An online petition protesting the Kansas City Royals’ relationship with an anti-abortion group has drawn thousands of signatures and raised questions about whether the team is endorsing the group’s views.
Royals officials say the team takes no position on “culturally sensitive issues.” But the advertising relationship with the Vitae Foundation, now in its second year, appears to go beyond advertising and lend the Royals’ stamp of approval to an organization that promotes pregnancy centers, which have been widely criticized for disseminating medically inaccurate information.
Former Royals All-Star Mike Sweeney, now an official with the team, voices Vitae ads, and the winner of an essay contest sponsored by Vitae threw out the honorary first pitch at a recent ballgame.
Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which provides abortion services and supports the online petition, calls the partnership between Vitae and the Royals “a mutual agreement to promote each other’s causes.”
Spreading the message of ‘life’
Vitae’s ads will air during all 162 Royals games this season on the Royals Radio Network. The network broadcasts games on 88 affiliated radio stations in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa.
Vitae, a national marketing agency for the anti-abortion movement, says it seeks out public venues like Kauffman Stadium and the Royals Radio Network to share messaging for its brand, which its website describes as “life.”
“Vitae has used radio and sports advertising to distribute educational messages for 25 years,” Vitae Foundation spokeswoman Martha Schieber said in an email.
"The Vitae Foundation is a nonprofit, educational organization that uses research-based messaging and media to inform women facing an untimely pregnancy about local pregnancy centers; educating the public about the value and sanctity of human life; and restoring the value of life as a core belief in the American culture,” Schieber said.
Counseling against abortion
Pregnancy centers, also called crisis pregnancy centers, are nonprofit organizations that seek to persuade pregnant women not to have an abortion. The centers provide free services to women, including pregnancy testing, information about adoption and new-parent resources.
Missouri funds crisis pregnancy centers and is expected to use nearly $4.5 million in federal funds and provide $2 million in state funds to support them this year.
Because crisis pregnancy centers don’t provide medical care, their practices are largely unregulated. Critics say they provide medically inaccurate information about abortion on their websites and in their marketing campaigns.
A study published by the journal Contraception in 2014 found that the “websites for 80 percent of crisis pregnancy centers contain misleading or inaccurate information regarding the risks associated with abortion.”
The study's authors , who are affiliated with the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, found that the most common medical inaccuracies were “a declared link between abortion and mental health risks, preterm birth, breast cancer, future infertility, miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy.”
Last month, UltraViolet, a pro-abortion rights advocacy group, circulated an online petition demanding that the Royals end their partnership with Vitae. The group secured 44,000 signatures within a few days. It also flew a banner over Kauffman Stadium during a home game on June 6 with the message: “Royals fans deserve the truth – drop Vitae.”
‘An attack against women’
Lee-Gilmore, of Planned Parenthood, calls Vitae’s ads “an attack against women, especially impressionable students.”
She was referring to a “Champions for Life” essay contest for middle school students sponsored by Vitae. The winner was announced at Kauffman Stadium on June 20.
“The Vitae Foundation creates shame around sexual health for women,” Lee-Gilmore says. “Crisis pregnancy centers are a public health hazard promoting inaccurate information about abortion, delivered to women from non-clinical staff.”
For the essay contest, seventh-grade participants from schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, were asked to write short pieces on the theme “Encouraging a Culture of Life.” A flyer for the contest asked students “to take a stand and inform society about what it means to be a Champion for Life.” It also asked students to consider the question, “How can we make abortion unthinkable?”
A seventh-grader from Olathe, Kansas, won first prize and threw out the honorary first pitch before the game between the Royals and Boston Red Sox.
Although Royals spokesman Toby Cook said in an email that the Royals “take no official position on culturally sensitive issues,” one of Vitae's ads is voiced by Mike Sweeney, who is a Royals special assistant for baseball operations.
“In sports, we protect the goal, the basket, and of course the plate. But in life, we protect far more important things,” Sweeney says in the ad. “As a parent, I’d do anything to protect my kids,” he continues. “Thank goodness there’s a group who works to protect vulnerable, pregnant women who are unsure of what to do. That's why I’m a big fan of Vitae Foundation, and I want you to be one too.”
Linking to the Royals brand
Advertisers who want to link their products to the Royals brand can buy a variety of ad packages, which the Royals call partnerships. Vitae’s partnership included tickets to the June 20 game for the 110 middle-school essay contest participants and their families, teachers and principals, as well as advertising on the Royals Radio Network and the Crown Vision scoreboard in Kauffman Stadium.
The Major League Baseball Network’s “Standards and Regulations” include 21 categories that are “Unacceptable Commercial Classifications or Restricted.” Contraception and abortion are Nos. 2 and 18, respectively, on the list. The guidelines govern local television advertising; it’s unclear if they apply to similar advertising on the radio. The Royals declined to comment about which rules, if any, govern their radio and in-stadium advertisements.
The Royals appear to abide by some of the MLB restrictions. While accepting Vitae’s ads, for example, the team rejected an ad from UltraViolet that sought to “warn fans about the dangers of crisis pregnancy centers and the lies they tell women,” according to Karin Roland, chief campaigns officer of UltraViolet.
Vitae has advertising relationships with other major league sports teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals. Its ads aired on the Cardinals Radio Network during the 2014 season, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was the keynote speaker at a Vitae fundraiser in St. Charles, Missouri, in November 2015.
At a recent Royals game, a random sampling of fans walking into the stadium expressed reservations about the relationship between the Royals and Vitae.
“You know, usually you don’t think of sports and abortion to be synonymous,” said Abygai Pena, a communications and film student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Those don’t usually go together.”
“Sports are a very unifying experience,” she said. “Even if we have different kinds of beliefs, we're all kind of from the same area and that can connect you in a way. … To have an anti-abortion ad, I think that could make people feel uncomfortable. I think it’s not the right place for it.”
Richard Hacker, a military veteran from Overland Park, said there should be some “boundaries” on the type of ads aired during Royals games.
“Leave politics out of baseball,” he said.
Jennifer Tufts is an intern on KCUR’s health desk.