Last night, the Toronto Blue Jays played the Atlanta Braves in an incredibly tense match up. Benches cleared as tempers flared not once, but twice—a great deal of drama from both clubs. But it was the moment when Kevin Pillar was struck out by Braves pitcher Jason Motte where things turned toxic. In the heated exchange, Pillar, the Jays’ star centre fielder, shouted a homophobic slur at Motte.
You may have been watching the game with your kids at this moment, like I often am. My daughter is a huge baseball fan, and she loves going to and watching games together. She idolizes the players on the field, as many children do. And when those men demonstrate harmful behaviour—whether it’s off-field violence against women, or using a homophobic slur in play—it doesn’t exist as an individual incident. Whether they like it or not, their actions are reflective of a larger culture, and they reverberate there too.
Players like Kevin Pillar are role models for kids; they try to emulate their moves and aspire to their greatness. Their actions—and their words—matter. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. In 2012, the Jays suspended then-shortstop Yunel Escobar for writing a Spanish homophobic slur in his eye black, and required him to attend sensitivity training. They also donated part of his salary during suspension to You Can Play, an organization that works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation in sports.
At the time, Escobar seemed shocked by the outcry, dismissing is as a mere joke among the players. But homophobia is no joke; there are gay players in locker rooms who are afraid to come out. There are gay children watching at home who internalize these hateful messages. And there are real life implications: According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, rates of bullying of LGBTQ students are three times higher than heterosexual youth. Not only that, but LGBTQ youth are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Keeping your kid in sports starts with the car ride home
Considering the MLB’s addition of an Ambassador For Inclusion in 2014, I was hopeful that there would be action taken, and there was. The Jays organization announced it has suspended Pillar for two games. Though it’s worth noting that with a manager who used the analogy of “playing in dresses” to denote weakness last season, it’s clearly an issue of clubhouse culture that needs to be addressed, not just in Toronto, but across the league (and, who are we kidding, in other sports leagues too).
For his part, Pillar apologized to Motte after the game, saying Motte “did nothing wrong.” He also indicated that his words were “stupid, immature, and uncalled for,” and they were “in the heat of the moment.” Anger and frustration are no excuse. This word was more than that—it was an act of homophobic violence and naming it for what it was is important. This afternoon, Pillar issued a more complete statement that takes real accountability, and apologized to the LGBTQ community, who were the real victims of his words.
The only upside to all of this is the opportunity it presents for parents: To have conversations with our kids about acceptable and violent language, about the fact that heroes are real, fallible people who make mistakes—and that how they handle their mistakes matters. We can hold Pillar’s apology up as an example of how to respond when we mess up, how to name what we did wrong and promise to do better going forward. We can talk about the ways in which the apology was not good enough and what he can do to be better and make amends. When our fandom of a game intersects with real life oppression, it’s time to talk.
Sports are inherently political, and enjoying them with our children means we can—and should—have larger conversations about culture. We can teach them what to do if they hear someone use a slur, we can teach them why those words are harmful, and we can hopefully help them learn to be better members of society as a result. It may be up to the league to deal with the incident on a systemic level, but it’s on us to handle it in our homes.