Image credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
During the 2018-2019 offseason, Billy Bean, then MLB’s Vice President, Ambassador for Inclusion (now Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Special Assistant to the Commissioner), received a letter—not an email, a letter—politely objecting to the term “disabled list.” A similar letter was sent to Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Athletes get hurt all the time. So do you and I, but when we sprain our ankle, we can still go to work. Sports leagues have developed mechanisms to temporarily remove players from their active roster and replace them when they are physically unable to perform. The NFL and NHL have an injured reserve list. The NBA has an inactive list. MLB had, through the 2018 season, the disabled list.
The July 13, 1915 Newark Star-Eagle had a story at the bottom of page 13 (next to the standings, which listed the Federal League before the National and American Leagues; the Newark Pepper, 40-36, were in fifth place in the FL, five games behind the first-place St. Louis Terriers.) Under the headline “‘Disabled’ List Will Enable Clubs to Carry Extra Men,” the story, datelined in New York, reported:
The National League found a way, at its meeting yesterday, to get around the twenty-one-player limit which has caused much dissatisfaction among several of the clubs this season. Hereafter the league will keep a “disabled” list, which provides that an injured player can be kept out of the game at least ten days, and extra player substituted for him.
A player placed on the “disabled” list will not be allowed to participate in a championship game for at least ten days, including the day of his injury. During such period, however, the player will be allowed to act as coacher. The names of all players certified as disabled shall be officially bulletined to the club presidents.
In the century-plus since, of course, much changed. Rosters expanded. Lists of various lengths were established and refined: Currently, seven days for concussions, 10 for position players, 15 for pitchers, and 60 for players with long-term injuries. (I will admit that I’m unsure whether an injured player can still “act as a coacher.”) But the basic construct remained, as did the adjective disabled.
Eli Wolff was born with a heart defect. Following surgery as an infant, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. He had to re-learn his motor skills, and never regained full use of his left arm and leg. But he worked hard to not just recapture his mobility, but to excel. He became an excellent ping-pong player. And he was outstanding on the soccer pitch. He was a founding member of the Men’s CP National Team (for athletes with cerebral palsy, stroke, and TBI) and a member of the US soccer team at the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games.
He devoted himself to advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. Among other positions, he was a founding member of the US Soccer Federation’s Disability Soccer Committee. He co-founded and directed the Disability in Sport Initiative at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. He created the Power of Sport Lab and was an Inclusive Sport Fellow for the Institute for Human Centered Design. He co-directed the Royce Sport and Society Fellowship at Brown University and was an instructor in UConn’s Sport Management Program. He led efforts to create the ESPY Award for Best Athlete With a Disability, Men’s and Women’s Sports.
He developed skills for polite and effective persuasion. Drawing on those skills, he wrote to Bean and Manfred after the conclusion of the 2018 season. It was not Wolff’s first letter to MLB; he’d sent a similar request to the league in 2003. Nothing came of it back then. The difference between 2003 and 2018, as characterized by Dr. Ted Fay, co-founder/director of the Disability Sport Initiative with Wolff and Professor Emeritus from SUNY Cortland, was Bean, in his executive role, and Wolff’s determination and advocacy.
Wolff’s objection to the disabled terminology was not just definitional; a strained hamstring is not a disability. Rather, he noted that it implied that people with disabilities were unable to take part in athletic competition. Players on the DL couldn’t play. By contrast, he was a two-time Paralympian. His wife, Cheri Blauwet, is an eight-time wheelchair marathon champion (New York 2002-03, Boston 2004-05, Los Angeles 2003-04 and 2008) and a three-time USA Paralympian, winning seven medals. Athletes with disabilities, Wolff argued, can still compete at high levels, and the disabled list nomenclature suggests they can’t.
Bean said, “It was moved. I walked over to Dan Halem [now Deputy Commissioner, then Chief Legal Counsel] and said, ‘This is an easy one for us.’”
Baseball can be slow to change. But this change came quickly. The clarity and the reason of Wolff’s arguments resonated with Bean, Halem, and Manfred. They discussed the change with the Player’s Association—this was during the interregnum between CBA negotiations—and it was supportive. In February, MLB announced that the disabled list would henceforth be called the injured list.
Nomenclature changes shouldn’t be hard. Terminology can become automatic and rote; think of the pop vs. soda divide. When the American League adopted the DH a half-century ago, it was initially termed the designated pinch-hitter, shortened to “desi.” It didn’t take long for that to change to DH. Nobody got hurt in the process.
The change from the DL to the IL was met with resistance by exactly the type of people whom you’d expect to resist. But they were an annoyingly vocal minority. It was adopted fairly quickly. It didn’t create a burden for anyone. (Hey, it saved a syllable.) Sure, there was a learning curve as people in the sport and those of us who follow it transitioned. But it was a fairly smooth transition.
Bean worked with MLB Network and teams’ public relations departments to promulgate the change, and Wolff helped publicize it. And Wolff, who became Advocacy Coordinator for the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropy with a focus on inclusion, continued to work with Bean on disability issues, such as making sure that the renovations to Wolff’s hometown ballpark, Fenway Park, were accessible.
It’s done now. Click on the Tools menu on this article, and you’ll see a link to Derek Rhoads’ Injured List Ledger. Read MLB’s transactions and you’ll see placements on, and activations from, the injured list. It’s how we describe players who are recovering from injuries and are unable to play.
They’re unable to play because they’re injured. It’s not because they’re disabled. Disabled athletes compete every day. Injured athletes don’t.
One word. (And 15 years of advocacy.) Substitute injured for disabled. At the time, you might have shrugged, and said, “OK, fine.” I certainly did. But then you think about that substitution, realize what it meant, and what it means. It’s a seemingly small change. But it’s one that makes our sport better. And for that, we can thank Eli Wolff.
Elias Abarbanel-Wolff died on April 4 at age 45. He leaves behind his wife, Dr. Cheri Blauwet, a specialist in orthopedic surgery and physical medicine and rehabilitation and Director of the Kelley Adaptive Sports Research Institute; their two children, Stella and Spencer; scores of people whose life he improved directly, and thousands of others—like me, his cousin—whose lives were touched by him through contributions about which we were never aware.
Thanks to Billy Bean and Ted Fay for their time and input.
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