Last Wednesday, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price said in an interview with FoxSports.com’s Jon Morosi that he “wouldn’t sign a long-term deal” with the New York Yankees because of their rule that bans facial hair.
The next day, however, he said that he “can’t rule anybody out,” and the baseball world knows that when Price becomes a free agent, the Yankees will be in on the bidding.
This, in and of itself, is a relatively inane story. Players make bold declarations and recant them with relative frequency (championship guarantees, loyalty, etc.), so seeing Price make such a statement isn’t that big a deal.
The topic, however, is.
We’ve seen big-name stars go to the Yankees and cut their hair or shave—Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Nick Swisher—but the policy seems outdated. It creates a discriminatory culture in which certain obvious forms of expression are allowed (i.e. music, clothing choices) but not others (hair styles).
More significantly, it creates a one-size-fits-all policy in which the Yankees have deemed a certain type of person a more desirable face of their franchise. But they don’t make those choices based on any intangibles or morality; instead, they mandate a close shave.
It is this cookie-cutter approach to athletes that raises concerns. We expect our sports stars to fit a certain image and do not allow for the levels of variance that the rest of society contains.
One of those varying factors is sexual orientation. As the country has become more accepting of homosexuality (nine American states currently allow same-sex marriage), professional sports lag behind. Just this offseason, new Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said that it would be “difficult and uncomfortable” to have a gay teammate.
The Yankees’ policy is not specifically homophobic. But it is discriminatory, as Jason Wojciechowski said on Episode 20 of the Back of the Bullpen podcast, against Orthodox Jews or Sikhs for whom shaving is simply not allowed.
It is also a remnant of the 1970s, when George Steinbrenner decided that he wanted his players to have a clean-shaven, close-cut look.
But in a world that is modernizing, it seems more and more out of place. It establishes as the ideal—because the Yankees remain baseball’s model franchise, as Price himself says—a locker room where a backward-looking, oppressive overseer dictates how players conduct themselves on issues that have nothing to do with baseball.
It seems unlikely that a homosexual professional baseball player would feel comfortable coming out publicly in a work environment where the model is oppression. But that is exactly what the current climate in professional sports is.
Former US soccer player Robbie Rogers recently came out, but he retired so that he could “discover [himself] away from football.” There are currently no openly gay athletes in any of North America’s four major sports leagues.
Why is that?
With an estimated 3.5 percent of America identifying as either gay or bisexual, the odds that not one is a high-level athlete are extremely small. Indeed, players have come out after retirement. But today’s sporting culture is not favorable to a gay man in a professional locker room.
It’s worth noting again that no one is accusing the Yankees of being homophobic. Their stance on facial hair is a professionalism issue. But their refusal to modernize is not and is symbolic of larger issues in sports.
Acceptance of homophobia in sports will be a long journey. But nothing can get done until organizations develop an attitude that personality and individualism are acceptable characteristics in athletes.