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Nats Confront Indecency

I see a man without a shirt.

Nats fans have been treated to some borderline indecent sights at Nats Park this season: the second-worst home record in the National League, the lowest-scoring team in the majors, fueled by the big league's worst batting average. The team's offense, you might say, has been exposed, and it's none too pleasant to look at.

But for genuine cover-the-eyes indecency, glance toward the grandstand, where, in a development more ghastly than Rocco Mediate in Lycra, some male fans have apparently begun taking off their shirts. In public. The horror.

Maybe you saw the letter from Benjamin Correia, printed in yesterday's Post, in which he relates his "boys gone wild" story from a recent home game:

We bought a few beers, at $7.50 each, and kicked back to enjoy the game. Around the third inning, a ballpark employee informed me and a friend that we would have to put our shirts back on. We were told it was illegal and considered "indecent exposure." We pointed out the many other shirtless men, and she assured us she was getting to them as well. We were dumbstruck.

I chatted with Nats VP of Communications Chartese Burnett today; she first referred me to the team's Guest Code of Conduct, which speaks of creating "a family entertainment environment" and includes the following bullet point: "Obscene or indecent clothing will not detract from the guest experience." ("Displays of affection not appropriate in a public, family setting" are also against the rules, which may or may not limit post-home run bum patting among the players.)

And so we're presented with the following question: Could the sight of a bare, sweaty male chest at Nationals Park be considered obscene or indecent?

"I mean, yeah, I guess," Burnett said. "People are offended if you have pink hair....Certain things are within reason and certain things aren't. The world is made up of all kinds of people. We've got 81 games, twenty-five to thirty thousand people on average out here. I wouldn't be surprised by anything."

("I wouldn't take off my shirt at a game," I noted. "Good call," said Post Important Person Bob Kaiser, who happened to be walking past my desk at the time.)

More to the point, the Nats have no specific policy against male shirtlessness, and much of interpretation of the code of conduct is left to the discretion of employees, who may or may not be strict constructionists. You can imagine some being offended by particularly hairy shirtlessness, or by a low pantsline, or by an out-of-shape or dripping chest. "What some people may think indecent, others may not," Burnett said, words that would make former Supreme Court Justice Potter "I know it when I see it" Stewart blush.

What of our other local, outdoor pro sports franchises? The Redskins have no written indecency policy, according to a team spokesman, and would be "guided by good taste," with toplessness "considered on a case-by-case basis." D.C. United supporters have long displayed many pounds of shirtless torso; "the passion of our supporters cannot possibly be contained by clothing," pointed out the team's VP of communications, Doug Hicks, who added that there is no specific policy against shirtlessness. A Metropolitan Police Department spokesman, meantime, said that "if a male takes off his shirt" in the District's public spaces, "it's not considered indecent exposure."

As for the Nats, Burnett said the ideal solution in indecency cases is for either the offended or the offending parties to be moved to different seats, allowing everyone to remain comfortable while enjoying their game experience. Topless women, she said, would likely be an easy "indecent" case, but topless men will remain a judgment call. I suggested that maybe a particularly bloated topless male fan might be particularly likely to provoke cries of indecency.

"Yeah," she said, "that's a huge judgment call," a ruling with which we can all likely agree.

By Dan Steinberg  |  June 16, 2008; 4:49 PM ET
Categories:  Nats  
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