Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lost in Translation

Escobar and the offending stickers
Yunel Escobar, the Cuban-born shortstop of the Toronto Blue Jays, played a Major League game last Saturday with a phrase written under his eyes in Spanish. In case you can't make it out in the picture at right, it says "TU ERE MARICON" which, when literally translated into English, is a slur against gay people -- specifically gay men. Quite predictably -- and somewhat understandably -- this has led to a firestorm of anger on Twitter and other social media outlets over the past couple of days. "Get rid of him!" is a common tweet. "Suspend him for a year!" and "Throw him out of baseball!" also popped up pretty regularly. Because nothing really better illustrates how Twitter operates than a bunch of overreactions from unaffected people.

This afternoon, the Blue Jays held a press conference in New York (where the team is preparing to take on the Yankees) before which they announced that Escobar had been suspended for three games (which I think is about four games too light), with the approval of Major League Baseball. Furthermore, the salary he is forfeiting will be split between the You Can Play Project and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Escobar will also "participate in an outreach program on sexual orientation and a sensitivity training program in accordance with the Toronto Blue Jays and Major League Baseball". Attending the press conference were Escobar, GM Alex Anthopolous, manager John Farrell, coach Luis Rivera (to translate questions to Escobar, who speaks little to no English) and another man who went unidentified, who translated Escobar's words to the rest of us. During this conference, Escobar repeatedly stated that he meant "no offense" by the words and that he has "many gay friends" including, somewhat hilariously, his hairdresser and the "man who decorated my house". The young shortstop tried his best to show that he was embarrassed, but mainly -- to my eyes -- he just looked confused as to why this had caused such a big storm of outrage.

Alomar and the loogie
Well, you know what? Yunel Escobar is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He struts around with an overblown macho presence on the field (and off of it) and he does many things that make you shake your head over the course of a game. But he came to the majors from Cuba where if he received more than a 3rd-grade education, I would be very surprised. It's a lot like the incident with Robbie Alomar all those years ago (for which Alomar was suspended five games, interestingly enough) in that there are things done in the Latin community that we really won't ever understand in Canada. Spitting is one of those things. Calling each other a "maricon" is also one of those things, sadly. Yes, the professional players need to be educated (along with most of the rest of us) and today is a step toward that. But it won't happen overnight and it won't happen at all unless it is directly addressed, like today. I believe Escobar when he says he didn't mean it as a homophobic slur, much like any hockey player that calls another player a "c---sucker" on the ice probably would defend it the same way. But it is a homophobic slur and we need to continually educate people until it's eradicated once and for all. The problem right now is that it's so deeply ingrained into the macho culture that it will take a while to root it out. Escobar was humbled and embarrassed by this incident; I don't see him doing it again, not in public, but he's still just one man, one poorly-educated man from another culture who is playing a male-dominated sport for money. He's a drop in the ocean.

Escobar, different day, different words
My real problem is with everyone else on this bloody team. Farrell told us today (and the picture at right would appear to back up his claim) that Escobar has written things under his eyes many times before and nobody paid any particular attention to it on Saturday. He said that the words were so small that you would have to be standing right next to Escobar and "looking right into his eyes" to have noticed it. Well, that's fine and dandy but I don't buy it. Does Farrell really expect us to believe that nobody on the entire bench ever looked Escobar directly in the eyes for the four hours or more that he had these stickers on his face? I don't care what language the slur was written in: there are a lot of Spanish-speaking players on this team and it's incumbent upon someone to have read this and stopped it. Hell, that's why they pay coaches, to pay attention to the players during the games and, presumably, to look them in the eyes every once in a while. Farrell did speak up in favour of Escobar, defending him as a man whom this was not expected of, and did it quite eloquently; it's too late for me, though. He lost control of his clubhouse to Jose Bautista a long, long time ago and Bautista was, apparently, not in the dugout on Saturday afternoon. Farrell needs to go, for myriad reasons, but that's not news nor is it really germane to this story.

Escobar made a big mistake. He's paying for it and owning up to it. I think it won't happen again. But he shouldn't be taking this blame alone - and, if you listen to the presser, he isn't. Farrell is answering the bell here, too. And that's how it should be, so I'll give him credit for that. And I'll go one step further: it is going to be years before this sort of offhanded remark is eliminated from dressing rooms, if it ever happens at all. Escobar wearing this phrase onto a ball field is actually a Godsend to the advancement of ideals like You Can Play, in my opinion.

Also, today Escobar spoke of all of his friends and people he knows who are gay. But he called them "gay". In Spanish. Which indicates to me he may have meant the word as "sissy", which is what I have read he could have meant. I am not letting him off the hook, but let's deal with this incident, educate, and move on. Escobar should not be sitting here explaining the entire Latin baseball culture all by himself.

And shame on all of the people who spent today "piling on" this man on Twitter and elsewhere. Escobar made a mistake, exacerbated by a lack of education and cultural awareness of the society in which he makes his living. And let's be fair: the cultural awareness of which I speak is not exactly old hat in North America, either. We're setting the bar higher now -- finally -- but we can't expect everyone to automatically catch up. That's where the education comes in. But the mistake didn't cost anyone their life; it was, in fact, what Patrick Burke elegantly refers to as "casual homophobia", meaning that these sort of words are uttered out of ignorance rather than maliciousness.
"We have a disconnect right now between players' feelings towards [the] LGBT community and players' language. Lots of work to be done to rectify it. Same as when we explain to kids why you shouldn't say 'That's so gay.' They see it as just a word, and need the bigger meaning explained."
Does this language need to go? Yes, of course it does. Does it translate perfectly from one global language to another? Ah, there is the big problem in an incident such as this.

Please don't get the impression that I am defending what Escobar did. Far from it. And you can probably tell from previous posts that I am an avid supporter of Gay Rights; hell, I am an avid supporter of Human Rights in general. I simply think that everyone deserves a chance to learn from their mistakes and Yunel Escobar is no different in that regard. I also think that he should not be bearing the full weight of this error in judgment alone. He wore those words on his face for four hours and not one person who saw him thought it might be a good idea to suggest he remove them. Not one. And today, when Escobar faced the music, he was left to dangle for much of the press conference, attempting to answer the same few questions over and over again. Nobody stepped in to help him; in fact, Anthopolous (for whom I have a great deal of respect) and Farrell (for whom I do not) did not ever speak unless directly addressed by a reporter. I found that absolutely shameful, to be blunt.

I will leave the last word on this subject to the aforementioned Patrick Burke of the You Can Play Project:

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I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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