injured List. The injured might not be able to compete. The disabled still can. Community Connections applauds this change by #MLB.” Others took an opportunity to display their fandom and pride with tweets such as “For my part, I am a big time fan of this move. Shout out to MLB for thinking about inclusion and the messages they send” and “Proud of the activism of Link20 a group of advocates for #disability rights and the leadership of MLB.” Finally, one person simply said, “Good movelanguage matters.” These tweets indicated there are fans who recognize the logical rationale for the change and accept or celebrate it for what it is.

 

DISCUSSION

In reflecting on the results section, a number of points arose which bear elaboration. These include (a) discussions of other potential MLB changes which may have influenced participants’ responses, (b) reasons why baseball fans may have been resistant to the change, (c) looking at other policy changes involving disability and (d) the evolution of terms to describe traditionally under-represented groups.

First, prior to the time the name change took place, MLB had been involved in public discussions of ways to improve the game. Some of the hotly debated topics included abolishing (or expanding use of) the designated hitter, instituting a pitch clock, and requiring relief pitchers to face a minimum of three batters.49 The name change from Disabled List to Injured List was not mentioned in these discussions. This may have influenced user framing as some saw MLB making the name change as insignificant or even diversionary compared to issues that would directly impact the pace of play.

Second, baseball fans may be an audience which does not favor change, particularly change that appears to have a political bent. Sport fans in general seem to think that politics and sport should be kept separate. A recent Washington Post poll revealed that 50% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “Sports and politics should not mix.”50 Conservatives were also more likely to oppose the mixing of sports and politics.51 Baseball fans may be seen as unlikely to be open to change, particularly if the change involves language one could interpret as being “politically correct” in nature. This resistance to change, evident within user comments in the current study, is consistent with previous research exploring policy change in sport (see Cranmer and Sanderson, 2018). Resistance to “politically correct” language aligns well with the traditionalist perspective frame as discussed by Cranmer and Sanderson, as it was clear that individuals perceived the change from the DL to the IL as an affront to history and a symbolic softening of culture.

The findings of this study are also in line with the work of Kaufman, who keenly observed that athletes who engage in activism will likely receive backlash for their efforts.52 Additionally, Cunningham and Regan have noted that athletes may be less likely to engage in activism due to public focus on athletic achievement instead of political or social advocacy within the realm of sport.53 While the subtle advocacy of the name change was performed by a league and not an athlete, users adopted adversarial frames similar to responses following athlete activism and advocacy efforts. Specifically, the hostility theme aligns with the work of Frederick, Pegoraro, and Sanderson, who found that users attacked advocacy efforts, stating that they were misguided and misinformed.54 The practice of trolling (leaving incendiary comments with the intention of causing offense and eliciting a response) is common in discussions of socially charged issues and further amplifies the polarity of these conversations as they unfold on social media (see Frederick, Pegoraro, and Sanderson, 2019; Smith et al., 2014). The sarcasm theme in the current study is similar to that identified by Frederick, Sanderson, and Schlereth, who noted that individuals often utilized social media to trivialize and/or downplay the significance of advocacy efforts with sarcastic overtones or ill-fated attempts at humor.55 Overall, the most prominent themes in this study highlight a general resistance to change. The resistance to MLB’s change was further illustrated by a number of blogs and websites which spoke out against or disparaged the change in language.56 As MLB Executive Billy Bean observed in a podcast on this topic:

I think it’s more about people being afraid of where we’re going to take the sport, if we start changing things that they’re just accustomed to, and not the actual understanding that we were underserving a segment of our community and our population, and it was time to change and stop doing that.57

Third, it is useful to examine how another policy change in the representation of disability was received. A non-sport example of a policy which changed a long-standing depiction of disability occurred when the state of New York passed legislation to alter “existing law to require the removal of the word handicapped from new or replaced state signage, as well as update and destigmatize the accessibility logo.”58 The state adopted the use of the new Accessible Icon on any signs dealing with accessibility. A few years later, the state of Connecticut followed as well, changing to the use of the newer Accessible Icon and changing the wording on signs on parking spaces from “handicapped” to “reserved.” According to Gazda:

“It’s 45 years old,” said Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy about the outgoing symbol. “It was developed at a different time, when our own ideas of a culture and a society were much more about concentrating on that which held people back, as opposed to that which moves people forward and so it was time.”59

Can MLB say the same for its language change? While MLB may view the change as a progressive and obvious move forward, it was clear from user framing via Twitter that the notion of changing Disabled List to Injured List was viewed as neither evident nor necessary.

Finally, language changes over time and words related to under-represented groups have evolved. For example, gendered terms such as chairman or policeman have now become chair and police officer to avoid sex bias. Regarding race, the terms Negro or Colored used to be in common usage but were replaced by Black or African-American, and Oriental has been replaced by Asian. It is important to note that the advocacy efforts examined in the present study aimed to remove the word disability because it was not an accurate description within the particular context of injured players. While many advocacy initiatives center around inserting disability into the language and diversity dialogue, this MLB initiative perhaps created some confusion and misunderstanding for the layperson who may have believed that now the disability community does not agree with the term “disability.” In fact, the use of the word disability is strongly encouraged when needed and necessary, but in the context of describing injury it is not an accurate term. It is possible that the extraction of the term disability may have increased opposition by the everyday fan who lacked an understanding of the nuances of the situation, possibly contributing to the overall negative responses via Twitter.

 

LIMITATIONS AND DELIMITATIONS

One delimitation to this study was that the data were collected only from Twitter, which has been a common approach in sport communication research (see Blaszka et al., 2016; Burch et al., 2015). Other social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook were not used for data collection. Another delimitation was the time frame involved in data collection. The time frame took place between the time ESPN reported the change would occur and lasted for 48 hours in order to capture the initial responses. A limitation in the study was an unrelated occurrence that coincided with when the name change story went public. On that same day, Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson passed away. Because he was a prominent MLB player and manager, this may have deflected some commentators who were more interested in the story of Robinson’s death than the change in the name of the Disabled List to the Injured List.

 

FUTURE RESEARCH

As a follow up to this study, more work is needed in examining disability in a sport industry context. Much work has focused on participation in sport for people with disabilities, but the work being suggested here should focus on disability from a management perspective. For example, while researchers have extensively examined the sport consumption behavior patterns of women and racial ethnic minorities, this has not been done for people with disabilities. In addition, while work exists on the numbers of women and racial ethnic minorities working in sport management (see Lapchick), this work has not been replicated for sport managers with disabilities. Representation is important and having sport managers with disabilities who are visible to fans, sponsors, media, athletes, and coaches will create a more welcoming environment for all. Finally, assessing sport organizations on how disability is present in various aspects of the organization needs to be undertaken. A tool such as the Criteria for Inclusion put forth by Hums, et al. in 2019 could be used to assess how well people with disabilities are represented in sports organizations in terms of funding/sponsorship, media/information distribution, awards/recognitions, philosophy, awareness/education, policy environment, and attitudinal environment.60 Finally, research should continue to monitor how disability is discussed and how information related to disability is disseminated via social media in order to determine how perceptions and reactions change with time.

 

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTITIONERS

In general, organizations should work to promote diversity for two primary reasons: (a) it is the right thing to do, and (b) it makes business sense.61 This includes using inclusive language since it has a positive effect in business environments. According to Pecoraro, “Valuing diversity should be part of the communications brand you build for your business, if you want to reflect the customers you’re serving.”62 Approximately 35% of households in the United States have a member with a disability and these households are more loyal to brands than other households.63 People with disabilities living in the US combine for nearly $175 billion in annual discretionary spending.64 Clearly, this is a market with great potential. People with disabilities also are quite interested in sport and attending sporting events despite the fact they often encounter barriers when wanting to do so. Some teams have made an effort to make their games more inviting to people with disabilities. MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks host Autism Awareness Day at their ballpark, and the New York Yankees celebrated a Disability Awareness Night, while minor league baseball’s Lake Elsinore Storm and Lancaster Barnstormers have done the same. MLB teams have successfully promoted events such as Ladies Days, Pride Nights, and Hispanic-themed celebrations to appeal to fans from specific demographics. Sending out the message that people with disabilities are welcome, as MLB has done with the change in the Injured List language, can go a long way in newly cultivating a potentially very loyal fan base.

 

CONCLUSION

The importance of language cannot be overstated. “Language powerfully reflects and influences attitudes, behaviour and perceptions,”65 but language is never static. Changes in everyday language occur all the time. According to the Linguistic Society of America, “Language is always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of its users.”66 This study examined how social media users reacted to a change in language related to people with disabilities in the context of a name change to a sport organization’s policy. It illustrated that however simple and straightforward changing one word may appear, that change can still elicit strong emotions from people who are fans of a particular sport. Language can be used to include or exclude. MLB made the decision to change language to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Social media users reacted both positively and negatively. It was a sure sign that language related to disability in sport needs further research and there is much for sport managers to learn about how to implement changes such as these.

MARY A. HUMS, PH.D. is a Professor of Sport Administration at the University of Louisville. A North American Society for Sport Management Ziegler Lecturer and Diversity Award recipient, her research interest is policy development in sport organizations, especially regarding inclusion of people with disabilities and also sport and human rights. Email: mary.hums@louisville.edu. Twitter: @mahums

EVAN L. FREDERICK, PH.D., is an Associate Professor of Sport Administration at the University of Louisville. His research interest is the intersection of sport and social media. He currently serves as the Vice-Chair for the Association for Communication and Sport.

ANN PEGORARO, PH.D. is the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph and the co-director of the EAlliance— a National Network for Gender Equity in Canadian Sport. Her recent research in digital media focuses on gender and diversity.

NINA SIEGFRIED is a University Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Sport Administration Program at the University of Louisville where she previously completed her M.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her main research areas focus on establishing and maintaining sport partnerships in parasports and also developing successful adaptive sports programs.

ELI A. WOLFF directs the Power of Sport Lab, and co-founded Disability in Sport International and Athletes for Human Rights. His work highlights the intersection of research, education and advocacy in and through sport, with a focus on sport and social justice, diversity, disability and inclusion.

 

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Notes

1 Dawkins and Glass, 2012.

2 Baseball-Reference.com

3 NFL, 2017; Toback, 2018.

4 NBA 2017, Article 1, 5; NBA Media Ventures, 2018.

5 NBA, 2017, 200.

6 NHL.

7 Major League Baseball, Official Rules, 2019.

8 Of note is the fact that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB also created a COVID-19 related injured list, which specified no minimum stay. Any of three conditions could place a player on this list:“a positive test, exposure to coronavirus or symptoms that require isolation or additional assessment,” as quoted by Blum, 2020.

9 Author, personal communication, September 3, 2003.

10 Link20, personal communication, November 27, 2018.

11 Passan, 2019.

12 Bogage, 2019; Mather, 2019.

13 Mary Hums, as quoted in Allentuck 2019, 1.

14 Ferrigon, 2019.

15 APA, 2019.

16 Ferrigon, 2019.

17 USDOJ.

18 Cambridge University Press, 2019.

19 Bell, 2009.

20 Garland-Thomson, 2001, 2.

21 Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, n.d.

22 LeClair, 2011, 1078.

23 International Paralympic Committee, 2017.

24 Reuters, 2019.

25 Howe, 2008; Silva and Howe, 2012.

26 American Psychological Association, 2019.

27 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011.

28 Entman, 1993.

29 Gamson and Modligliani, 1987; Tewksbury and Scheufele, 2009.

30 Angelini, et al. 2014; Billings, et al. 2014; Eagleman, et al. 2014.

31 Huang and Fahmy, 2013; Liang, 2010; van Luijk and Frisby, 2012.

32 Bishop, 2005; Eagleman, 2011; Laucella, 2009, 2010.

33 Nisbet, 2010.

34 Meraz and Papacharissi, 2013.

35 Burch, et al., 2015.

36 Blaszka, et al., 2016.

37 Frederick, Pegoraro, and Burch, 2016.

38 Billings, et al., 2015.

39 Frederick, Stocz, and Pegoraro, 2016.

40 Frederick, Pegoraro, and Burch, 2017.

41 Frederick, Sanderson, and Schlereth, 2017.

42 Frederick, Pegoraro, and Sanderson, 2019.

43 Schmidt, et al., 2019.

44 Cranmer and Sanderson, 2018.

45 Cranmer and Sanderson, 638.

46 Cranmer and Sanderson, 642.

47 Lindlof and Taylor 2011, 251.

48 Lindlof and Taylor 2011, 252.

49 Associated Press, 2019; Nightingale, 2019.

50 Serazio and Thorson, 2017.

51 Thorson and Serazio, 2018.

52 Kaufman, 2008.

53 Cunnigham and Regan, 2012.

54 Frederick, Pegoraro, and Sanderson, 2019.

55 Frederick, Sanderson, and Schlereth, 2017.

56 Kastel, 2019; Portnoy, 2019.

57 Rudeman Foundation, 2019.

58 New York State, 2014.

59 Gazda, 2017.

60 Hums, et al, 2019.

61 Atcheson, 2018.

62 Pecoraro, 2018.

63 Neff, 2016.

64 Jimenez, 2018.

65 European Parliament, 2018.

66 Linguistic Society of America, 2019.

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