Yes, what Thom Brennaman said on air last night was indefensible.
No, he shouldn’t be fired for it.
If he’s willing to put in some work, there’s a better way.
At Outsports, we’ve seen gay slurs and homophobic insults thrown around the sports world — by some of its biggest names — for decades. We’ve also seen all kinds of responses to it, from people being benched, fired, or let off with a slap on the wrist.
While cries to fire the person rise every time — and the calls to #FireThomBrennaman are really loud today on Twitter — there’s a lot more thought that can go into a response with the best-possible outcome.
No doubt I know the frustration hearing what Brennaman said brings up for so many of us. I’m right there. After over 20 years of Outsports, we’re still hearing this crap. Kids are hearing it on their Little League teams, national champions are hearing it in college. It sucks.
Yet I’ve been consistent, particularly in recent years, pushing for suspensions (and a suspension here is well-deserved) and against people losing their jobs. It’s because I’ve seen what can happen when people in sports are given a second chance.
Certainly there are people like Curt Schilling who have been problematic through many incidents and several years. Schilling’s last transphobic straw in 2016 left ESPN with no choice but to fire him, and I certainly couldn’t argue. And if someone unearths a lengthy history of homophobia, racism or sexism from Brennaman, my tune could change.
But for now, I’m advocating for lengthy suspension and education because I’ve seen it work.
Hours before playing in the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 2013, Chris Culliver said he would not want to play with a gay teammate. Despite calls for his head, Culliver played (not so well) in that game. And then he did the work. He visited the Trevor Project to learn more about the lives of LGBTQ youth and the power of his words. He listened.
A year later, when Michael Sam came out publicly, Culliver talked about his support of Sam and what he learned working with the Trevor Project:
“I truly appreciate the staff at the Trevor Project for allowing me to grow and educating me on the issues affecting the LGBTQ community,” Culliver said. “I have learned so much and made some really great friends. I will continue my commitment to the organization and to their youths and stand firm with hope that one day that all individuals regardless of sex, race, or creed will be treated with dignity and respect from all.”
Another great example: UC-Irvine basketball coach Russell Turner. Despite calls for his job last year after repeatedly calling an opponent “queen,” Turner put in the work and learned a ton. His school and his players will be better for it.
So what are the steps I’d lay out for Brennaman during what I think is a deserved indefinite suspension?
- If he means it, start with a better apology and talk about taking some time away to listen and learn
- Contact PFLAG Cincinnati and find ways Brennaman can talk with LGBTQ youth and their parents and listen about their lives
- Reach out to You Can Play, as they have important information about the power of anti-LGBTQ language
- Give Billy Bean a call. The Reds have his number
- Map out a couple of concrete actions to take to demonstrate through action what he’s learned
- After all of this, speak to an LGBTQ media outlet (may I recommend Outsports) and talk about what he’s learned through these conversations and what those next steps will be.
And when all of that is said and done, and the Cincinnati Reds and his other employers believe there’s been some real movement here, I’d support giving him a second chance.
To be sure, some people aren’t interested in doing this work. Brennaman may, behind closed doors, tell his bosses he’s not interested in any of this, he really doesn’t think what he did is that problematic, and he just wants to call baseball games. That may be the case. His father, former Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman, stepped into the same issue in 2011 and had the same “I’m not homophobic” defense, so there very well may be a real, deep issue here.
Brennaman also has to understand that there is work to be done. Coach Turner wasn’t a homophobic guy. But what he did during a 2019 NCAA tournament game was homophobic, misogynistic and problematic. Now he realizes that, and I would consider him a true “ally” of the LGBTQ community.
There’s work that can and should done. Of course, if Brennaman’s not willing to put in the work... bye.
But if he is interested in building bridges, understanding the LGBTQ community and making amends for his disturbingly casual mistake, I want to give him that opportunity.
Speaking to the sports world, and communities of faith, about what he’s learned and why what he did was wrong after a few months of work can have real, powerful, lasting effects that just firing the guy will never accomplish.