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Who is the real Thom Brennaman, and does he deserve a second chance?

LGBTQ leaders share insights about the man they’ve gotten to know, both before and since he used the gay slur heard ‘round the sports world.

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Thom Brennaman has not called a Major League Baseball game since publicly using a gay slur. Various LGBTQ leaders think that should change.
Sam Greene/Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Shortly after then-Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman uttered a gay slur – accidentally broadcast on live television in August 2020 – he was pulled from the broadcast and signed off mid-game with an apology and a prediction:

“I don’t know if I’m going to be putting on this headset again,” he said at the time.

Brennaman hasn’t since. The Reds quickly replaced him in the broadcast booth that night, and he soon lost his job calling NFL games for Fox Sports. Between him and his father – Marty – a Brennaman had been a voice of the Reds since 1974. A family legacy of almost 50 years seemed to end with one word.

Eighteen months later, the hot-mic slur has proven – so far – to be a potentially career-ending mistake.

Yet the questions asked amongst some people in the LGBTQ community: Should it have ended his career, or does Brennaman deserve a second chance?

Speaking with members of the LGBTQ community in Cincinnati, and with gay MLB executives, a picture emerges of someone who used a horrible slur in public but seems genuine in his contrition and growth in understanding the community he maligned.

In his final comments that fateful night was a preview into the days and months that followed for Brennaman.

“That is not who I am and never has been,” Brennaman said.

We’ve heard this before from other people who’ve made similar mistakes, that the homophobic comment they casually uttered doesn’t represent them. People across the media were quick to dismiss his comments and condemn Brennaman, and many have not relented.

Yet Brennaman offered this other thought that night, at the time dismissed: “I’d like to think maybe I could have some people who can back that up.”

This wasn’t an “I have gay friends” moment. Brennaman believed – despite what had happened minutes earlier – that his history and character would eventually show that the real Thom Brennaman did not hate gay people. And he believed there were LGBTQ people in his life who would show just that.

A teenage Thom Brennaman

One of those people was an old high school friend, Scott Soemin.

In his Los Angeles office late that August afternoon in 2020, Seomin was finishing up work when he was hit smack in the face: 37 new text messages and a dozen missed phone calls, all about Brennaman.

Seomin — good friends with Thom’s sister Dawn — spent a lot of time with the Brennaman family while attending Anderson High School.

Watching a video on his phone that August afternoon of his old high school friend caught on a hot mic describing Kansas City as “one of the fag capitals of the world” stunned him – beyond the fact that Kansas City is perceived as anything but.

“I was puzzled,” Seomin said. “That just wasn’t Thom. High school in the 80s in Cincinnati, gay stereotypes were used all over the place. But I never heard it from Thom.”

By Brennaman’s own admission, he had at times flippantly used that word as a kid 40 years years ago. Yet to Seomin, quietly coming out as he came of age in Cincinnati, Brennaman was a safe harbor.

One of Seomin’s searing memories from high school involved a Turpin-Anderson rivalry high school football game. Seomin was a fan in the stands sitting with the Brennamans when some kids from Turpin came by, teasing Seomin and calling him a “fag.”

Silently exploring his sexuality at the time, the brewing encounter froze Seomin.

Brennaman wasn’t having it. He told the guys to “knock it off,” driving them away and leaving Seomin to watch the game in peace.

It wasn’t the only time Brennaman had Seomin’s back. Another time that year, as they were rehearsing one night for the school’s “Guys & Dolls” performance, Seomin found himself in a dressing room lip-locked with another male student. When he looked up and saw Brennaman standing at the door staring at the two, Seomin – still not out – thought his cover was blown.

Instead, Brennaman ensured Seomin that nothing was going to change, and his secret was safe with him.

His years of personal interactions with Brennaman all swirled through Seomin’s mind as the two connected via phone that night.

“Thom was in shock,” he said.

Seomin had been down this road before, having been an entertainment media director at GLAAD from 1998 to 2003. Yet knowing Brennaman as he did for 40 years, Seomin pushed his friend to more deeply understand the true depth of that word and LGBTQ people’s struggles.

Billy Bean, the gay former Major League Baseball player who is now a vice-president in the league front office, encouraged the same path forward as he engaged with Brennaman in the hours shortly after the ill-fated broadcast.

“We talked often in the beginning, and I tried to introduce him to people who would bring different perspectives as to how that experience felt to them,” Bean said. “I think it was meaningful for him.”

Over the last 18 months Brennaman says he has focused on becoming a true friend of the LGBTQ community and understanding the depth of his mistake.

Listening to the LGBTQ community

Ryan Messer was one of the people Brennaman engaged shortly after that night. A gay married father of four, long-time Johnson and Johnson executive, and member of the Cincinnati Public Schools board, Messer had for over two decades fought for LGBTQ equality in the city he’s called home most of his adult life.

Messer remembers in 1993 when voters barred gay people from any discrimination protections in Cincinnati; He was also there for the fight that ultimately overturned that decision.

Messer thought that if he could reach Brennaman – with such a loud voice in corners of Cincinnati society – this was someone he’d like to engage.

Shortly after his first phone conversation with Brennaman, Messer invited about a dozen people from across the Cincinnati LGBTQ community to his porch for a conversation with Brennaman, whose job was mostly to listen.

Ahead of the gathering, some people had asked Messer about Brennaman’s intentions. Was this all about his hopes of putting a band-aid on his hot-mic slur and getting his job back?

“There was never once that I thought this was about getting his job with the Reds back,” Messer said. “Thom had already told me that was a closed door, period.”

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds
Thom Brennaman (right) calls a Cincinnati Reds game in 2019 with his father, Marty.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The people gathered on Messer’s porch talked openly for about two hours about their lives as LGBTQ people in and around the Cincinnati area.

“I could tell he was very taken by the conversation,” Messer said. “And it wasn’t like he was just nodding his head. There was zero disingenuousness in his interactions.”

One of the people there was Lynn Hailey, a retired communications professional in the Cincinnati area and, yes, a Reds fan.

“I could tell Thom was nervous,” said Hailey. “I think he probably hadn’t sat with a group of eight LGBTQ people in the community like that before. That day he was really in pain. It was an honest and painful conversation.”

Brennaman’s blind spots at the time crept up that afternoon. When he stood behind his “love everyone” Christian faith in the conversation, it hit the wrong tone for one attendee.

“He kept talking about his faith, how [his language] was a betrayal of his faith, and a betrayal of himself as a Christian man,” said Reggie Harris, elected to the Cincinnati City Council last year. “To a gay person, for someone to invoke their Christian faith doesn’t exactly bring me comfort.”

Brennaman hadn’t thought much of it at the time. There was a minister at the meeting, and other attendees talked about being Christian themselves.

One of the lessons Brennaman has learned over the last 18 months is some history about the at-times problematic relationship the church has had with the LGBTQ community.

“I understand there have been a lot of outspoken Christian pastors, priests and reverends, who have been highly critical of people being gay,” Brennaman said. “I understand that.”

Still, Brennaman mostly listened for that two hours on Messer’s porch. He heard about parents rejecting their children when they came out. He heard about bullying and Cincinnati’s history of homophobia – a history some of the very people on that porch, like Messer, had helped change.

“He certainly did more listening than talking, and he got an earful,” said Evan Millward, a reporter at WCPO-9, the ABC affiliate in the area. “Everyone went around and shared their stories, and some were more painful than others.”

Yet underlying it for some people was a lingering question that Brennaman declined to answer that day: What conversation in the booth that night led to his fateful comment?

It’s a question Brennaman has been asked multiple times. Each time he asserts that the most important element of this episode for him is that he takes ownership of his mistake, learns from it and makes amends.

At the same time, he points to an evolving dynamic of sports broadcasting and the environment around sports in general.

Traveling around the country in the 1980s, Brennaman said he would hear gay slurs thrown around by people across the sports landscape.

Today?

“I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone in sports broadcasting, or the athletes themselves, use that word I said,” Brennaman said. “By and large, since the mid-90s, the change has been remarkable.”

Brennaman left that meeting on Messer’s porch a somewhat different man.

“I felt like I had just run a marathon,” Brennaman said of leaving the meeting. “I was just exhausted. Between the heat, all of the emotions, the hurt, the stories I heard, and really hearing for the first time what the word that I used has meant to other people, in a very real first-hand way.”

Since that meeting on Messer’s porch, Brennaman has attended local PFLAG meetings to hear from LGBTQ people and their parents about the struggles and triumphs they’ve experienced.

One story in particular is burned in his mind.

The young gay man had been living in Seattle. About to cross a street at a crosswalk, a pickup truck pulled up. The driver motioned him to cross, and he did. Once he stepped into the road, the driver stepped on the gas and hit him, then got out of the truck and called the young man, now lying on the asphalt, a “faggot.”

“Let me tell you, when you use the word flippantly like I did, and then you hear that story of that same word, and what that word means to somebody,” Brennaman said, “if that doesn’t open your eyes and your mind to things you say, nothing will.”

A continuing education

There was one person not at that meeting who has given Brennaman a continuing education on the LGBTQ community.

When the CEO of the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, Rick Wurth, and his husband watched Brennaman utter the gay slur on live television, he saw an opportunity. CHNK Behavioral Health is a former orphanage, now a “trauma-informed healthcare organization focused on creating holistic partnerships for health and wellness that are inclusive, innovative, and inspiring.”

Many of the people who come through their doors are LGBTQ.

Wurth invited Brennaman for a visit. When Brennaman came to the home for an initial meeting with Wurth, he was there for a couple hours, learning about the homelessness and family issues faced by so many LGBTQ youth.

After Wurth had shared what he had to say, Brennaman wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more.

“That immediately told me this wasn’t going to be a one-and-done meeting, a check mark because he got in trouble,” Wurth said.

So he put Brennaman through the same training used for their entire support staff. It involved conversations over the course of weeks.

Thom Brennaman (right) at one of the trainings at the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, with (l-r) Wurth, Millward and Crystal Leugers, Chief Programming Officer at CHNK Behavioral Health.
CHNK

When the training was over, Brennaman asked: “So what’s next?” He now wanted to make a difference for the kids and families with the Children’s Home.

“For any parent to kick their child out of their home because they’re gay, that’s unthinkable,” Brennaman said. “But it goes on every day. I just didn’t understand that.”

Given the hot-mic incident, a larger involvement by Brennaman was a conundrum for the non-profit organization.

Yet Wurth kept coming back to something his friend Messer had told him: “Nobody can change the world like a changed man.”

So Wurth and the board of directors gave Brennaman a chance, making him a subject-matter expert working with the board to advance the needs of the Home and the local community.

“What Thom can bring to the equation is he’s a trusted name, and when I talk to people they say he’s a good man who made a mistake,” Wurth said. “He has the power to be a force for good.”

Brennaman knows that. He has taken his story and his message of inclusion to anyone who will listen, speaking to the University of West Virginia men’s basketball team and contacting local schools to share his message of the importance of inclusion and understanding the LGBTQ community.

A voice without a platform

Now regularly engaged with various LGBTQ leaders in Cincinnati, Brennaman is today a booming voice without a platform.

While he hasn’t centered his career hopes in the work he’s done, Brennaman still wants to return to a major broadcast studio. Yet as he’s pursued opportunities, he has repeatedly been met by mostly straight men with a refusal to consider him as the question lingers in the minds of some:

Does Thom Brennaman deserve a second chance at a broadcasting career?

“With no doubt,” said Wurth. “I don’t bat an eye for a second. I’ve spent too much time talking to him. This is not just some extended role performance.”

Messer wishes Brennaman had never lost his job in the first place.

“Nobody with the Reds asked us in the LGBTQ community,” Messer said. “And supposedly we were the ones who were offended.”

Millward, a media personality himself, sees benefit to the LGBTQ community in having Brennaman – who has gone through what Seomin called “a master class” on the LGBTQ community – return to broadcasting.

“This is a guy a lot of families in the Cincinnati area listen to,” Millward said. “And if he is using us – which I don’t think – but if he is, we’re using him to reach those people. And if we show this guy can have a redemption story, it makes conversations in those households easier.”

To be sure, not everyone is convinced the community needs to publicly forgive him.

“Maybe he did learn a lesson, maybe he won’t ever use the word fag on a hot mic agin,” Harris said. “But I don’t feel any need to publicly forgive you or make any grand gestures to you. There’s much more pressing things to do in the community.”

While Hailey said it wasn’t up to her to proclaim Brennaman redeemed, or anything else of that sort, she offered hope that he could put his ill-fated mistake behind him.

“I do feel bad for him,” Hailey said. “That was his love and his career, and I do hope he can find a way to have professional satisfaction and success.”

Bean has long worked with people across baseball to build understanding. To him, Brennaman’s efforts and contrition have seemed genuine.

“While no two situations are exactly the same, I believe in second chances,” Bean said. “Every game that he would broadcast would provide him an opportunity to share a part of this experience and the responsibility that comes with being a member of the baseball community.”

Erik Braverman has a similar perspective. The Dodgers Senior Vice President of marketing, communications and broadcasting – who is gay and just married his husband at Dodger Stadium – said the evidence points to a good man who made a bad mistake.

“I spoke with Thom shortly after the incident in 2020, and I believe he was sincere in his apology,” Braverman said. “I’ve been involved in broadcasting for over 30 years, and I know how easy it is to make a mistake or say something that can be wrong or hurtful. In this case, Thom crossed a line, but I don’t think he did it with any malicious intent.

“I also believe in second chances. Thom has a long and impressive track record in sports broadcasting. He is a terrific on-air talent.”

Wurth left no doubt with his assessment.

“I have no idea where he’s going to land professionally,” he said. “But what I do know is he’s been spending a hell of a lot of time working with our staff and me on behalf of the 4,000 kids and family members we serve every year.”

Seomin – who has known Brennaman since they were kids – agrees.

“Every public figure who messes up doesn’t necessarily deserve a second chance,” Seomin said. “Thom deserves a second chance.”

With all that, Brennaman knows that mostly straight male decision-makers may never give him an opportunity to work in major sports broadcasting again. He says he hasn’t engaged in all of this work to prove himself to them.

Instead, he’s done it to undo the harm he now realizes he caused the LGBTQ community with his language that fateful night.

And yes, he’s also done it to show the person Seomin called “the real Thom Brennaman.”

“There are still people who are really upset with me, and they will be forever,” Brennaman said. “All I can do is go out and show the empathy and compassion I have for people of all walks of life. If I can help people understand they have someone who’s on their side, that’s all I can do.”

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