The visceral collective reaction by the LGBT community to the screw-up of the National Anthem for the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus at the San Diego Padres game Saturday night has pointed directly at homophobia as the root cause. Cries of systemic homophobia by the Padres, Major League Baseball and sports in general have rung across social media for two days.
Yet the incident was not the result of some homophobic conspiracy and was, in all likelihood, a really stupid mistake.
I've spent much of the last 24 hours communicating with people at the Padres, on the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus, in Major League Baseball and other LGBT leaders. This is what I've concluded.
The Padres screwed up. Big time.
What we know without a doubt is that the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus was asked by the Padres and San Diego LGBT Pride to sing the National Anthem before their home game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday. The Chorus stood on the field minutes before the opening pitch to sing. Someone in the control room then played a track of a woman singing the National Anthem as a few dozen gay men stood speechless on the field.
To make matters worse, instead of stopping the track and fixing the error the Padres let the song play out while the men stood in front of the crowd. Once the song was over, the chorus was escorted off the field.
The Chorus has every reason to be upset.
Any time someone gets to sing the National Anthem in front of a packed stadium, it's a thrill. To have that turned upside down into a moment of complete humiliation was tough.
"The embarrassment of what happened was so devastating," Bob Lehman, executive director of the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus, told me. The chorus members had family and friends in the stands. This was supposed to be a moment of pride for them and the community. Instead, it was a disaster. No one but the Padres are to blame for what happened, and they have taken responsibility.
While the LGBT community is intent on labeling this the result of homophobia, and while the Chorus' own statement raises the specter of homophobia, it clearly was not some homophobic conspiracy by the Padres; Several elements tell me this was a disastrous, yet unintentional, mistake.
The Chorus was going to sing to a pre-recorded track.
One of the questions people have had is why the Padres would play any track over the loudspeakers if the Chorus was going to sing. Like with so many televised sporting events, the Padres insisted that the Chorus sing to a pre-recorded track so there were - ironically - no screw-ups with the song. This policy wasn't just for the Chorus, but is pretty standard for these kinds of things. The operations staff was supposed to play the track the Chorus had provided, but instead played another track.
A senior member of the Padres in-game production team was out that night.
Lehman said that Padres CEO Mike Dee told him Saturday night that one of the people directly responsible for production of the in-game experience was out that night; A Padres staffer confirmed that with Outsports on Monday. That doesn't explain away the mistake, but it gives some color to a complicated story.
The person directly in charge of the Anthem specifically is through a third-party vendor; The Padres severed their relationship with that vendor on Sunday.
The Padres immediately asked the Chorus to come back to sing at another game.
Saturday night the Padres asked the Chorus to please come back to another game later in the season to sing the Anthem -- this time for real. It's understandable why members of the Chorus would want nothing to do with that offer when it came to them, having just been embarrassed by the team.
Lehman said the offer came in a "flippant" email from a Padres staffer. The Padres contend that the offer to return was made more than once that night. Either way, the team wanted the Chorus to come back, hardly the actions of an organization looking to marginalize gay men.
The Padres have a history of embracing LGBT issues.
The Padres have at least a decent track record of inclusion, and former Padre Billy Bean has praised the team. Some examples:
- The Padres were one of the first pro-sports teams to host an unofficial LGBT Night, back in the 1990s (according to San Diego LGBT Pride).
- In 2007, despite some serious heat from conservative groups, the Padres went forward with their LGBT night. People like Bill O'Reilly called the Padres "insensitive," "dumb" and "insane" to host the night because it was the same night as a children's giveaway.
- The Out at the Park night has been a part of their annual schedule since 2008.
- The Padres were the first team to invite Billy Bean to speak to players and team management in 2014, shortly after he was named MLB Ambassador for Inclusion.
- Bean said in a statement Sunday: "I have also worked very closely with their owner Ron Fowler and team CEO Mike Dee, and I can assure you that they have made every effort to include the LGBT community, and champion equality in MLB for each and every one of us."
Again, it's totally illogical to believe an organization that has walked these paths would somehow turn around and try to humiliate a group of gay men, particularly given the obvious public outcry that would (and did) ensue.
The Chorus says the Padres have demonstrated homophobia in part because it took them until 2015 to have an official LGBT Night.
Despite the track record of working with the community, Lehman said the fact that the Padres' LGBT Night wasn't an "official" Padres event until 2015 shows the team has issues with the LGBT community. That's a tough one to swallow. The Philadelphia Phillies didn't make their LGBT Night "official" until 2016, yet they have been incredible partners with the LGBT community and community leader Larry Felzer for well over a decade. The New York Mets only made their event "official" this year as well. Many other MLB teams have no "official" LGBT night, and the vast majority of teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL have no LGBT night at all.
The Chorus also says the Padres were disrespectful to the Chorus in the week leading up to the game.
Lehman said the Padres would not return some of his phone calls the week before the game. He also said the Padres tried to force Chorus members to buy tickets to the game if they wanted to sing the anthem.
The first part of that is bad business, for sure. I do know these folks working at pro-sports teams are over-worked, especially during a home stand (Saturday's game was the fifth of six straight home games against division rivals). Still, it's bad business practice.
The second part isn't a surprise to me, as many teams try to get National-Anthem singers to buy tickets if they want to stay for the game. While we can debate whether it's good policy, this isn't homophobia. However, that issue was also seemingly mishandled by the Padres, who asked the Chorus in January to sing at the game. If the Padres did in fact wait four months -- until just days before the game -- to make clear to the Chorus members they had to buy tickets if they wanted to stay for the game, that is again very bad business practice. But it's not homophobia.
Was this a "lone wolf" situation?
The idea that this was some conspiracy by the Padres to embarrass the Chorus defies all logic and reason. It wasn't.
The only notion people claiming homophobia have to cling to is the remote chance that one homophobic person in the Padres' control room swapped recordings to embarrass these gay men. Again, it's virtually impossible to believe that's the case, given the career-ending nature of the move, particularly on a team that has demonstrated a desire to build bridges with the community.
All of that was reflected in the Padres' statement following the team's swift internal investigation:
"After a thorough examination of the events that occurred during last night's National Anthem, we have concluded our internal investigation and have found no evidence of malicious intent on the part of any individuals involved. Based both on the unintentional mistake that was made, as well as the failure to immediately intervene and correct the situation by those who had oversight, we have terminated our relationship with the third-party contractor who was responsible for the error, and taken disciplinary action against our employee who was responsible for the game production on Saturday."
The Chorus has asked the city attorney to investigate the incident.
"I want to be able to tell my guys that I'm 100% sure it was an accident," Lehman said.
Given how public their embarrassment was, I do think a public investigation is warranted and something the Padres should welcome, if they truly want to move on. Get this last "lone wolf" theory cleared up so everyone can move on.
The Chorus said the Padres' immediate response was inadequate.
Before the end of the game Saturday night the Chorus had been invited back at a later date to sing the Anthem and allow the Padres to "correct" their mistake. Lehman had received a phone call from the team CEO. And the team had released a public apology. It's that apology the Chorus deemed inadequate. The statement read:
"This evening, during the pregame ceremony, a mistake was made in the Petco Park control room that prevented the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus from performing the National Anthem as scheduled. We apologize to anyone in the ballpark who this may have offended, and have reached out to the Chorus to express our deep regret for the error."
When I asked Lehman what his issue was with this statement, he said the Chorus was upset that the statement wasn't sent directly to them (despite having received direct apologies from the team in other ways).
When I again asked him what was wrong with the content of the statement, Lehman said it should have been longer. When I asked him what else should have been included, he said he didn't know, but that the apology should have been longer.
It's clear the sting of the humiliation was still very real for the Chorus on Sunday.
Having seen this exact thing before, homophobia never crossed my mind as a cause.
As a high school and college football official in Southern California, and a longtime sports fan, I have seen hundreds of National Anthems before games. One in particular sticks out -- And it was nearly identical to what happened Saturday night. As the Anthem singer was walking out to the middle of the field to sing the Anthem, the pre-recorded track of her singing started playing -- The person in the control booth just totally screwed up. The girl looked around, then stood there as her voice singing the anthem came over the speakers. It was an idiotic mistake that embarrassed the girl.
What the game management did that game was apologize for the mistake over the loud speakers at halftime, and then they had the girl come out to the field and sing the anthem for real.
In both cases, the control room played the problematic track to completion, despite the obvious mistake. Unfortunately for the Padres, they did not (by all reports) acknowledge the mistake to the stadium and didn't invite the Chorus to sing the anthem for the seventh-inning stretch. That likely would have put the issue to bed that night. Another screw-up in handling the mistake.
The LGBT community's collective reaction to the incident shows the continued mistrust many gay men have in regards to sports.
Lehman said that in the moments right after the incident, various members of the Chorus and the LGBT community immediately thought it was a deliberate act of homophobia.
"There's a problem with the Padres," Lehman told me, saying that if so many members of the community went directly to homophobia as a cause, the Padres have a problem with LGBT issues.
Cries of homophobia rang across social media and the LGBT media over the weekend. "The Chorus had been wronged (100% accurate), and it was because they were gay." Even Jason Collins pointed squarely at homophobia as the reason for what he deemed a "deliberate" incident.
Every time we at Outsports write a story about a problematic issue in sports, we see a similar collective response from many LGBT people, particularly those outside of sports.
"See, the sports world hates us," the general reaction goes. "We just can't trust them."
As opposed to an issue isolated to the Padres, it's something everyone in sports contends with. Whether it's reality or perception, many gay men just don't trust the entire institution of sports. They were bullied by athletes in high school, made to feel uncomfortable in the locker room, and the macho nature of guys smashing into each other on the gridiron or the court has pushed them away from sports.
"You have to take an extra step to make people not feel that way," Lehman said. He's right. The sports world, from high school athletic departments to the NCAA to MLB teams have to go an extra mile if they want to convey a true embrace of the LGBT community. Gay men have been marginalized in sports for decades. In the entire Big Five pro-sports leagues, there is only one out gay man: The Los Angeles Galaxy's Robbie Rogers.
It's a lesson learned for the Padres, which makes me confident in saying...
Good will come of this.
Despite the rocky road Lehman has walked with the Padres over the last week, even he sees the gold pot at the end of the rainbow.
"I really do think something good will come of this," he said. "That's what's going to happen. Five years from now we'll look back and say that moment is what made this relationship get so good."
Lehman said Dee, the Padres CEO, has committed to a sit-down conversation with the Chorus and other LGBT community members to make sure their mutual relationship blossoms. If the Padres' past efforts, and Bean's assurances, are any indication, we can expect Lehman's prediction to be easily realized.