Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays shouldn't be that surprised that outfielder Yunel Escobar painted a derogatory slur on his face last Saturday. In general the Blue Jays seem to have a problem with their words. Lord knows that the word "win" has become a meaningless concept to most players during these dog days of September. Even the words "wildcard hunt" were proven irrelevant way back in July.
So for a team where semantics don't seem to matter, it is perhaps ironic that those pesky things known as "words" got the Blue Jays organization and their shortstop Escobar into trouble over the weekend after Escobar was spotted with the words: "Tu Ere Maricon" written on his eye-black.
While these words didn't seem to matter to Escobar, they did seem to matter to the twitterverse, which was quick to point out that maricon is a Spanish word that is most commonly used as a derogatory term for gay people. Prof. Michelle Gonzalez, an expert on Cuban culture at the University of Miami, noted to the Toronto Star that in the Cuban context: "It's a slur referring to homosexuals."
Yet Escobar defended himself telling press that the phrase was harmless: "It was not something I intended to be offensive. It was just something I just put on a sticker on my face as a joke...There was nothing intentional directed at anyone in particular."
But beyond harmless, "maricon" is also meaningless. As Escobar told an assembled press audience in New York on Tuesday, "It's a word used often within teams as a word without a meaning." Presumably the next phrase that Escobar will paint under his eyes will be: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, also a word without meaning.
Outside the bubble of the Rogers Centre, however, words do have a meaning, which is why the Blue Jays brass tried to put lipstick on this pig as quickly as possible hoping that the Escobar scandal would go away quickly if the team met the minimum requirements of appeasement. The Jays handed Escobar a three game suspension and presumably told him to donate his salary to various LGBT charities, including the worthy You Can Play initiative and GLAAD, in an attempt to be as apologetic as they could.
In the meantime the Jays trotted out Escobar to the media for an apology, where, in what had to have dismayed Blue Jays leadership, he told the world that some of his friends were gay. It became quite clear that as Escobar, via translator, told the sports press that a gay person cuts his hair and a gay person decorated his house, any sense of repentance was sucked out of the air like pop fly to left field.
Back to linguistics, oddly enough in a 30 minute news conference addressing a homophobic slur, the word homophobia was used only once. A reporter asked John Farrell, the Blue Jays Manager: "Is homophobia a problem in locker rooms?" His reply: "I don't believe so. You don't see that. I know we're here discussing what was interpreted by some as a homophobic action, but you don't see that."
Even Alex Anthopolous, the General Manager of the Blue Jays, had these vague comments to say about homophobia without actually talking about homophobia:
"What came out of this is the lack of education. The problem isn't going away and this is just an example of it... There is a problem not only in sports, but in society. How do we move forward to help with that problem? This is a problem worldwide and that's why these groups exist."
Fair enough Alex, but what "problem" are we talking about? What groups are these? Apparently no one in the Jays organization can muster the proper usage of their words.
And while Alex was right to note that homophobia exists beyond professional sporting organizations, he failed to mention that in other industries homophobia has become much less of an issue. One of the reasons for this is that there are multiple organizations that are working directly with senior leaders to tackle the issue of homophobia in the corporate world. And as a result, unlike professional sporting organizations, corporate Canada has made significant strides in supporting workplace diversity and inclusiveness.
Out on Bay Street (an organization I sit on the board of) as well as Pride at Work Canada both work with corporate Canada to ensure that workplaces are LGBT inclusive. Both have strong support of senior management from large corporations.
As Ed Clark, CEO of TD Bank, noted to a group of senior TD leaders about TD's burgeoning support of LGBT issues: "To be successful over the long term we must be a place where all of our customers and employees believe that their needs can be met."
And while organizations like You Can Play are trying to do similar work in the professional sporting world, they can't do so when people like John Farrell have the balls to tell the media that homophobia doesn't exist in the locker room. Unless straight athletic leaders (this includes players, owners and managers) are willing to take up the gauntlet of tackling homophobia in the professional sporting world, Escobar will become just another footnote in the history of homophobia in professional sports.
And the sad part in all of this? We only really seem to care about homophobia in sports when someone uses their words incorrectly. Next week -- all will have been forgotten, because to the Blue Jays, words obviously don't matter.
Follow Jonathan Naymark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/naymark