It was announced this week that another major league player had been caught and subsequently reprimanded for offensive language/behavior. The player in this most recent incident was Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, who wrote a Spanish gay slur on his eye black, which he wore during a game. Major League Baseball reacted quickly, investigating and promptly issuing a three game suspension that will cost Escobar about $92,000. This isn’t something that should be swept under the rug by MLB’s cat-like reflexes in “addressing” this issue. Bigger questions like why this happened and what can MLB do to prevent this in the future should be the primary concerns of baseball.
After being informed of his suspension Escobar held a press conference where he apologized for his actions. He indicated that he meant no harm, and that he considered the words to have different meaning in his own heritage and Latino ballplayer culture than it does in American society. It’s true that words and phrases can have altered meaning between cultures and languages, but what Escobar painted on his face was offensive any way you look at it. No mea culpa can excuse the crudeness and offensiveness his actions represented, and represent what should be a serious concern in baseball.
It’s inexplicable that Escobar would not have given pause before taking the field with such hot button words splashed across his face. He is no rhubarb and has been around the block once or twice. A native of Cuba, he is in his 6th major league season, and surely been privy to what is acceptable and what is frowned upon when it comes to representing himself, his team, and Major League Baseball. This is far from being the first time in recent years that the sport has dealt with anti-gay slurs or sentiments. Having six years of experience with the media scrutiny that hangs on every word uttered by players, and videos and high definition pictures capturing every dugout slap fight and hot foot, there is no way that Escobar can claim ignorance in this matter.
Baseball cannot and should not seek to control the thoughts or personal beliefs of any of its players or other employees. What they must do however is ensure that their brand is not associated with any offensive words or actions, like what Escobar did this past week. If MLB is truly serious about condemning homophobia they have to shift from reactionary to preventative mode, through education and outreach. In his press conference, Escobar told reporters that while sorry for the slur, he only felt that way after the fact because “It’s a word used by many teams. It’s a word without meaning.” Those two simple sentences hint at the casual nature of homophobia in baseball and also sum up quite nicely the lack of sensitivity and education players have on such issues.
The heavy hand of MLB in reacting punitively to actions like those of Escobar makes for good press but does little to change the culture. Some players may be deterred from saying or doing certain things, but will likely only see the potential loss of a paycheck as a reason. If MLB could provide educational and service based opportunities to its players they could show firsthand those who are impacted by ignorant callousness, while making their sport more open and accessible to a group of people that represent approximately 10% of the population.
Baseball needs to brush aside the machismo and boys-will-be-boys mentality and make the game welcoming to all. As Peter Parker was famously told by his uncle, with great power come great responsibility. With baseball being a dominant presence in all forms of media they must be held to a higher standard for how they represent themselves to the rest of the world. They don’t need to be activists. They just need to realize there are more identities in the world than that of a ballplayer, and that they are deserving of equal respect. Until baseball makes appropriate changes they should be regarded as a bigoted organization, which isn’t deserving of the title of America’s Pastime.