I posted yesterday about a great documentary by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area about the state of homophobia and gay athletes in pro sports. But there's a part of the doc that I felt needed special attention. One of the SportsNet experts brought in to comment on the issue is Shooty Babbitt, a scout for the New York Mets. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a professional baseball player with the Oakland A's. He played one season in the Big Leagues, in 1981. He was also friends with gay Major League Baseball outfielder Glenn Burke, having gone to the same high school and then playing together for a Minor League team in Utah.
In "The Last Barrier" documentary, Babitt paints a dire picture for gay athletes thinking about coming out of the closet. When asked about the coming out of boxer Orlando Cruz, Babitt said it has no effect on team sport athletes. When he explained why, he said pro sports isn't the "setting" for people to come out:
You have a guy that needs to come out and let everybody know who he is. But you know it's going to be to a detriment to the team because now everybody else gets involved, everybody else has to answer all these questions that they probably shouldn't have to answer because someone has an agenda that they want the world to know about, rightfully so, but I just don't think this is the setting when you're talking about a team sport.
I was surprised that a friend of Burke's would say on-air that pro athletes should stay in the closet. Pro sports isn't "the setting" to come out? Coming out would be a "detriment to the team"? Coming out is because "someone has an agenda"? Babitt went on...
I just feel that, it's kind of like the military situation for me, don't say, don't tell. I just think that the players respect the institution. I mean, what is the reason for it? Why should we be talking about this? Because what we're talking about is a team sport and what this person brings to the sport. We're not talking about their bedside manner or what their preferences are in life. We're talking about an athlete here that can help a team. And any time you're bringing the attention onto yourself, you're bringing more attention onto that team, and I think that's where the disruption takes place.
His "Don't say don't tell" comment is revealing. This is a man who clearly isn't well-informed about LGBT issues and really has no true insight about a gay athlete coming out of the closet.
I spoke with Babitt on Tuesday to get some clarity on his thoughts. He said he watched what Burke went through, living in the closet, and seeing him struggle with it. The problem with that as an explanation for painting a dire picture for athletes coming out of the closet... Burke was in the closet! Yes, we know many people knew about his sexual orientation. But the general public didn't. We're talking about two very different issues here. Plus, Babitt played with Burke over 30 years ago, before Ellen, before Matthew Shepherd, before the legalization of same-sex marriage. It was a different time.
Then Babitt told me this:
I don't want a player's career to be blemished. [Burke] was a great ballplayer, and then he became a great gay ballplayer. I don't care what you are, I just hate to see people having to deal with undo scrutiny.
I asked him why he called being gay a "blemish" on his record. He said that's not what he meant.
When I got back around to asking him, again, why he said he thinks pro athletes should stay in the closet, he said he never said that. I read him the quote from his Comcast SportsNet interview, and he told me if I had a question I should ask a question and he'll answer it. I asked, "Do you think gay pro athletes should stay in the closet?
He paused and said, "I can't answer that question because I'm not gay."
I reminded him that he had answered the question a few weeks before for Comcast SportsNet. He told me to ask the question again. I did. His response:
"I would think that if a gay athlete comes out of the closet, he's only going to bring more undo attention to himself as a gay person than he is a ballplayer. It's like wearing black shoes to the white house when everyone else is wearing white shoes. You're opening yourself to ridicule."
Maybe it's because he himself was a marginal ballplayer. Maybe it's because Burke wasn't the "great athlete" he paints him to be (his batting average in four MLB seasons was .237). But for whatever reason, all Babitt can see is the horrors of coming out and being labeled a "gay athlete," because that's his recollection of what happened to Burke. All he can see is the ridicule and the few straight athletes who would "have a problem with it."
He can't see the liberation it provides the athlete. He can't see the teenage lives it can save. He can't see the marketing opportunities. He can't see that sports has transformed on this issue in just the last five years.
And what I realized at the end of our conversation...He can't see how to come out the right way. Sure, if a San Francisco Giant had come out the day before the World Series this year, it would have been a disaster. Terrible timing. All of the unwanted questions of his teammates would descend on the team.
But if that player came out today? Dec. 5? There would be three months of offseason and a month of spring training before the team had a meaningful game. The media would have it out of their system by then, the earth would continue spinning, and baseball would resume.
I don't think Babitt is anti-gay. He said he isn't, and folks who work with him told me he isn't. So what is Babitt? Desperately ignorant on LGBT issues. They're just issues a Major League scout doesn't think about on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis. He said as a scout it doesn't matter to him one bit if an athlete is gay, and that's great. If he can help the team, that's all that matters.
But if he's going to speak publicly -- on TV -- about these issues, then I hope he educates himself. These recent stories on Outsports might be a good place to start:
- Pro sports are finally ready for a gay athlete
- 28 current gay-supportive NFL players
- Major League Baseball sponsors GLAAD Awards
- Oakland A's release It Gets Better video
- Pro rugby player Gareth Thomas comes out
- The desperate consequence of casual words
Oh, and watch this video...
Catch "The Last Barrier" this Saturday, Dec. 8, at 3pmPT on NBC Bay Area.