New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy runs back to the dugout during a spring exhibition baseball game against the Houston Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Yesterday, my colleague Catherine Rampell flagged the debate that has emerged over Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy’s choice to actually take his full paternity leave after he and his wife had their first child. I completely agree with Catherine that “it makes me sad that even in the year 2014, bravery is required to justify taking a paternity leave that lasts a whopping three days, the maximum length allowed in Major League Baseball.” But I also think it is worth parsing the differences between the ways Murphy and his critics are talking about what they perceive as his obligations. These divergent sentiments tell us a lot about about the debate over men’s roles, particularly when those men are in high-paying, high-prestige occupations.

Before we talk about that, let’s remember that this is only the fourth season in which Major League Baseball players have even had official paid paternity leave available to them. The collective bargaining agreements between the league and players have long stated that “the Clubs will comply with the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act.” But before the 2011 agreement went into effect, players had to negotiate paternity leave on a case-by-case basis, because their absences meant that their teams were down a player from the 25-man roster. Whether they got time off ended up depending on their managers’ philosophies. Whether they asked at all depended on them. As MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney told Sports Illustrated when the new rule went into effect in 2011, “Baseball understands that players need to be with their families, but there was no rule to replace the player. Because of that, players were feeling pressure.”

Now, if a player goes on the paternity list, his team can bring up another player to replace him, allowing them to take the dugout with a full component of players in case a man on the field has to come out during the game. Players who go on the list get paid, and get credit for Major League service time, which plays a role in a number of contract rules.

But four seasons in, procedure may have changed, but that does not mean that the culture of baseball — or sports talk radio — has been transformed. After Murphy took time off, radio host and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason classily declared that, because Murphy’s wife had to have a C-section, she ought to have scheduled her delivery before the season. He has since walked that sentiment back, sensing that missing a baseball game or two is not actually a great reason to have significant surgery.

But even Murphy’s putative allies have set the bar relatively low for paternity leave. ESPN host Mike Greenberg noted on air that “When Nicky was born, I actually was off for five days. When my son Stevie was born, he was born after the show on Tuesday, I took off Wednesday, and came back Thursday.” His broadcast partner Mike Golic mused that his wife had encouraged him to focus on work. “What if she goes into labor on game day?” he recalled. “She had steadfastly told me, go be at the game. ‘You be at the game. I’ll take care of pushing the kid out, you go to the game.’” Golic said that he would rather be present at the birth of his children, because if something went wrong during the delivery, “for the rest of the life it would follow you, forever.” But after that, he seemed less concerned, telling Greenberg, “If you want to be there for the birth of your child, I have zero problem with it. That said, after the kid is born?…This is just me, I would have been back playing.”

The split in duties seems clear: Men are responsible for making sure their wives feel supported during labor and to step up if a problem crops up. But once a baby is born healthy? The wife can handle it, and the husband can get right back to the important business of playing baseball (one of the common objections to professional athletes taking paternity leave is that they are highly paid).

Murphy seems to have a different sense of his obligations, telling ESPN that he felt it was his responsibility to make life easier for his wife in the aftermath of her delivery.

“She can’t travel for two weeks,” he explained. “It’s going to be tough for her to get up to New York for a month. I can only speak from my experience — a father seeing his wife — she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off. … It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.”

While things might be getting a little better for Major League Baseball players, the portrait is more mixed in the workforce at large. The 2012 National Study of Employers found that just 14 percent of spouses receive some pay — not even their full salaries — during their parental leave after their partners give birth, up 1 percent from 2005. But during that same time period, the average amount of paid and unpaid leave available to the partners of women who have given birth declined from 12.7 weeks to 10.6 weeks. A 2008 study by the same organization found that 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner couples felt either some or a lot of conflict between their job and their sense of obligation to their family, while the numbers for women in the same circumstances were lower, at 47 percent.

It is not clear whether that spike in anxiety means men feel more obligation from their jobs, or a greater desire to support their families. But for men like Daniel Murphy, policy is just barely keeping pace with their desire not just to verify that their offspring are healthy before returning to more manly tasks, but also to contribute in some way to the first days of life.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.