It’s 1999, the NFL Draft. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue receives the pick. Eagles fans wait anxiously. “With the second pick, the Philadelphia Eagles select Donovan McNabb.” And just as planned, Eagles fans unleash thunderous boos.
Philly fans, the tired saying goes, are the worst in sports.
Prefer the audio version of this story? Listen to this article in CitizenCast below:
So it was no surprise that SportsRadio 94.1 WIP host Angelo Cataldi had organized the “Dirty 30,” a crew that travelled to the NFL Draft to boo any pick that wasn’t running back Ricky Williams. That booing is just one of many incidents that give us the “worst fans in sports” title.
We throw snowballs at Santa Claus.
We have a jail in our stadium.
We boo our own players.
And over Cataldi’s 30 year career, top-rated SportsRadio 94.1 WIP has become the home of our bawdiest fans. Loud-mouthed and opinionated, Cataldi has challenged former Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel to a fist-fight, asked female callers what they’re wearing, and called a new team staff person each week to be fired. As Cataldi mused on a recent show, “The nature of sports talk is to focus on the negative and pound on it.”
SportsRadio 94.1 WIP is the black heart of Philadelphia sports.
Fans excoriate him on Twitter. Fans call into the show to tell him, in so many words, to shut up.
What most of his listeners don’t know is that Cataldi has a journalist’s pedigree: Armed with a masters in journalism from Columbia University, he was recruited from his hometown, Providence, to work at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Soon after he was offered a full-time radio co-hosting position at WIP. And on his first day, Cataldi, in his own words, “took myself very seriously.” He thought he nailed it. After the show, Cataldi was called into the program director’s office, who said “If you do that again, you won’t work here very long. Stop pontificating and start entertaining. This is not journalism.”
“That’s a lesson I never forgot,” remembers Cataldi. “The first goal is to entertain, not inform. To get people to listen, because it might give someone a pleasant trip into work. That lesson sunk in on day one.”
But these days, Cataldi eschews that advice. After Phillies Center Fielder Odubel Herrera’s arrest on May 27, Cataldi tweeted “As soon as the Phillies know for sure that the domestic-abuse charges are true, they MUST release Odubel Herrera.” One week later, Cataldi published an op-ed titled I won’t stop talking about Odubel Herrera, no matter how mad fans get. And they do get mad. Fans excoriate him on Twitter. Fans call into the show to tell him, in so many words, to shut up. “I think it’s a byproduct of the fact that we have a largely male audience—and most of the guys, a lot of the guys, would rather the issue would go away,” says Cataldi. “Tell me who will pitch tomorrow, and if we’ll win the game. Sports is an escape from reality, and the issue plunges one back into reality.”
But Cataldi won’t let up so easy.
“This issue is probably the first time in 30 years, something that is not going to serve the best interests of the audience. It’s not entertaining,” Cataldi says. “I imagine some people don’t want to hear it. But if you do this long enough, you have to take a stance for something.”
How does Cataldi, co-founder of the Wing Bowl and the “Miss WIP” beauty contest, become an uncompromising critic against domestic abusers? “Brett Myers,” says Cataldi. “That’s when it all started.”
On June 23, 2006, Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested and charged with assault. Courtney Knight, a witness to the June 22 altercation, told The Boston Globe: “He was dragging her by the hair and slapping her across the face. She was yelling, ‘I’m not going to let you do this to me anymore.’” Myers was released on bail, and pitched the very next day. Cataldi remembers, “That’s when I started to care. Even when they won the championship [in 2008], I hated Brett Myers. I never embraced him.” (Also, he continued, “terrible country singer.”)
“It’s about damn time I stood up for something,” Cataldi says.
Due to a growing list of incidents, the MLB adopted a new domestic violence policy in 2015. One day after Herrera’s arrest, MLB placed him on administrative leave. At a July 3 court hearing, Herrera’s girlfriend dropped the charges (as often happens in these cases), but MLB still suspended Herrera for the remaining 85 regular-season games of the 2019 season. The Phillies organization has supported MLB’s decision, but has also not released Herrera. Phillies President Andy MacPhail explained,“Our agreement requires that a player comes back, subject to him being evaluated based on what happens on the baseball field.”
Cataldi isn’t impressed. “The team is taking cues from the league. The league is most concerned about protecting the brand. The league’s first priority is not to take a social stand. Most of it is damage control, and making a public display of something to get them out of the current crisis.” Cataldi continues, “These guys have an athletic superiority, and at the first sign of adversity, they strike a woman? Odubel Herrera should never play in this city again. Anyone that strikes a woman should never play in sports again.” While Herrera’s banners were removed from Citizens Bank Park, today he remains a Phillie.
So what can we, as fans, do? The wins and losses for team staff determine job security, earnings, and careers. But it’s sports fans that bear the emotional high of an exhilarating win, and the brutal despair of a close loss, all without any say in team operations. So fans make signs, buy billboards, trying to influence the decisions of their team. Over his 30 years as a sports reporter, Cataldi has a unique understanding of this relationship. He orchestrated the “Dirty 30.” And “Honk for Herschel,” to compel the Eagles to acquire running back Herschel Walker (they did). And voting Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell into the 2008 MLB All-Star Game (he wasn’t).
“It’s funny to hear them listed like that,” Cataldi told me. “How frivolous the other things were, and how serious this is.”
It’s time for fans to send a clear message to ownership that we will not look away until domestic abuse is not tolerated. It’s time that we fix our culture. It’s time that we value women’s lives over men’s careers.
I asked Cataldi if the situation will change only if partners press charges. “They should do whatever they feel comfortable with,” he answered. “We should do what justice is. The police should still go after the person. They should find another way to get them. I’m not going to blame them. It’s not going to alter the way I look at the situation.”
Partners call the police when they feel their lives are in danger. But in the courts and back at home, the power reverts back to the players, whose millions of dollars of income creates a power imbalance in the relationship, and must weigh on legal proceedings. Fixing this issue is not the sole responsibility of the partners. It’s our responsibility as a culture that values men’s careers over women’s lives. Unless there is video proof or eyewitnesses, it’s easier to look away from the situation. Forgive, forget, redeem, repeat. It’s time to break that cycle. And it’s significant that Cataldi, the ringleader of the circus that is WIP Sports Radio, won’t shut up about holding abusers accountable. His recent turn alone won’t atone for the last 30 years of morning radio antics. But in the third act of Cataldi’s career, it’s the sign of an entertainer reviving his journalism credentials.
Returning to what fans can do to hold teams accountable for domestic violence, Cataldi offers one suggestion: “Picket these stadiums. Make it so uncomfortable for the MLB, that they won’t tolerate it.” It would be satisfying as a mob of fans to demand that the Phillies release Herrera immediately. But I’m not so sure it addresses a problem this complex.
“Anyone that strikes a woman should never play in sports again,” Cataldi says.
Psychiatrist James Gilligan once wrote, “The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame.” To accept this explanation is to also acknowledge that a player losing his career over abuse charges will only exacerbate that shame, and intensify the circumstances that created the abuse. More alarmingly, a leader with the National Network To End Domestic Violence said, “If we would say that the first time your partner calls 911 your career is over, her risk of homicide shoots through the roof.” To accept these statements is to acknowledge that a player ban, while actionable and satisfying, doesn’t address the root cause.
So, how does MLB address a problem as complex as domestic violence? Perhaps the league could treat this issue with the same gravitas it treats the use of performance enhancing drugs. Players found guilty of domestic violence should immediately receive a one-year suspension. An outside counsel should immediately begin treatments. And yes, players should be offered a pathway back to playing. This is not because all players deserve a second chance—I, for one, do not ever want to see Odubel Herrera in a Phillies uniform again. No, this pathway is out of concern for the abused, who may avoid calling the police at all. It also mandates rehabilitation and education, to address the root causes of abuse, so that if and when we see a player back on the field (and that’s a big IF), fans know an independent therapist has guided their recovery.
Maybe we join Cataldi’s call for a picket, or maybe we compel the league to accept these measures. The league and the team are smart enough to protect their brand by acting just enough to appease the public relations—it’s time for fans to send a clear message to ownership that we will not look away until domestic abuse is not tolerated. If nothing changes, then it’s time that fans begin boycotting games to let empty stadiums do the talking.
“After 26 years of Wing Bowl, the most politically incorrect event in sports history, [this issue has] become more important to me every day, even though I know some people don’t want to hear it,” says Cataldi. “It’s about damn time I stood up for something.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Phillie Pat Burrell’s position. He was an outfielder.Photo via Philadelphia City Council