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Keith Strudler: Learning From Major League Baseball

The low hanging fruit for sports commentary this week comes by way of Western Massachusetts, where the Amherst College men’s cross country team finds itself slowed to a halt because it was discovered team members had created a ugly newsletter that demeaned and dehumanized female Amherst students through describing their alleged sexual proclivity and faults. It’s the same juvenile crap we saw recently from the Harvard men’s soccer and cross country teams, begging the question, “Why are these college runners from elite universities so dense?” And I know that’s a simplification and really involves a discussion of privilege and what happens when you think you’re smarter than everyone else.

That’s the easy thing to talk about this week.

But I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that reminds us that despite the depravity around sports and misogyny, we actually can do better. And in this particular case, we are.

Yesterday, Major League Baseball announced it was banning the long tradition of forcing rookies to dress up as women as part of team initiation. This all comes as part of baseball’s new anti-hazing and anti-bullying policy, which bans forcing players to wear clothing that, in their language, “may be offensive to individuals based on their race, sex, nationality, age, sexual orientation, gender identify or other characteristic.”

This ritual was largely accepted as harmless standard practice – part of the natural bonding process that brings teammates closer together. And perhaps brings newcomers down just a notch, as veterans in any work organization are oft to do. But changing times and, just as importantly, social media, have brought a keener focus on this particular ritual. When a whole teams dresses as Hooters Girls, or someone has to wear a Wonder Woman costume, it spreads quicker than a Nolan Ryan fastball. Which means what was once a fairly private ritual has a much broader appeal and longer shelf life.

All this was brought to light by former professional baseball player and current league Ambassador for Inclusion Billy Bean, who is openly gay. Bean brought the case to league officials, who created this new policy – and of note, without any pushback from the player’s union, which could be a first time that every happened. Now players can still, for lack of a better word, haze rookies. Only within pretty constrained boundaries. So they might have to walk across the street in a Star Wars costume to buy coffee for everyone. Or carry a veteran’s luggage. That’s about the extent of it.

For their work, baseball has received, not surprisingly, both praise and criticism. Some compliment the sport for ending an offensive practice that sends the wrong message about sport and gender. Others claim it’s simply political correctness gone awry, or at least an overreach around something that’s done in jest, and without malicious intent. It’s one of those arguments that just as likely fought on personal perception as it is reasonable debate. Which means everyone brings their own locker room to the ring, which is never a good thing. That’s like setting our national foreign policy based on what happened when you backpacked through Europe after college. It’s just not entirely relevant.

Which is why I think it’s important to tip our caps to Major League Baseball. Make no mistake, this policy shift isn’t entirely selfless, and it helps the league in several ways. It insulates them from potential bad press, particularly on places like Facebook and Instagram, where league officials have less control of the message than Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn did of his pitches in the film Major League. It also keeps young talent happy, more than a few who weren’t in love with having to walk around dressed like Lady Gaga. So baseball gets something out of this.

But that said, Major League Baseball should be lauded for reminding us that social justice isn’t static, but rather a process. People blame baseball all the time for being resistant to change, yet when it comes to changing a narrative around gender, it’s quite the opposite. Baseball has reminded us publicly that we must continuously work to make this world a better place, and that shaming male athletes by forcing them to dress like women is not only potentially hurtful, but it also sends the wrong message to fans about gender – which, contrary to what some naysayers care to believe, is far more complicated than a box on an application.

And like the NBA has recently done around race, Major League Baseball is leading by example, even though it could cost them with fans that cling to tradition as if it were an unnegotiable construct. That is the legacy of Jackie Robinson in the sport, and one that its leaders have done proud taking this smaller, but meaningful stand.

Now that take isn’t nearly as sexy as railing against a bunch of near perfect SAT college runners that maybe aren’t as smart as they think. But if they’re willing to listen, those college kids could learn a lot from the people running Major League Baseball. 

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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