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Harvey, the Mets, and the nonexistent private lives of ballplayers

Where should work end and home begin if you’re a baseball player? And where is the line for the rest of us?

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The sordid Matt Harvey/Mets debacle has been a breath of filthy air in the middle of May. I don’t really have anything to add about the incident itself, but if you want to get the gritty details, I’d recommend David Roth’s piece at Vice and Grant Brisbee’s piece from the main SBNation page. They come down in slightly different places, but they share the same central thesis: this doesn’t happen to teams other than the Mets.

And that’s certainly true, but the “this” in the above sentence mostly refers to the uniquely Mets way of airing things in public. The strangeness of this story was concentrated in the glimpses we got into the internal workings of a team’s disciplinary system: the far-too-candid quotes given by Terry Collins and others, the constant details leaked by “sources close to Harvey,” and other reminders that the Mets work under a unique kind of scrutiny.

What wasn’t strange about this story was the actual events underlying it. Every team has players who miss a game or two with a hangover.* Every team has squabbles over whether and how to punish those players, and every team the occasional tearful speech to the clubhouse. The actual substance of the saga wasn’t surprising; it was the insight we got into that substance that was so distinctly Mets.

* The moment I learned that “flu-like symptoms” meant “hungover” was the day I became an adult.

But there’s something very strange about the substance, too, specifically the part of the story where the Mets tried to confirm Harvey’s illness. At 10pm, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, Mets security personnel (not doctors) arrived at Harvey’s home, either to confirm that he was not lying about his sickness or to ensure that he wasn’t so sick that he needed assistance, depending on who you believe.

That is not something that would ever fly in a non-baseball workplace. Imagine if you called in sick to your work and you answered the door a few hours later to find your boss, or some security workers sent by your boss, waiting outside to check your temperature. It would be an egregious transgression into the private sphere of your life by someone who has no rights in that sphere. That’s the agreement that governs employment: the boss gets to tell you what to do at work, but what you do off the clock is up to you.

That agreement doesn’t seem to exist in baseball, or other professional sports for that matter. Baseball is not Matt Harvey’s job; he is a Baseball Player, and everything he does is evaluated in terms of its impact on his ability to perform as a Baseball Player. There’s no private sphere of his life that he can forbid his employer to access; everything he does is subject to oversight.

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Here’s an opinion I have: that’s horrific! That’s an awful way to live. Matt Harvey has a lot of money, and probably not much to complain about. But everyone deserves free time, moments spent without any sense that someone else has the right to inquire into what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Harvey (and other athletes) don’t get that. Instead, they get goons knocking on their door at 10pm. Even if they were there to check on Harvey’s health, not his veracity, they still represented an intrusion by the Mets into their employee’s most private space to ensure that the employer’s interests were not being unduly harmed.

I recognize that convincing you to feel sympathetic for hard-partying Matt Harvey and his millions of dollars is a difficult task. But this transgression of the private sphere is not necessarily limited to professional athletics. True, it is mostly limited to them as of right now, but why? It’s not because being hungover has a bigger impact on Harvey’s pitching ability than it does on your ability to do your job; filing tax returns or serving coffee or teaching first graders or doing whatever it is that you do is almost definitely harder when you have a splitting headache and drymouth than it is normally.

Instead, I think what’s special about sports is the constant measurement of employee performance. It’s easier to justify this kind of intrusion on Harvey’s privacy because he’s struggling right now, and the Mets can say they’re just trying to ensure he performs as well as possible. More specifically, the Mets (and most teams in MLB) probably have all kinds of data on how lack of sleep, or poor nutrition, or alcohol consumption, impact your ability to pitch. They can find a way to justify this intrusion, down to the tenths of MPH that Harvey loses off his fastball for every additional shot he takes.

That kind of quantification is mostly unique to sports. But it may not be for much longer. Employers, in all sectors, are mimicking the kind of instant measurement that baseball features so prominently. Using standardized test results to evaluate teachers is one of the more longstanding versions of this trend, but more technologically advanced techniques with the same end goal are spreading rapidly. Employers are tracking their employees’ physical movements, their computer usage, and even their after-work activities. Maybe your boss can’t check up on your Friday night plans just yet. But if they can show that you’re 20% less efficient when you go out, just as the Mets can show that Harvey is less effective when he’s sick, that kind of intrusion is harder to stave off.

The areas of an employee’s life that the employer has control over are not set in stone. The lines that currently exist were drawn as a result of decades of labor organizing and ferocious opposition by management, but they can move at any time, and they already have moved for professional athletes. Matt Harvey is in a different situation than you or I, but it might not be that different for much longer. Everyone deserves privacy, and places where their boss cannot intrude. Even multimillionaire baseball players.