The decision by the New York Mets' Daniel Murphy to take a short paternity leave — and the backlash he faced for it — are about more than just a few games of baseball.
Experts say the hubbub also is a sign of a new battle brewing over gender stereotypes — among dads.
"It's a knockdown, drag-out battle about what it means to be a good man and a good father," said Joan C. Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Murphy, who plays second base for the Mets, received a verbal lashing from some radio talk show hosts when he chose to miss two games for the birth of his son, using Major League Baseball's paternity leave policy.
One sportscaster, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, went so far as to say Murphy should have told his wife to schedule a C-section so Murphy could show up for work when he was needed.
On Friday, Esiason apologized for suggesting that Murphy’s wife should have a C-section and conceded that his comments came off as insensitive.
Professional sports may be one of the manliest of jobs, but researchers say that kind of thinking — if not that kind of talking — is pretty common in other workplaces as well.
Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, noted that when men choose family over work, it's one of the few areas where men stand to get penalized more than women.
Other researchers agree.
"Women who take leave...are seen as bad workers but good mothers," Williams said. "The men are often seen as bad workers and losers as men."
That definition of masculinity is changing among a younger generation of dads, Williams said. But for many of the men who are those new dads' bosses, being a good dad has traditionally meant being a good worker and provider. It makes sense that any shift in that definition of being a good dad would leave some older men feeling defensive, because their own identities as dads are at risk, she said.
"The older men have a lot to prove that there's only one way into the big leagues," Williams said. "If you're serious about the game, you miss your children's childhoods."
On Thursday, Murphy responded to the criticism by saying it was the right decision for his family.
Experts say that Murphy may have felt more emboldened to use his employer's paternity leave policy than a low-wage worker, or one who just endured a spate of unemployment because of the weak economy.
Still, the fact that Murphy did take paternity leave, and spoke up about it, might make more men feel comfortable speaking up about their own desire to take time off for a new baby, or a day off to go on their kid's field trip.
"A lot of men say, ‘I'm going to do it, but I'm going to do it quietly,’" Harrington said. "The good thing about something like this is it isn't a quiet debate...I think what it will do is bring out people's true colors."
The sportscasters' criticisms, on the other hand, could make men feel even less secure about wanting some dad time.
"It's those kinds of statements that keep men from feeling like it's OK to say, 'My family is important to me.'"