Editorial: MLB tobacco ban could help young viewers

Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist
Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist

Kids can get wrong idea when pros chew on TV

A day before this year’s Major League Baseball World Series began last week, four U.S. senators called on the league to make a radical change that would affect many players.

Four Democrats – Dick Durbin of Illinois, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senate health committee chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa wrote letters to Major League Baseball endorsing a ban on smokeless tobacco use during games.

While this ban might help prevent mouth disease among players, it is more importantly beneficial to baseball’s younger audience and therefore a legitimate suggestion.

There have been no recent surveys or examinations of MLB players, but a 2008 MLB.com article said smokeless tobacco use has decreased greatly in baseball since the early and mid-20th century.

Still, smokeless tobacco usage is highly visible in today’s game, especially with the prevalence of television broadcasts.

The Elias Sports Bureau said the average MLB game lasted two hours and 50 minutes last season, and according to a Wall Street Journal study conducted last season, only about 14 minutes of each game actually involves action on the field. Another 88 minutes was devoted to shots of players and coaches on the field and in the dugout in between pitches.

It is these facts that make smokeless tobacco usage so easy to spot when watching MLB games on television, and this is not what young people should see when they watch their favorite players.

The habit of using tobacco is as easy to see as a player’s batting stance or the wristbands he wears. There is no way to hide it.

And kids do what they see. If the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton hits 25 home runs like he did this season, kids will emulate the way he holds his bat. Earlier this year in the Little League World Series, one 13-year-old sparked uproar after he hit a home run and stared at the ball as it went over the fence, an act many considered to be excessive showboating.

The player said he was just mimicking his favorite baseball player, Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees.

This is just one example of how closely kids follow professional baseball players. The pros are under a microscope, and every detail is highlighted and broadcast across the country.

There are some practical steps to push smokeless tobacco out of baseball. Like other major rule changes, such as the mandating of helmets in the National Hockey League in 1979, MLB could institute a grandfather clause. That would allow players who entered the league prior to the tobacco ban to continue consuming it at their discretion, while new players may not use the product.

MLB could also just ban tobacco usage during televised games, which would take tobacco usage out of the spotlight. This would, however, likely apply to almost every game of the season, as regional broadcasts show nearly all of a team’s games in any given year.

This ban wouldn’t really be about the health of the players. Yes, it could potentially lower the risk of disease, but MLB players are adults and can choose to use smokeless tobacco if they want. They just should not use it in a setting where using tobacco is grouped into other actions that kids might copy.