Baseball: free from discrimination?

By Taylor McKee

Baseball has long been the whipping boy of the professional sports world– the steroid scandals are only the latest in a long history of incidents that have questioned the integrity of a sport that has become synonymous with American identity. In the new collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball appears to be on the leading edge of one of the most controversial social issues of our generation– discrimination based on sexual orientation. There are many who prefer to idealistically preserve sports, baseball in particular, as untouched by morally contentious questions.

As any Montreal Expos fan can attest, baseball has been a sport rife with labour struggles and work stoppages. The 1981 work strike occurred during the only season the Expos managed to make the playoffs and the 1994-95 strike interrupted a season where they were 74-40 with the second lowest payroll in baseball. As cosmically unfair as this would appear to Canadian baseball fans, the MLB seems to have learned from the mistakes that led to the costly strike of 1994-95. On Dec. 1, the players voted to ratify the new CBA that would guarantee labour peace until 2016. In the face of an NFL lockout during beginning of the season and a labour dispute in the NBA, the MLB could not afford to lose any more ground than it already has to other sports. The main tenants of the new CBA involve the beginning of regularized human growth hormone testing, with the hopes of finally putting the McGuire/Sosa/Palmeiro era behind them.

Article XV, Section A of the MLB’s expiring Basic Agreement, in effect from 2006-2011, states, “The provisions of this agreement shall be applied to all players covered by this agreement without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The new wording will include “sexual orientation” to this list. Although a slight provision among the mountain of technicalities, some might think the change is a bold step for a professional sports league. A blase response might be the best indication of a changing societal attitude.

CBC sports culture panellist Bruce Dowbiggin said in a Nov. 28 podcast that, although it’s a good initiative, it’s difficult to tell if the addition will make a difference because as of yet, no active player has come out in baseball’s history.

“I mean, we are waiting for our first active player to come out,” said Dowbiggin. “It needs to get out into a new demographic and I think this, in terms of being socially aware of issues like [sexual] orientation, I think it’s a big part of it.”

Many would be surprised to learn that baseball isn’t the only professional sports league to provide such protection, even in this calendar year. The NFL provided a similar non-discriminatory clause in their CBA that ended their lockout earlier this year. Both sports have a long history of confronting issues of discrimination in their sport in terms of race and seem to be proactive in dealing with discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is exceedingly likely that the NBA will implement a similar clause in their CBA that is currently being fleshed out.

The question still stands regarding the effect the CBA’s new language will have on the everyday life of a player. An MLB pitching draft pick who asked to remain anonymous said, “I don’t think protection is necessary, although I commend them for putting something in as a sign of acceptance. When guys are a part of teams their whole lives, they learn to adjust to all the different idiosyncrasies that come with a locker room full of iron-pumping athletes on high-protein diets.”

He said that a level of respect is crucial to maintaining a level of cohesion in the team dynamic. “As long as the rest of the team doesn’t feel threatened by the choices of another individual, you would be surprised how much stuff gets overlooked to maintain a healthy relationship with teammates.”

There have been very few MLB players who have come out after their playing careers, including former Detroit Tiger Billy Bean and former Oakland Athletic Glenn Burke. There has, as of yet, been no active MLB player who has come out. Even with the new CBA, it would be naive to think that any locker room or opposing teams would be free of discriminations and social stigmas, but the new MLB CBA may reflect a socially progressive and articulate portion of baseball players.

Jennifer Bockert, a University of Calgary law student, said sexual orientation is a legitimate case in terms of contractual negotiation.

“The CBA here is one written by lawyers, so you can be sure that they are going to be extra careful when drafting it to protect the league from legal liabilities,” said Bockert.

In a league that broke the colour barrier in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, the discrimination that exists against homosexuals is real and deplorable. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is insidious, repressive and should be protected against by any means possible. Even if the move was largely symbolic, it shows that the MLB acknowledges the discrimination exists and identifies it as something they will not tolerate. However, it is difficult to imagine that a few lines on a CBA will do the trick. No doubt, the step taken by both the MLB and NFL is a morally praiseworthy one, but in the fight for a workplace free of discrimination based on sexual orientation, there will be many obstacles yet to overcome.

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