Yunel Escobar, homophobia and the folly of tolerance


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My mom has a thing for fools.

More correctly, she has a thing for saying the word “fool.”

She loves it. Enjoys saying “fool” the way most women enjoy eating chocolate. Curls her bottom lip beneath her top row of teeth so she can push the word out with extra force; the fricative morphs into a plosive the way my mom pronounces it.

Fffffffool!

Let Rob Ford amble across her TV screen.

“Keg-belly, peg-leg FFFFool.”

Let her hear a one-and-done basketball star mumble through an interview.

“FFFFool talks like he’s got a mouth full of marbles.”

Let her catch a glimpse of Blue Jays outfielder-turned-anti-Cito Gaston insurrectionist Vernon Wells and she’ll just shake her head slowly.

“Ffffool.”

Not sure my mom has a favourite part of the bible but if I were a gambler I’d bet my meagre savings on chapter 26 of Book of Proverbs, which runs down a laundry list of the things fools do. For me, chapter 26 verse 11 has always stood out.

As a dog returns to a his vomit, so a fool to his folly.

And if my mom were around when they were collecting these aphorisms she would have added this one:

You can’t save a fool from himself.

Mom’s proverb leapt to mind Monday afternoon when I first saw photos of Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar in the batter’s box the previous Saturday sporting paste-on eye black bearing the words “Tu Ere Maricon.” The message translates to “you are a faggot,” and besides pissing off sticklers for textbook Spanish (“It’s ‘eres,’ Escobar. ¡Que estupido!”), the words detonated a local controversy that has since mushroomed into major news story on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border.

I’m not calling Escobar a fool, but he certainly acted like one when he decided to scrawl an anti-homosexual slur on his eye-black, take the field in front of opponents, media and a handful of fans and think the stunt wouldn’t come back to bite him in the rear end… no homo.

Because you can’t save a fool from himself, Escobar definitely deserves the three-game suspension the incident brought down on him, as well as the awkward indignity of the 30-minute news conference at Yankee Stadium during which he both apologized for the harshness of his words and told us they really weren’t as hurtful as many of us think.

But even though you can’t save a fool from himself,  you still don’t have to tolerate folly — especially on a topic as fraught and sensitive as sexual orientation. And if Escobar’s profane eye-black offends you, then the inaction of every player, official and coach who saw the words and said nothing should irk you even more.

“The Blue Jays want to reaffirm that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated,” read a communique the club issued Tuesday afternoon, minutes before Escobar’s news conference.

“Tolerate” is an unwittingly fitting turn of phrase.

I long ago grew tired of “tolerance” as a diversity buzz word. We use it as a synonym for “acceptance” or “inclusion” of diverse (read: non-white or non-heterosexual) communities even though the meanings aren’t really equal. Acceptance means making someone or something part of the team. Tolerance means putting up with something unpleasant, like pain from a toothache or noise from a nearby airport.

I don’t know if the people who knew better and said nothing accepted the message Escobar was sending, or simply tolerated a tasteless act because it didn’t seem worth an argument. But in this case the outcome is the same. A backwards attitude is allowed to thrive, challenged only when a sharp-eyed fan snaps a photo.

It’s not like the meaning of the word “maricon” is a secret. During his news conference the Cuban-born Escobar rationalized it they way teenagers of all races defend the use of the n-word, saying Latin Americans use it amongst themselves all the time, and that it’s only truly offensive when deployed in certain ways.

That might be true but people in North America familiar with the word — and there are plenty in pro baseball… gringos included — understand that in Canada and the U.S. “maricon” and its English equivalent aren’t terms decent people toss around in public.

Several people on the field Saturday understood that reality, and all of them let it slide. So they were either complicit in the joke Escobar’s eye-black intended to convey, or okay with the casual homophobia it actually communicated.

Neither one is a good look.

Not for Major League Baseball, which hasn’t had an openly gay active player since Glenn Burke, who was systematically frozen out of the league in the late 1970s as word of his homosexuality spread.

Not for the Blue Jays, who suspended Escobar not when he committed a boneheaded act but only when word of it spread and embarrassment hit home.

And least of all for Escobar, who adds another large suitcase to the heavy baggage he hauls from team to team.

When the Blue Jays traded for him reports circulated about Escobar’s crappy attitude and lax work ethic. We heard he was a grump who ignored the media, and such a poison to the Atlanta Braves’ locker room that when Alex Gonzalez — the player the Braves received in return  — arrived at Turner Field his new teammates greeted him with a standing ovation. Not because he had done anything special, but simply because he wasn’t Escobar.

Of course, he could be the worst teammate since Roger Clemens and it wouldn’t mean he genuinely hates gays. It certainly doesn’t make him Benny Paret, the Cuban boxer beaten to death in the ring by Emile Griffith after relentlessly taunting the effeminate Griffith with the epithet “maricon” in the leadup to their welterweight title fight 50 years ago.

In the half-season I dealt with Escobar on the baseball beat in Toronto I found him friendly and approachable, willing to talk openly about his past, his attitude and his desire to please his new coaches by playing hard. He was quick to flip me his cell phone number and told me to call if I needed anything during the off-season.

But none of that means Escobar isn’t ignorant to North American society’s (rightfully) heightened sensitivity to hateful speech directed at homosexuals, even in pro sports.

I’m guessing Escobar didn’t know that before New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita was caught up in the bounty scandal he was an outspoken advocate of gay rights, or that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo has also spoken out on behalf of homosexuals’ right to marry. And I’d bet he had no clue that less than a month after he joined the Jays, the manager of the minor-league Edmonton Capitals resigned from his job after directing a profane and homophobic rant at a gay umpire.

If he was aware of all that he’d probably also realize “maricon” isn’t a wise word to plaster on your person during a nationally televised event. Still, you’d think somebody involved in Saturday’s game would have recognized the word and, cognizant of the public relations mess it would precipitate, counseled Escobar to remove it.

My mom taught me you can’t save a fool from himself, but you can certainly save yourself from a fool.

Especially if his folly is written all over his face.

Follow Morgan Campbell on Twitter

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Comments
4 Responses to “Yunel Escobar, homophobia and the folly of tolerance”
  1. helen says:

    Clearly your mom (my favourite penpal) did not raise any fools. I think this is a very thoughtful piece…better than what I have seen in any of the papers or on T.V.

    Helen

  2. Heather says:

    Wow. Powerfully written. I had no idea of the homophobic taunting of Griffith by Paret. All I has heard was a lot of talk of the blood thirst of the crowd during that fight, but little discussion of this sad and hateful element. I like how you reveal the responsibility that lies with those who stand by and do nothing until they are forced to by pressure from the public. And, yeah. “Tolerance” is a pathetic approach that continues to encourage division. It would seem that acceptance takes a lot more emotional work – work that some are unwilling to take on. Thanks for the spirited, provocative, and intelligent discussion. As always, impressed…Heather.

  3. Alan says:

    Wow, this was right on point. I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for sharing your insight on this issue.

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