Nearly a year after Pillar’s slur, sports media continues to fail LGBTQ2IA communities
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece wondering how Kevin Pillar and the Toronto Blue Jays honoured a pledge to “be better” after Pillar’s use of a homophobic slur during a game in Atlanta last May. Today, The Athletic published an interview between Pillar and Ken Rosenthal addressing that issue (paywall). The piece details how the incident affected Pillar and what actions he has taken to “be better”.
It is clear from the introduction that Ken Rosenthal does not have the expertise to adequately address queerphobia in baseball. Rosenthal writes
“The script for athletes who commit such indiscretions is almost always the same — apologize, resume playing, move on. Pillar, the Blue Jays’ center fielder, partly followed that script. But he also promised a better version of himself, and quietly made it happen.”
He’s right to point out the dubious nature of most athlete apologies but his statement “and quietly made it happen” is an opinion stated as fact, and presents a conclusion to readers that the content of the rest of the piece doesn’t support.
I don’t know how Rosenthal ended up writing this piece. It’s possible someone with his stature in the baseball world pitched the piece but it’s also possible he was given this job because this was a big story last year, and Rosenthal has the name recognition to suit a piece likely to garner widespread attention.
The problem is that Rosenthal doesn’t push back against any of Pillar’s statements or interrogate whether the actions he’s taken constitute concrete change. In fact, Rosenthal centres Pillar, his experience, his pain, and his struggles (both on and off the field) since the game against Atlanta on May 17. In Rosenthal’s accounting, Pillar calling Jason Motte a faggot was largely something that happened to Pillar, and Pillar only. It might not have been his intention to portray Pillar as the victim but that is, unfortunately, the result of centring Pillar and giving him emotional agency while reducing the diversity of LGBTQ2IA communities to a queer monolith. It’s hard for the reader not to empathize with Pillar, who makes his remorse clear repeatedly, and that’s a problem. Whether the reader accepts Pillar’s apology and remorse isn’t especially relevant. What should be emphasized is the needs of LGBTQ2IA baseball fans and that’s missing from this piece.
The only LGBT person interviewed in the piece is Billy Bean, MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion. Bean, a former player who came out four years after his playing career finished in 1999, has consistently been the only queer voice in pieces about Pillar’s use of a homophobic slur. It makes sense to include Bean, as both a league executive, an inclusion ambassador, and as a publicly out MLB representative. However, his privileged experience as a league executive is clearly not the experience most queer people have with the game of baseball. In Rosenthal’s piece, and in pieces written in the immediate aftermath of the game last May, Bean’s belief that Pillar didn’t “mean” to use a homophobic slur is used to provide absolution not just from Bean, but from Rosenthal’s presentation of a monolithic queer community as well.
In today’s piece, Bean states “that this could have happened to 749 other players…. I told him I could see it was not pre-meditated. It’s not like he walked out and wrote on his eye black or posted something”. Bean is right that Pillar’s actions lacked the deliberateness of Yuniel Escobar’s eye black slur in 2012 but they were pre-meditated in the sense that he was conscious of the term and its impact in all-male sporting environments. There is a reason, after all, that Pillar gravitated to “faggot” in a heated moment, when emotions were high: because he knew, just like the rest of the Major League Baseball’s 749 other players know, that cis, straight male athletes are insulted by homophobic terms, their masculinity undermined by being associated with queerness. To use a term without thinking requires that term to be commonly used when deliberately thinking. It was a mistake preceded by deliberateness.
That Bean’s personal support of Pillar is used as a kind of Gay Balm for the sport’s persistent homophobia illustrates why Rosenthal wasn’t an appropriate choice for this piece. But it also shows that The Athletic continues to have issues with the homogeneity of their writing and editing talent. An editor who was part of queer communities would have flagged issues with this piece. A writer who was part of LGBTQ2IA communities would likely have written a different piece. Pillar, who was hesitant to do the interview at all, probably wouldn’t have agree to talk on the record with a queer writer because personal experience with the type of bigotry he expressed changes how you view his actions. It still would have been worth writing about even if he declined.
There will always be queer folks ready to believe non-queer folks meant no harm, are sincere in their apologies, and who are willing to speak on the aggressor’s behalf. Rosenthal found one in Bean. But had The Athletic made an actual effort to be queer-inclusive with this piece and with its hiring, the writer might have pushed Bean and Pillar on their weak answers. The writer might have talked to some of the LGBTQ2IA young adults who educated Pillar last season as part of a group discussion before attending a Jays game. The post might have had an editor who pushed back on a piece that erases queer pain and minimizes violence against queer communities in favour of participating in a redemption narrative designed to benefit Pillar’s reputation.
Might, might, might. This is not the first time, and sadly will not be the last, The Athletic has published a piece that reveals the organization does not give serious consideration to diversity in its hiring or content. The product such an environment produces harms groups, in this case queer communities, that The Athletic seems to serve with pieces such as Rosenthal’s piece on Pillar. Simply covering LGBTQ issues doesn’t make your publication queer-inclusive.
By emphasizing how calling someone a faggot changed Pillar, Rosenthal and The Athletic aid his redemption without adequately addressing the impact on the communities he harmed. The evidence Rosenthal presents that Pillar has indeed changed, becoming a better role model as he promised, is a July 24, 2017 meeting between Pillar and approximately 20 young adults from Toronto’s LGBT community. However, the description of the gathering leaves much to be desired and homogenizes the queer youth involved.
The meeting between Pillar and LGBT youths revolves around Pillar’s on-field preparation and performance. Rosenthal writes, “Bean, as a former major leaguer, made sure not to interfere with Pillar’s pre-game preparation — he scheduled the meeting for early in the day.” Bean added “I stayed away from the players. I really tried to not be a regular-season distraction in that regard.” What is stressed is the player, not the queer communities harmed by homophobia. Inclusion and acceptance are distractions, less important than on-field success. This reflects the tone of the piece, in which Pillar’s 2017 performance before and after the May 17 game is emphasized. The reader knows Pillar’s splits because Rosenthal states them plainly:
“He batted .305 with an .854 OPS in the 41 games before his incident with Motte, and had two hits in his first game back from suspension. But then, suddenly, he began to slump. Pillar batted .148 with his .457 OPS in his next 26 games before recovering to bat .264 with a .708 OPS in his final 86.”
The “incident with Motte” is not given as much attention or clarity as his stats; the reader must check other sources to learn that Pillar called Motte a faggot.
In the piece, Pillar acknowledges that using a homophobic slur had consequences for him personally: “It definitely weighed on me and my family, and anyone who was associated with me — relatives, friends back home, teammates, my organization, the city of Toronto. But it really impacted me. It took me a while to get over it.” The emphasis remains on Pillar. Pillar acknowledges his actions harmed others, yet prioritizes his feelings: “But it really impacted me. It took me a while to get over it”. Those aren’t the words of an ally.
His approach to the group discussion with LGBT youths is remembered in a similar vein. He acknowledges he benefits from the group members sharing their lived experience and expertise with him and seems to believe this provides him with absolution. Pillar states,
“It was honest, and it was real and I felt like I was able to be human. I felt like I was in a safe place. I wasn’t being judged by these young adults and their parents. But I was getting a better understanding of what they go through a daily basis.
It’s a sad reality — it’s still a difficult journey ahead of them, what they have to go through. They just want to be as normal as possible and live their life. When a high-profile person, an athlete like myself, comes out and makes a mistake like that, it affects a lot of people. I was able to make peace with it. That was a big part of my recovery. I think the crash-course education I got from sitting down with Billy Bean, listening to his story, and listening to these young adults talk, it has made me a better person.”
Pillar’s choice of words here is important, especially as someone who later in the piece claims to now understand “how much this language can affect people”. “I was in a safe place,” “I wasn’t being judged,” and “I was getting a better understanding” are ways in which Pillar centred himself during his reflections on the discussion. These comments reveal that Pillar still believes he was the primary victim when he called Jason Motte a faggot almost a year ago. He sees his choice to use homophobic slurs as something from which he must “recover,” not as something that requires him to make amends and concrete changes. His “recovery” doesn’t refer to a greater understanding of queer discrimination, but an improvement in his numbers. The point of the group discussion shouldn’t have been about Pillar making “peace with it” so that he could bat .264 in his final 86 games of the 2017 season, but that’s what was emphasized.
Pillar and the Blue Jays pledged to be better, that’s why his homophobia is being re-visited. The Rosenthal piece doesn’t shed any light on whether Pillar has taken the lessons learned from members of queer communities and applied them to his work environment. The Athletic piece illustrates that Pillar has taken from LGBTQ2IA individuals, their experience and expertise, but failed to show in what ways, if any, he has challenged the homophobic sporting culture in which he participates. Pillar still maintains he wants to use his homophobic outburst for “the greater good” and as a teaching moment. But there was a litany of athletes who said similar things before Pillar and none of those experiences taught Pillar not to call an opponent a faggot. From his reflections with Ken Rosenthal, it doesn’t seem like he’s taught anyone else to respect the humanity of queer folks either.
But his average is above .300 again, his OPS is .796 in 2018, and it’s a little easier to see why we forgive some athletes and not others thanks to Rosenthal and The Athletic.