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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Through His Eyes We See Progress

Yunel Escobar sending the wrong message
It was a costly little joke that Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar played in September when he etched on his eye-black (the black stickers that ballplayers place under their eyes to cut down on glare) in small white letters in Spanish, “Tu ere maracon.”  The English translation is “You’re a faggot.”  However, the glare that resulted was the glare of the media and outrage from a public who believe athletes should be moving beyond homophobic slurs in this day in age.

 Escobar, 29 and a native of Havana, Cuba, apologized for what he said was meant to be “just a joke.”  He explained through a translator, “It was not something I intended to be offensive. It was not anything intended to be directed at anyone in particular.”  He added, “I don't have anything against homosexuals. I have friends who are gay.”  It’s the kind of word that is frequently bandied about in a joking way among Latinos, he explained.

OK.  Contrition displayed, apology accepted.  Sending a strong signal that such “jokes” are not acceptable in Major League Baseball, punishment was meted out.  MLB prohibits derogatory words or symbols on uniforms.  The eye-black falls into that category.

With input from Commissioner Bud Selig and the players union, the Toronto Blue Jays suspended the enigmatic Escobar for three days without pay, and the $92,000 or so in lost salary is to be directed to two LGBT advocacy organizations, GLAAD and You Can Play.  Escobar will also participate in an outreach initiative to help educate society about insensitivity and tolerance to others.

“I consistently say that Baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities and that I expect those who represent Major League Baseball to act with the kind of respect and sensitivity that the game’s diverse fan base deserves,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.  “Mr. Escobar has admitted that his actions were a mistake and I am hopeful he can use this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to educate himself and others that intolerance has no place in our game or society.”

So what is the significance of a wealthy guy making over $5 million a year to play a boy’s game, acting stupid and forfeiting money he would never miss?  Considerable.  

Whether you like sports or not, whether you feel contemptuous towards overpaid privileged athletes, whether you revile mega-rich greedy owners, one thing is for certain: sports are deeply stitched into the fabric of our culture.  The rapid reaction by the baseball industry to deal with this unfortunate spectacle can be influential in helping to move society’s attitudes towards a more accepting place.  If Escobar’s messaging went unpunished, it would send the signal that it is OK to call people “faggot.”

The swiftness of the punishment in this case was very uplifting and is becoming a common occurrence.  Pro teams and leagues in all sports are finding out that homophobia in a more accepting society is bad for business.  We have seen teams and leagues take disciplinary actions in the wake of homophobic comments by the likes of John Rocker, Jeremy Shockey, Tim Hardaway, Terrell Owens, John Smoltz, Joey Porter and Ozzie Guillen.  These actions varied with the circumstances but there was clarity to them.  With few exceptions, the fans generally supported the team or league.

NBA Commissioner David Stern was particularly strong.  The NBA adopted a non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation as part of their collective-bargaining agreement with the players’ union.  A message like that is extremely powerful in the macho-centric culture of the locker room.

In Maryland, the recent flap between the Ravens’ Brendon Ayanbadejo’s support for marriage equality and anti-gay state delegate Emmett Burns brought more reason to cheer.  Not only did team officials back the linebacker’s right to express his beliefs but other players in the NFL supported him as well, particularly Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, another marriage equality advocate.  Dissenting teammates or opponents did not surface at least publicly.

Sports stars are often heroes, especially to children.  They have super-sized influence as a result of their celebrity. That is why corporations dole out big bucks to have athletes extol their products.  As such, homophobic or racial slurs and statements carry weight.  They can shape the attitudes of adults as well as children.  Blue Jays manager John Farrell, referring to the Escobar incident, said, “There is a definite role-model responsibility that some guys might not realize or might not want to take on, but it’s part of being a Major League player.”

In the National Hockey League, the aforementioned You Can Play project promotes safety in the locker rooms and that sports venues should be free from homophobia.  By way of videos, a growing number of players are stating that “if you can play, you can play.”  Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation. Although no gay male professional athlete has come out while active, there is a belief among those studying this issue that such a decision will occur within 10 years. 

The growing acceptance of LGBT folks around the country, the number of “night OUT at the ballpark” events, and the swift reactions to homophobia by sports teams’ management, players and fans demonstrate how progress is trending in the right direction. 

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