While we may not know until around 3:30 ET today the exact intent behind it, most baseball fans are now aware of the message Yunel Escobar sent via his eye black strips on Saturday, September 15. “Tu ere(s) maricon.” You are a faggot. Now the question is, what message will Major League Baseball send in response? MLB has an opportunity to not only set a precedent within the sport regarding hateful speech/expression but also add its voice to a growing chorus from among the other major sports that says that this type of behavior – whatever the intent – is unacceptable.
To begin, I’d like to address a few points that have arisen from the coverage of this incident. First, a word on the semantic discussion. At least several sources have cited a Spanish professor (Maria Cristina Cuervo) from the University of Toronto making the case that maricon is not exclusively an anti-gay slur. That’s true (i.e., Cuervo is not being misquoted), but I encourage people to read the entire Toronto Star piece by Cathal Kelly* to understand the professor’s comments in context. Cuervo, an Argentine, makes the case that maricon may be used more in the context of “wuss” or, in my reading “pussy” (Cuervo admits she doesn’t know exactly how harsh of a translation the word merits in English as she doesn’t curse much. Lucky for her, I do, though I try to avoid words – like pussy – that have a negative connotation toward a specific group of people, in this case women). However, Kelly cites other, Cuban sources (Escobar is Cuban) that paint the phrase as much more singular in its translation and level of offensiveness. In other words, Escobar’s understanding of the phrase is most likely the same as that of everyone who is so incensed by his wearing it on his eye black last Saturday.
* UPDATE: For whatever reason, this article was updated into what I would contend is an almost entirely distinct piece since I posted this piece over a day ago. The current iteration of the article no longer references all the Cuban experts from the original, nor Maria Cristina Cuervo. The new incarnation of the article, however, is extremely well-stated and well worth a read. It features a more expansive recounting of Escobar’s press conference than I referenced at the end of this article and a very stern rebuke of the shortstop’s flippancy about the incident.
There has also emerged from the discussion surrounding Escobar’s act a debate over intent. The first element of his intent is tied to linguistics. Both Cuervo and the Cuban experts cited in Kelly’s piece refer to a spectrum of harshness and familiarity with which derogatory terms can be used. That is not dissimilar to the way words are used here in the U.S., with potentially hurtful words used to different effect in private, familiar contexts. The second element of intent is how Escobar intended the message on his eye black strips. Did his teammates play a prank on him? Did he mean it as a joke? Was it directed at a specific person? Some or all or none of these questions may be answered when Escobar addresses the media. The end result is the same: it’s about perception. Whether Escobar intended to speak from the softer side of the spectrum of linguistic significance or from it’s harshest extreme, the words sound the same. Whether Escobar intended it as a joke or an insult, again, the words sound the same. “Tu ere(s) maricon” and it’s most common English equivalent “You are a faggot” sound hateful regardless and Escobar should be held accountable for the effect of his expression, not his intent.*
* If it was a prank by Escobar’s teammates and Escobar had absolutely no idea the offending phrase was plastered across his face – a possibility I find hard to believe, but we’ll see – then he should not be punished…but whoever was responsible should.
Which brings us back around to Baseball. MLB has dealt with this type of thing before. Back in 2006, Ozzie Guillen offered his own translation services when he called writer Jay Mariotti a “fucking fag.” Bud Selig fined Guillen an undisclosed sum and ordered him to take sensitivity training, calling his comments “offensive and completely unacceptable.” MLB made perhaps an even larger statement last year in suspending Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell after he used an anti-gay slur to respond to a pair of heckling San Francisco Giants fans before a game. McDowell received a 2-week suspension without pay. Escobar, to the best of my knowledge, is the first player the league will have to deal with on this issue and it is my hope that league officials continue to take a firm stance and send the message that offensive and hateful expressions toward other players, officials, fans or in general will not be tolerated. The Blue Jays are out of the playoff hunt for this season, so even a lengthy suspension will not impact the team on the field. Furthermore, it may be that a fine or suspension without pay doesn’t impact Escobar as severely as it would someone drawing a more modest salary.* Even so, a suspension (particularly without pay) and to a lesser extent a fine send a message to players and team personnel throughout baseball: using speech or other forms of expression that are hateful toward others is unacceptable. Period.
* As a point of reference, the $100,000 fine Kobe Bryant received for directing an anti-gay slur toward a referee last season has been described in the press as “walking-around money.” Escobar is making $5 million dollars this year. See Baseball Reference for full details of his contract.
Sports has seen an increase in recent years of players, organizations and leagues standing up both in support of gay rights and in opposition to hateful words and actions. In the NFL, former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin posed shirtless on the cover of Out magazine to express his support for gay rights and current Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe voiced their support for marriage equality. In the NHL, New York Ranger Sean Avery appeared in an ad supporting same-sex marriage and dozens of NHL players have filed their support for the You Can Play Project. In the NBA, Phoenix Suns players created a PSA discouraging the use of anti-gay slurs as part of trash-talking and the league fined both Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah for using anti-gay slurs. Now, MLB can take the next step, moving from fining players mere “walking-around money” to the type of penalties – namely suspension without pay – that will make sports a more welcome environment to players, officials and fans of all sexual orientations. Here’s hoping.
UPDATE: The Blue Jays (not MLB) ended up suspending Escobar 3 games without pay for the eye black slur. It isn’t Roger McDowell’s 2 weeks – not even close. Escobar will also participate in sensitivity training and outreach. It is difficult to see this outcome as anything less than a complete and utter failure by MLB to take advantage of the opportunity referenced in the title of this piece. It would be nice to see a mere fraction of the vigor invested in demanding sterner PED suspensions directed toward advocating harsher penalties for players displaying the kind of contempt and disregard for others that Yunel Escobar showed over the weekend.
Escobar’s take is up online and it will unfortunately not come as a surprise to most that the player meant it as “just a joke.” Perhaps of greater concern is Escobar’s contention (mentioned in Kevin Kaduk’s article) that maricon is a meaningless word commonly used among Spanish-speaking players. Obviously the word (and its English equivalent faggot) is neither meaningless nor harmless to the millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people who have felt it’s bite. But hey, at least Escobar was “embarrassed” and has “friends who are gay.” Great. Perhaps he can ask some of those friends what the word maricon means to them. And perhaps this unfortunate incident will give players from all parts of the globe a chance to reconsider the things they say and do; things that may seem harmless to them but in fact have a more significant impact on those around them.