Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have been forward thinkers on LGBT inclusion. MLB hired an openly gay man, Billy Bean, to lead its inclusion efforts while the NHL just this year made the LGBT community a centerpiece of its “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign.
Yet both leagues are now firmly on the record: Protecting playoff wins is more important than fighting discrimination, whether that’s racism or homophobia.
That’s the best translation of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision to delay the suspension of Houston Astros player Yuri Gurriel until next season. Gurriel, who was born in Cuba, unleashed a furor of response when he made a slanted-eyes gesture at Dodgers Japanese-born pitcher Yu Darvish during Game 3 of the World Series.
Manfred gave the player a suspension, but said he wasn’t going to suspend him for the World Series because “I felt it was unfair to punish the other 24 players on the Astros roster.” Instead, he got a five-game suspension next April when the games are the least meaningful.
This followed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s embarrassingly weak response to Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf’s gay slur during a Stanley Cup Playoff game earlier this year.
Manfred actually gave four reasons for delaying the suspension. But frankly, if you have to give four reasons for doing something, you know none of them are good. That holds true here.
He could have given four really good reasons to enforce the suspension during the World Series. Say, for example:
- “Racist demonstrations will not be tolerated in baseball and will receive the harshest punishments possible;”
- “I do not want to expose any of Gurriel’s teammates to his racism until he has had proper training;”
- “As we try to expand the fandom of the league, we cannot make anyone feel they are not welcome in Major League Baseball;”
- “If this goes back to Los Angeles, the Dodgers fans’ reaction to Gurriel will be a distraction to the team.”
Instead we got four statements of cowardice.
The message this sends to gay athletes is particularly chilling. Manfred and Bettman have made it clear that that the old mantra “winning is everything” is alive and well. If they are going to protect players who yell gay slurs and make a slanted-eyes gesture on national television, I wonder how MLB would handle a gay slur against a gay player during the playoffs.
The answer after this weekend is clear: no playoff suspension.
For years we’ve heard openly gay athletes talked about as “distractions” from winning. This is total nonsense we know, but that’s the media’s mantra.
Now Manfred has backed that up. While the NHL in 2016 suspended Andrew Shaw during the Stanley Cup Playoffs for using a gay slur, both the NHL and MLB have backed away from zero tolerance of bigotry. The Shaw suspension sent a shockwave across the NHL that homophobia wouldn’t be tolerated.
Since then, both the NHL and MLB have sent an equally clear message that at critical junctures, both racism and homophobia will be handled gently.
The underlying message here is unmistakable: We won’t let social justice cloud any team’s singular focus on winning a playoff game.
Manfred and MLB had four really good reasons to make a powerful statement about diversity and inclusion. Instead, the league gave four bad reasons not to.
Incidentally, Gurriel previously played professional baseball in Japan. I think the Japanese league will be taking a slightly harsher approach.