It's About More Than Yunel Escobar by Adam Bunch

As you've almost certainly already heard by now, Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar played Saturday's game with a homophobic slur written in Spanish on the black patches under his eyes. When the news broke on Monday night — thanks to the photo on the left taken by Jays fan @james_in_to and posted to his Flickr account — outrage spread quickly. Many fans and members of the media called for Escobar to be sent home for the rest of the season or to be immediately released altogether.

On Tuesday, the Blue Jays held a press conference to address the situation. And it didn't really help. They announced that they — in agreement with the League and the Players Association — would be suspending Escobar for only three games while donating his salary for those days to LGBT community groups. (That's about $90,000 of his $10 million contract.) Escobar will be forced to attend sensitivity training and do some outreach work. The shortstop was at the press conference too, speaking through an interpreter to offer the kind of non-apology apology you'd expect from someone who still doesn't entirely understand what he did wrong. That he didn't mean to offend anyone. That it was just a joke. That Latino players use the word all the time. That it's a "word without meaning." That he has friends who are gay. Like his interior designer and the man who cuts his hair. There was no real explanation of why he'd done it, or how the Jays had allowed it happen, or what concrete steps they would take in order to ensure that their team would no longer tolerate homophobic language.

The Blue Jays General Manager, Alex Anthopolous, did say some of the right things: that he hoped the incident would be used as an opportunity to educate — not just Escobar, but the entire sport and the public at large. It's clear that the education he talked about is very much needed. And not just because of the homophobic fans who called into talk radio or trolled comment boards or tweeted their own hateful views in the wake of the incident, but because of sports culture in general. There are thousands of professional athletes playing the four major sports in North America. And not a single one of them has ever felt comfortable enough to come out in public during their playing careers. (One baseball player, Glenn Burke, did come out to his teammates and owners back in the '70s. He was driven out of the game.)

That's what I was thinking of yesterday afternoon, as one person after another suggested the reason Escobar got in trouble was that he took the juvenile language of the locker room out onto the field. It was hinted at in several articles (take John Lott's piece for the National Post: "His most glaring offence was one of judgement, taking the word out of clubhouse conversation and putting it on public display..."). But the sentiment was echoed by many, including former Jays catcher turned sportscaster Gregg Zaun — no stranger to what happens behind baseball's closed doors. During his appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, he expressed his general outrage while specifying that Escobar's mistake had been to use the word in public:

"Any of us that have ever been in a clubhouse know that the language and the words that are used in the confines of a clubhouse — in the sanctity of a clubhouse — can get pretty nasty. It can be about as racist as you can possibly imagine. Homophobic slurs get lobbed around at each other all the time. But that's the nature of a clubhouse. It's how men talk in the confines of a clubhouse. But in public we know those words to be unacceptable."

That strikes me as total bullshit — the suggestion that somehow it's okay to use homophobic (and racist) slurs in a locker room because, oh, you know, it's just locker room talk. Men being men. How does that make any sense? A baseball clubhouse is a workplace — a professional environment — and using homophobic slurs in the locker room should be just as unacceptable as using them on the field or at the office. We have laws and codes of conduct to protect workers from discrimination. Why in the world should baseball players be an exception? No wonder there hasn't been an openly gay player, when they know that's the environment they're forced to work in for the rest of their careers.

Some of Escobar's Spanish-speaking teammates have made it clear that he's not the only one who uses the slur he wore on his face. Omar Vizquel, the Jays' backup shortstop, has been playing in Major League Baseball since 1989. He was mystified by the scandal. "It’s just a word we use on an everyday basis," he said. "I don't know why people are taking this so hard." Third baseman Edwin Encarnation seemed to agree. "He used the word like we always use it."

Some people have taken those and similar statements to mean that the slur isn't really a slur at all. That it has been mistranslated by overly sensitive Canadians who don't understand the context of the word in Latin American culture. And as someone who doesn't speak Spanish myself, I'm certainly not in any position to draw my own conclusions about the nuance of the language. But many more Spanish-speaking players, fans and members of the media have confirmed the slur's meaning. Some point to the story of a Cuban boxer who used the word to taunt his queer opponent. That opponent beat him to death over it. Jose Cruz Jr., another Spanish-speaking former Jay, was pretty clear when he was asked if the word was a homophobic slur: "Absolutely. No question about it." And the Jays' Dominican starting pitcher, Carlos Villanueva, agreed. "We joke around, and in our countries it's very macho, but it's not right, using it as a joke or not," he explained. "It doesn't make it any better and it won't go away just like that. [Escobar] said, 'It's just a simple thing I did,' well, you know what, no it's not, it's something you have to know, it shouldn't have to take all this to happen for it to become a big deal."

For my part, I defer to to Adriana Alarcón, a friend of The Little Red Umbrella and a singer in the band Tomboyfriend, who is also a queer, Latina, die-hard Jays fan. She posted her own thoughts on Twitter:

"Please, Yunel Insisting that "[Latinos understand that word differently]" is driving the homophobic sentiment further. Maybe some Latinos are ok with the widespread use of homophobic slurs, but that is precisely how and why people like me are ostracized. I cannot accept that kind of behaviour in the context of Canadian society. Latin American MLB Players are cultural heros back home; and here's this jackass publicly squandering the struggle and recent miniscule progress."

And, as Zaun's comments suggest, it's not just Latino players using homophobic slurs in the clubhouse. Casey Janssen, the Blue Jays closer, admitted that the English version of Escobar's slur is also used. “Unfortunately," he said, "at times the word can be used loosely. But I think with situations that have happened over the years it’s just become a bigger deal. Those words aren’t taken lightly any more."

Hopefully that's true — behind closed doors and on the field. But from the statements made by Blue Jays players over the course of the last couple of days, it certainly seems as if homophobic slurs are frequently used in the Blue Jays clubhouse. That would help to explain how in the world Escobar was able to play an entire game without any of his teammates or coaches telling him to take the slur off his face. The evidence seems to suggest that the culture of the team, of the sport, and of sports in general has always seen the use of that kind of word as acceptable behaviour in the clubhouse. Meanwhile, at the press conference, the man in charge of that clubhouse — Manager John Farrell — responded to the question "Is homophobia a problem in major league locker rooms?" with a pretty-fucking-difficult-to-believe "I don't believe so."

Certainly, there are many who suggest that the Blue Jays haven't taken the incident seriously enough. That a three day suspension and the loss of 1.8% of Escobar's yearly salary doesn't send a very loud message. (You can count me among them.) But many leaders from the LGBT community have pointed out that Escobar's punishment isn't nearly as important as what comes next. If he seizes the opportunity to educate himself — and others — and if the Blue Jays do the same, some positive can still come out of all of this. (The Jays, for instance, could start by hosting Pride Nights again — something they haven't done since 2009. Or finally join the other professional sports teams who have produced "It Gets Better" videos.)

And while the press conference wasn't very encouraging, this is ultimately about more than Yunel Escobar. It's about all the players using slurs in the clubhouse. It's about all the gay players who don't feel comfortable coming out. It's about all the queer kids in high school who don't feel like they're welcome in the world of sports. And about all the straight people who figure if the big leaguers can say things like that in their locker room, then they can things like that in theirs. It's about all the people who have had that insult — in Spanish or in English — hurled at them while they're being beaten for being different. And who have to think about that every time they hear the word.

It's not even just about baseball or sports. It's about all of us. About seizing every opportunity to educate ourselves and others. To make it clear — loudly and repeatedly clear — that homophobic slurs and homophobic behaviour of any kind is bullshit anywhere for any reason. Whether it's a shortstop writing a slur on his face or "joking" in the locker room, or a mayor who claims that only gay people and needle users get AIDS and refuses to show up for his city's Pride Parade, or a federal MP or Presidential candidate who doesn't believe that everyone deserves the right to marry the person they love.

Whatever happens to Escobar, his ignorance has sparked a conversation across baseball that the sport wasn't having a week ago. And there are players and fans who now know that the use of that slur — in English or in Spanish — is an insensitive, asshole thing to do. That may be small comfort, but it's something. One small step.

And as I write this, listening to late night radio as a caller screams his hate at the host — "Why do I have to have gays in my sport? Why do I have to know that there's a gay in my locker room?" — it's clear that we've still got a long, long, long, long way to go.


Again, the photo is from @james_in_to.

You can watch the entire press conference here. And if you'd like to read more beyond the articles linked to above, I'd recommend this piece by Dustin Parkes at Getting Blanked and this by Michael Grange at, who talks to Patrick Burke, executive director of You Can Play and son of Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke:

"The clubhouse is never going to be a place where you are going to bring kids or your mom. It's always going to be a place where guys make fun of each other and it's off-colour and inappropriate things are said, but we need to hammer this point home," said Burke. "No one tolerates racial slurs anymore and we have to get to that point about homophobic slurs … [And] this is out of bounds, no matter where you are."

Back in April, when I was feeling much better about Escobar, I wrote a post about his escape from Castro's Cuba. You can find that post here

The Baseball Posts are series of posts about, uh, well, baseball. You'll find them all here. 

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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