There is an institutional responsibility to address the culture of toxic masculinity in the wake of Kevin Pillar's anti-gay slur.
Back in 2012, then Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games. He had appeared on field after writing, in Spanish, a homophobic slur in his eye black—something that might have gone unnoticed if a fan in the stands hadn’t caught it on camera.
At the time, Escobar claimed that the phrase was “just a joke,” directed at no one in particular, and there was some hapless debate about the phrase’s meaning and intent. During a bizarre apologetic press conference in which Escobar talked about his many gay friends, gay decorator, and gay hairdresser, general manager Alex Anthopolous and manager John Farrell suggested a lack of education was to blame. As atonement for his actions, Escobar was required to take sensitivity training and to donate his lost salary to You Can Play and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. A few months later, on November 19, he was traded to the Miami Marlins.
What struck me about that incident at the time was not only the clumsy way it was handled on multiple levels, but that on the game day in question Escobar must have passed by multiple teammates and staff members before appearing on field, none of whom questioned—or prevented—what he was openly portraying to the baseball-viewing public.
It’s hard not to think of the Escobar incident—the promises made and the apparent lack of institutional lessons learned—now that outfielder Kevin Pillar has faced punishment for his own homophobic outburst. After striking out in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta, Pillar angrily directed a slur (which I will not write here) toward Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Motte. The MLB rightly began an investigation, and the following afternoon Pillar issued an apology on Twitter, with the Blue Jays PR team following up with their own arguably lacklustre statement. (For what it’s worth, Pillar has taken responsibility, has stated he is willing to be made an example of, and has since served his two-game suspension—though many have criticized how he mostly centred himself and his own feelings throughout the process.)
“Hopefully the Blue Jays and MLB do not think this issue is settled,” Cyd Zeigler wrote at Out Sports. “This is the second time in five years a player from the same team has gotten in hot water over a gay slur. Somebody should escalate this to another level.”
Both Escobar and Pillar are adult men who need to be held accountable for their words and actions. Though fandom dictates that we happily cheer for our players on the field, these are autonomous strangers who don’t need our rigorous defence when they do something so obviously egregious and harmful.
I would also hazard a guess that these are not, in fact, isolated incidents, but the ones in which players happened to get caught in full view of the fan base and the cameras. The inference that this kind of language is a joke, no big deal, just part of the game, or the result of a “heat of the moment” exchange is unacceptable when it comes to something that does real exclusionary damage in the already toxic culture of sports. But now that a misguided yet predictable chorus of “move on” is erupting from the online masses, it feels important to continue a conversation about how exactly that movement can happen, given the pain this has caused.
Yes, Pillar’s outburst has been swiftly punished and acknowledged in that typical stock PR way, but it is vital to look at what role the Jays as an organization, and MLB, plays in ensuring not only that it doesn’t happen again (because it has already happened again) but also in mending a broken relationship with a marginalized community. Instead of simply making a public, prescriptive example of offenders, there should be a genuine priority of inclusiveness and outreach (both internal and external) that many clubs, including the Jays, are failing to robustly implement.
As someone who has had some experience with baseball culture, I know the disturbing anecdotes about “locker-room talk”—the kind of language that would be wholly unacceptable in virtually any other workplace, yet somehow remains immune to any real change.
Further, this kind of institutional failure is part of the reason why it’s not exactly a rarity to hear offensive and hurtful outbursts from fans, and why the league found it necessary to recently implement a rule prohibiting players, in the act of hazing, from “dressing up as women or wearing costumes that may be offensive to individuals based on their race, sex, nationality, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or other characteristic.” Baseball, and sports in general, have a long tradition of relying on the most basic, confining, and destructive of gender stereotypes, of asking their players to “man up,” and of encouraging a violent code of retribution and aggression.
While suspending Pillar is of course the right thing to do, it simply doesn’t address a broader environment in which—despite his later claim “this is not who I am”—that word was in his vocabulary and felt even remotely acceptable to use.
Last June, in a more positive and celebratory baseball moment, Rachel Lauren Clark became the first openly trans person to throw out a ceremonial pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays. A baseball devotee since the 80s (and “unreservedly” a Pillar fan,) Clark believed the gesture conveyed to young people that the ballpark can and should be a safe place for all fans. In a recent statement released on Twitter, Clark talked about Pillar’s actions, stating, “(D)uring the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia he used an ill-timed epithet that harkens back to the days we thought were long since passed. Rather than demonize him, my hope is that we can help him and the Blue Jays Organization to move forward and eradicate homophobia and transphobia for good.”
Perhaps the most basic question in the wake of the Pillar incident is why doesn’t Toronto—site of one of the largest Pride celebration in North America—have a Pride day at the ballpark?
As I’ve written in the past (to the disdain of the “stick to sports” crowd, by the way) the Jays have had an inconsistent relationship with Pride, at best. While just over half of the league offers a designated day for Pride celebrations, the Jays haven’t had a “Play With Pride” event for over a decade. Yes, Pride representatives have thrown out the first pitch, Jays mascot Ace has taken the field dressed in the rainbow flag, and the team has developed ongoing public relationships with organizations such as Athlete Ally and You Can Play—but the Pillar incident highlights that there is certainly more pressing and rigorous work to be done to make the ballpark a welcoming space for everyone.
Veronica Majewski, softball enthusiast and Blue Jays fan, gave some further advice on possible team initiatives and relationships after this incident. A member of The Notso Amazon Softball League—a “recreational softball for lesbians, bisexuals, queer positive females, trans* and gender neutral individuals of all skill levels”‚Majewski offered on Twitter, “There’s many queer leagues in Toronto. If [Kevin Pillar] and [the Blue Jays] want to do something real, they can pay for our equipment and our permits…He can come watch us play. [Kevin Pillar] can see first hand how we redefine what sports can be, how the culture is different on our fields.” In fact, Majewski’s generous insight highlights a fundamental and necessary part of the solution—invite the community directly harmed into the conversation, and give them a seat at the baseball table to better design a culture that offers safety and inclusion.
“LGBTQ sports leagues are filled with people who stopped participating or never participated because they didn’t feel welcome. They’re vital” Majewski added on Twitter.
When I spoke to Pride Toronto last year about the ongoing hope for an official ballpark event, they were optimistic—a representative spoke positively about their relationship with the team and the potential expansion of that relationship in the future. And while something like having an officially sanctioned Pride event will not wholly solve the homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and toxic masculinity that runs rampant in sports culture—whether in the clubhouse, the stands, or on the field—it is the very least the organization can do in the wake of what has just transpired. This is, after all, a team that makes the time to have a “Country Day” each and every year, yet has not met the obvious demand for a meaningful event that could make a real difference in how it caters to and supports a not insignificant portion of its fan base. (Plus, there are certainly teams, such as the Oakland A’s, that are already doing a pretty good job with their own events—meaning the Jays have the benefit of a positive model to work from. In fact, as luck would have it, the Jays will be in Oakland for that event this year.)
More than just making good marketing sense, such gestures are simply the right thing to do, and given the events of this past week, they feel both long overdue and more necessary than ever. As Clark said in her statement, “I’m glad to see that [Pillar] has apologized to the community, and ask him now to be a champion on and off the field for all the LGBTQ people who cannot come to the ballgame simply because of who they are.”
Stacey May Fowles is the author of Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me.