Yunel Escobar's suspension for gay slur masks sports' true issue

It's never the real issues. It's John Rocker's cartoonish homophobia and Ozzie Guillen's casual slurring and Mike Piazza calling a news conference to declare he's not gay. And now it's Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar writing maricón on his eyeblack and getting suspended amid discussion of his ignorance, his intentions and the rest of the pabulum spewed instead of what should matter.

Like what NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe did last week, speaking out in favor of gay marriage with facts designed to engage frank discussion on an uncomfortable subject. Or what a man named Patrick Burke has done with the National Hockey League: get more than 60 players to speak out in favor of equality for gays across sports, with the perfect tagline: "If you can play, you can play."

There is progress.

And the words of idiots trump it.

Why we let the negative masquerade around as more important than the positive is a societal and cultural failure. I am guilty. My peers in the media are guilty. You are guilty. In the negative we find power – power to judge, to gang up on casual bigotry, to bathe in outrage and lament society's sluggish evolution. We do it because it's easy.

It is hard to do what Ayanbadejo and Kluwe did, what Burke does every day running You Can Play, a nonprofit he started following the death of his younger brother, Brendan, a gay-rights-in-sports advocate. The real debate and real victories float on by in the ether while we parse the meaning of maricón as if its connotation elsewhere is of any substance.

"I don't know if it's human nature or something about this issue, but the negative incidents bring everyone to the forefront," Burke said. "There are a lot of us having this discussion. Not just with You Can Play. When we do positive things, we get very little mention. Not just our group but other groups."

[Related: Yunel Escobar suspended three games for gay slur]

Burke didn't eat lunch or dinner Tuesday. From the time the Blue Jays suspended Escobar for three games after wearing eye black with the inscription Tu ere maricón – roughly translated, "You are a faggot" – to the end of the day, Burke spoke with media members more interested in Escobar than what his slur represented. As viral as Kluwe's open letter to a homophobic politician went, it still didn't cause nearly the uproar of Escobar's suspension. Same as the reaction when Kobe Bryant called a referee the other F-word. Or when Joakim Noah did it to a fan.

Every sane person agrees: Each of those incidents was stupid and hurtful and ill-informed.


Now let's move on to what matters.

"I don't think we give enough attention to the positive attention sports has made," Burke said. "Everyone is more comfortable with the image of the football player shoving the kid into the locker instead of open-minded, well-educated, intelligent athletes speaking out on the subject. I don't know why we pigeonhole athletes. Today is a tough day to say that because someone said something stupid, but athletics in the last five years has come so far. It'll never be a non-issue. But I think we're very, very close to having the sports world be close to a non-issue."

Baseball, despite the endeavors of some individuals, is among the most progressive sports when it comes to LGBT issues. At least 11 teams – the A's, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Orioles, Phillies, Pirates, Rays, Red Sox and Twins – have made It Gets Better public-service announcements, targeted at bullying, especially of gay teenagers. The Seahawks and 49ers are the only NFL teams to have done so. No NBA franchise has.

[Also: Time to give Buck Showalter's reputation a rest]

During the latest collective-bargaining agreement, MLB added the phrase "sexual orientation" to its language outlawing discrimination. The full paragraph reads: "The provisions of this Agreement shall be applied to all Players covered by this Agreement without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or any other classification protected under Federal Law."

The next logical step for MLB is simple: fully endorse and support You Can Play's message like the NHL has. Do not allow politics to torpedo an important stand that can drown out the Yunel Escobars of the world. People in the game may support gay rights. Others may believe being gay is a grievous sin. You Can Play's message is about sports and people and equality, three things that when combined should transcend all personal feelings.

Sports are often slow to adapt to changes writ large. And yet when they do, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated, they are powerful, righteous agents, there to do good.

"It's the single most important cultural entity when it comes to social change," Burke said. "Nothing beats sports."

It's not just incumbent on sports. Eventually, hopefully sooner than later, the environment will progress to the point where an active athlete is comfortable being openly gay. To make that a reality – to rid this red herring that comes up every time an athlete acts the fool – our standards must grow.

Embrace the real issues. Celebrate Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe and Patrick Burke. And treat the non-issues for what they are: minuscule waves in a busy sea of progress.

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