I was born in Flint, Michigan. I lived there until I was 11, when we moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia. I lived there for three years and then moved to Beckley, West Virginia where I graduated high school and got married. When people ask me where I’m from I usually say Beckley, but I’m a Flint native and consider Flint, Parkersburg and Beckley to all be my home. They all took their turns and played their part in forming me and making me the person I would eventually become.
I had a good childhood. A happy childhood. I was lucky in that my parents always had stable jobs and a stable income. Such things were not necessarily the norm in Flint or West Virginia. Our society is so socially and racially segregated and we rarely see or acknowledge people in different classes than our own, but it was always a bit easier to see it in places like Flint and West Virginia. Those places were smaller and are poorer than most places with fewer school districts and neighborhoods and clubs and restaurants which allow people to keep their distance from those who are different and poorer than they are. I had a good and happy childhood but I grew up with and was friends with people who didn’t. I saw people who worked their asses off, had almost nothing to show for it and had no one listening to them when they were faced with hard times or injustice.
In Flint, factories closed and no one cared. In fact, people mocked those who were put out of work and blamed them for their own misfortune. In West Virginia people were lucky if all the coal mines did was close. If they stayed open a long time, way worse things could happen. Over time people in Flint and West Virginia would come to accept this as normal. An implicit social contract was torn up by one party to it without the other party knowing, but eventually it was just accepted that factories and mines closed and hard work took its toll because that’s just how things go. Hell, if it wasn’t part of the deal, wouldn’t someone be held accountable for it? No one was ever held accountable, so it must simply be the way things are.
But putting people out of work or putting them at risk in jobs everyone knows, on some level, to be dangerous is one thing. Actively poisoning them and killing them has to be something else though, right?
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In 2000 I worked at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio with a sophisticated environmental practice. I didn’t do that stuff, but the woman in the office next to me did. I heard her mention Parkersburg one day and asked her about it. It seems the firm represented DuPont and they had some issues down at their Washington Works facility just south of the place I lived from the 6th to the 9th grade. A toxic chemical known as C8 had poisoned the water supply – Lubeck water, which is the water which came to my house – and people were getting sick and dying. Babies were deformed. DuPont had known about it since the 60s. The water had been known to be contaminated since 1984, the year I moved there. It was “under control,” the woman in the office next to mine told me. I took that to mean legally under control, not environmentally, because that’s what “under control” means to a lawyer.
I thought of all of the times I drank that water out of the tap of my South Parkersburg home or out of the drinking fountains at Blennerhassett Junior High. I thought back to my Little League team which played at DuPont field, smack right dab in between the DuPont Washington Works plant and the Borg Warner chemical plant right next door. Like the Pittsburgh skyline is to the outfield of PNC Park where the Pirates play the smoke stacks and cooling towers of those chemical plants were to my Little League field. And there was a smell to the place. Not necessarily an unpleasant smell. Nothing that would drive people away. But certainly a unique smell. An unnatural one which to this day I can immediately bring to mind. Thank goodness, I thought in 2000, that all of that was “under control.”
I moved down to Beckley in 1988. My ex-wife and all of her family is from down there and it was down there where I truly grew up and where I truly began to understand and appreciate how hard some people worked and how hard some people’s lives were. My wife’s grandfather had black lung from years in the mines. My father in-law was a construction worker who inhaled crystalline silica for years and whose death from respiratory failure can likely be traced back to that. On April 5, 2010, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, not far from Beckley, blew up. Twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site were killed. One of the 29 miners killed was the father of one of my other in-laws.
On January 9, 2014 something called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol was released from a facility run by a company called “Freedom Industries” straight into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. It contaminated the water of nine nearby counties, all now home to people I knew and loved back then or, at the very least, home to people like the ones I knew and loved. 300,000 people in a state with a population of only 1.85 million people were told to avoid using their water for cooking, drinking, or bathing for an extended period. Schools and businesses were closed. Hospitals activated emergency measures.
In 2014, in a cost-savings move, Flint’s water supply was changed from the long-used, long-reliable Detroit water system to a new system drawing water directly from the Flint River. After the change Flint’s water was suddenly riddled with lead contamination. Between 6,000 and 12,000 residents were found to have severely high levels of lead in the blood, leading to serious health problems. It’s also suspected that the water change is the culprit behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people and affected another 77. As I write this the politicians involved are shifting and denying blame. No one seems to have a plan about how to deliver non-toxic water to the people of Flint.
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Things were under control down in Parkersburg, but only for a while. In 2015 DuPont’s release of C8 into the Lubeck water supply finally came to be known by a great number of people and only then did DuPont start facing some modicum of legal judgment for it. Not much of one – their settlements and the jury awards so far have been dwarfed by even a partial year’s worth of revenue from DuPont – but, for the first time in 50 years of knowingly poisoning their own workers, their families and their neighbors, something was being done about it, however small.
Black lung settlements come and go in West Virginia. Some families count on them as part of their basic economic plan and many miners affected by it simply pass on the money to their children and grandchildren in order to help them put food on the table and to keep them out of the mines themselves. As for Upper Big Branch, it was eventually ruled that the explosion was entirely preventable but the unlawful policies and practices of Massey Energy made it inevitable. Practices which were deemed to be intentional and knowingly dangerous and were designed to save money. The government issued 369 citations. Millions in fines were leveled and millions in settlements were paid. One superintendent was convicted of a crime. Fraud. The fines and settlements were small compared to Massey’s revenue, however, and are generally considered a cost of doing business Massey willingly accepted. The criminal sanction was nearly nothing in the face of 29 deaths which were eminently preventable.
My ex-in-law whose dad died in the blast got a sizable settlement. It’s all gone now. I’ve lost touch with him, but from what I hear he’s leading a aimless and sad existence. Massey Energy can put a cost on human life and budget around it, but the son of a dead coal miner can’t do that as easily. As for my father in law: I miss him every day and wish my children got a chance to know their grandfather. Especially my son, his namesake, who was born five months after he died.
Up in Charleston, due to 30-some years of a certain sort of person and a certain sort of politician demonizing government regulation, the chemical spill into the Elk River was deemed to not legally be “hazardous,” thereby preventing all manner of EPA measures designed to be triggered by hazardous situations. Days afterward “Freedom Industries” declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability. A new company working with the same chemicals and with the same phone numbers and addresses registered to do business there soon after. It still operates today and similar, albeit smaller spills of the same chemical happen from time to time. No one was ever held accountable for the big spill.
Up in Flint? Well, that’s still going on, but so far it looks like much the same thing will go down. The politicians currently shifting blame are mostly hiding behind their curious and rare immunity from Freedom of Information Act responsibilities and so who knew what and when about the deadly poison sent through the taps of the people of Flint may never be known. If I were a betting man I’d not lay much on anyone truly responsible for this disaster to have their political or business careers ended and even less on anyone going to jail over it. Meanwhile, I expect many more people will die in Flint because the water they need to drink to survive is toxic. Lead has a way of lingering.
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I don’t pay close attention to what has gone on in Flint and in West Virginia because I’m an environmental activist or a good person or some committed social justice warrior. I’ve only paid close attention to it because, at some point, the names of the places where these crimes have occurred are familiar to me and caught my attention when they hit the news. Such things happen all over the place all the time and they’re lost on me or at least quickly forgotten, just as what’s going on in Flint and what has happened in West Virginia may be lost on you either now or eventually. It’s human nature, I suppose. Our lives are busy and full and the world is a big place filled with all manner of injustice. We only have the capacity to see so much of it or, even if we do see it, we only have so much capacity to care.
But this stuff happens every day. It happens in marginal places which are, invariably, home to poor people. People who don’t fund political campaigns or sit on boards of directors or play golf with those who do down at the club. For most of us, these people are abstractions or stereotypes. Poor blacks who, to some, are a demographic category more than they are actual people. Or dumb rednecks who are easily written off unless or until some regulation-hating politician needs them to bring their guns and trucks and bibles to a campaign stop so he can show just how much he loves freedom and the common man. They’re used at best but usually ignored and are always, always the victims of these atrocities.
I’d wish that we can do better. But after all of this time, I doubt we can. And I doubt most people care. They don’t care about Flint. They don’t care about Parkersburg. They don’t care about Beckley or Charleston or the Elk River. And thus such things will happen again and again and again.
Over in Baseball Land I recently wrote about how I was getting out of the business of mocking the Hall of Fame ballots of other baseball writers. There’s no real point in it and I find myself not really caring much about it anymore. I made an exception, however: I won’t mock ballots just because I disagree with them, but I reserve the right to comment on vile, petty and borderline defamatory reasoning in the course of columns explaining a given writer’s Hall of Fame votes. We’ve seen a lot of that over the years and, upon reflection, that has always bothered me more than the actual votes with which I disagreed.
A great example of this can be seen in today’s Washington Times. There, columnist Thom Loverro dives into the messy politics involved in the candidacy of players who took performance enhancing drugs such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Like many voters, Loverro will not vote for them. Which, while I disagree, is not really a problem. Roughly two-thirds of Hall of Fame voters don’t vote for those guys. There is a legitimate ethical debate about their careers to be had and if that’s where Loverro falls, that’s where he falls. Battling over those particular ethical considerations is that business I decided to get out of when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
Loverro’s column, however, goes beyond merely reasserting his position regarding drug cheats. He goes after Bonds and Clemens’ supporters, including fellow Hall of Fame voters, and equates them to the Black Lives Matter movement and mocks them as the “No Justice/No Peace Wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America.”
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will not get in. But don’t worry about them — they’ve got the No Justice/No Peace wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America fighting for them.
The Black Lives Matter movement on which Loverro thoughtlessly plays was born in 2012 following the murder of Trayvon Martin. It campaigns against violence against black people, particularly killings of black people by law enforcement officers, which typically go unpunished and, sadly, unnoticed. It works to combat racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system. In short, it concerns itself with serious business. Matters of literal life and death, justice and tyranny. Matters every bit as significant in the grand scheme of things as someone’s Hall of Fame ballot is insignificant in the grand scheme.
That Loverro applies a variation on that label – and “No Justice, No Peace,” which is a venerable slogan of the civil rights movement and other protests throughout history – in his typical mocking manner is pathetic and, frankly, disgusting. In so doing he simultaneously belittles and insults serious people with serious and legitimate concerns by equating them with those who, in his mind, are unethical and feckless crusaders for cheaters who should not be taken seriously in any way whatsoever. Based on the context it would appear that, to him, the criticism goes both ways. He takes neither the Black Lives Matter movement seriously nor those who disagree with him about baseball things.
Of course Loverro has always been like this. He’s a poor writer, a poor thinker and an attention-seeking troll who writes inflammatory columns so he can have fodder for his bad radio show and vice-versa. Nothing I say here will change that. Indeed, I am certain he will use this post and similar disapproval of his column as a launching pad for his radio show on Monday. Good for him.
But I’m not really aiming this post at Loverro. I am aiming it at his peers in the Baseball Writers Association of America in the hopes that, eventually, its members stop tolerating this kind of garbage and that, eventually, they’ll start calling out their peers who engage in it.
We rarely see that sort of thing, of course. “Takedowns” of other members of the baseball press are seen as impolite. It’s simply not done. You do not criticize a fellow credentialed writer. It’s mean. It’s an “attack.” In sportswriting, at least among the upper echelon and at least publicly, every opinion is good and valid and calling out your colleagues is considered rude. It’s the ultimate sin in the world of sportswriting. You can make up stories from whole cloth and be considered an institution, but don’t even think about criticizing another writer where anyone can hear you doing it. Many sports outlets specifically forbid their writers from criticizing other members of the media as a matter of policy.
This is why you see so much bad sportswriting. While no one likes to be criticized, it’s undeniably the case that criticism – even sharp criticism, as long as it’s aimed at the work and not the person – leads to a better product. This is the case in just about any field. Whether it’s doctors being put to the test in morbidity and mortality conferences, lawyers’ arguments being challenged by opponents and judges in appellate practice, academic peer review, competing columns and editorials of political and business writers or even through the application of generalized media criticism, the act of pointing out the flaws in the logic or the practice of one’s fellow professionals works to raise the discourse and improve the work. That a line is drawn with respect to this practice at sports writing makes little sense and it’s why sports writing is considered by some to be trivial. The “toy department” of journalism, as they say.
It shouldn’t be that way. Sports writing can be – and in the hands of solid professionals often is – vital and important and illuminative of both the world of sports and the world at large. We’ve all seen great sports journalism. We know how edifying and enjoyable and uplifting it can be. We know how, at times, it can even enhance our enjoyment of the game itself by its very existence. In some rare cases topics with importance and implications to life and society in general are better-handled by sportswriters and in a sports context than they are if they were set in a different, real-world milieu.
I will never stop wanting sportswriting to be better and, for that reason, I will never stop critiquing bad writing. I simply won’t surrender to the notion that sports are so unimportant that there’s no harm in sports journalism being bad. I talk to sports fans every day and it’s clear how many of them base their opinions on bad sportswriting and commentary. It’s easy for them to do this because that bad writing and commentary goes almost wholly unexamined and unremarked upon. I love to talk about sports with people and I want that discourse to be elevated as much as possible. As is the case in every other walk of life, the way to elevate the work is to critique it and seek its improvement.
But I’m just an uncredentialed blogger, easily dismissed by the Thom Loverros of the world as “the Internet mob.” How nice it would be if he and others who traffic in his sort of garbage were called out by people he actually respects in the industry. By the people he considers his peers. Maybe not in lengthy columns or posts like this one – they’re sportswriters after all and have sportswriting to do – but how about on Twitter? How about on radio shows and podcasts where the subject matter opens up a bit? How about, instead of merely presenting the bad work with a hands-off, “no judgments here” tweet, the giants in the industry call out the garbage for what it is?
I’m not holding my breath until that happens. But I sure as hell would like to see more of it.