The Teachable Moment

During the 7th inning of Wednesday night’s baseball game between Atlanta and Toronto, Jays centerfielder Kevin Pillar, upset by a minor breach of baseball decorum from Atlanta pitcher Jason Motte, responded by angrily calling Motte a faggot. Benches cleared and tempers flared before the game resumed.

After the game, Pillar alluded to his use of a homophobic slur and that he, and not Motte, was responsible for the situation. However, his words fell short for many and focused more on preserving his reputation and less on the queer community harmed by his words. Yesterday, Pillar issued a second, clearer apology in which he took greater ownership of his use of a homophobic slur and apologized directly to the LGBTQ2IA community. The Jays issued a similar statement and also announced Pillar would be suspended for two games for his misconduct.

Both Pillar’s and the team’s apology pitched the idea that using a slur on such a prominent stage provides a learning opportunity for the player, and consequently a teachable moment for all watching. It’s very tempting to view Pillar’s use of a slur and his subsequent apology as an opportunity for individuals and the game itself to grow. It’s tempting to find that positive silver lining.

The problem is, that’s crap. There’s no silver lining here. Pillar is of course, not the first prominent athlete caught using a homophobic slur during a game; the NHL’s Andrew Shaw faced similar scrutiny last spring for uttering the same word. There have been others who have been caught, and still more who escaped consequence. Surely those were teachable moments too? Surely we should have learned those lessons?

What’s more, when our teachable moments come at the expense of marginalized communities, our learning comes at a great cost, our knowledge built on someone else’s pain. It wouldn’t be hard to ignore that painful truth in this latest incident. Motte didn’t seemed particularly perturbed by Pillar’s remarks postgame and it would be easy to conclude this was a victimless crime. Some fans, by vigorously defending Pillar and his apology, seem to be suggesting that Pillar himself, because of the increased scrutiny and condemnation he has received, is the victim. TSN wondered if this would cost the player potential sponsorship dollars. This is in part because Pillar’s feelings and reputation have been centred in the aftermath. Pillar’s initial post game reaction and his follow up apology on Thursday centre Pillar, not the LGBTQ community. On Wednesday night Pillar reminded baseball fans that he’s “a competitive guy” who said something “immature” while worrying about the impact of his remarks on his reputation: “Obviously something to learn from, something to move on from. Don’t let it define me but really I think it was just frustration”. Thursday’s statement was better in that it featured a direct apology to queer folks and acknowledged the impact of his words on the LGBTQ2IA community was the primary concern, but it still centered his feelings. Pillar is “completely and utterly embarrassed” and feels “horrible”. Most importantly, he made it clear that “This is not who I am”.

In reality, Pillar is someone who used a discriminatory slur. Pillar is not the victim despite the fact that he now has to face the consequences of his actions. This is not to pile on the player but to highlight that we as baseball fans and media compound the problem if we refuse to acknowledge that actual people are hurt when slurs are used. For many queer people, the ballpark isn’t a welcoming place. What minimal efforts teams and the league undertake to make the bleachers welcoming to LGBTQ folks, like Pride Nights, are undone when players, coaches, and managers use any sort of discriminatory slurs.

Many have correctly pointed out that we don’t just gravitate to slurs when we’re emotional if we are not already accustomed to using them or comfortable in social groups that let such offensive language slide. And they’re right. But homophobia is not only prevalent in the clubhouses of the Majors, but the stands too. I’ve been to Rogers Centre hundreds of times and I’ve heard queer slurs over and over and over again. Often, these slurs were used among fans the way Pillar used faggot Tuesday night, to insult and belittle others and to project a suitably tough and violent masculinity. Sometimes they were directed at me personally. But in both situations I didn’t feel safe. As a queer person, when slurs are the background noise of a sporting event I know it’s only a matter of a spilled beverage, a bad call, a lopsided scoreboard, or a few too many drinks before words like faggot are followed by specific threats and physical violence. Sometimes no extra incentive is needed.

Slurs like faggot are a form of violence. That’s why we use them. We know what they mean and we intend for them to insult and harm. However, slurs are also connected to physical violence. I have written before, after another such “athlete regrets using homophobic slurs” incident about the fact that when I’m called a faggot or something similar, I know, as a queer trans dude, to be on guard. I know that such words often signal violent intention, I know that such words are sometimes followed by actual physical violence.

Pillar made the connection between slurs and physical violence clear too. He didn’t just yell at Motte, but threw away his bat, his helmet, and other equipment while the benches cleared and tempers escalated. The umpiring crew restored order before punches were thrown, it’s not hard to imagine it ending in a brawl. The scene highlighted the quick escalation from words to physical action with which many queer fans are all too familiar.

For non-queers to treat this as a teachable moment ignores all the opportunities we’ve had to make the game more inclusive and welcoming in the past. To treat this as a teachable moment does a disservice to all those harmed by previous incidents like this, when their pain and injury were ignored in favour of publicly defending a pro athlete or using their harm to teach other fans a lesson. To treat this as a teachable moment ignores that in this moment, we know slurs aren’t acceptable, we know they harm. We don’t need more examples and we don’t need more athletes realizing the errors of their ways.

What these moments reveal again and again is the culture of men’s sports has violent repercussions, on the field of play and in the stands. Baseball has behavioural codes and they enforce a limited range of masculine expression; this expression is both toxic as it devalues women and any form of expression coded feminine and racist as it projects whiteness as normative and superior. These codes came into play Wednesday night when Pillar felt aggrieved by Motte’s quick pitch. Pillar responded aggressively and attempted to undermine the masculinity of his opponent. Jose Bautista’s bat flip was a similar transgression; ball players must project a specific masculinity always, and that masculinity has no room for the emotion Bautista expressed. Wednesday night there were bench clearings and Thursday afternoon fans wondered if the Jays would face violent repercussions from an Atlanta team who many believe were justifiably aggrieved. All of this is part of the game, just as homophobia is part of the game and Pillar’s whiteness will shield him from the harshest criticism.

We know this. We know men’s sports are like this. We know men’s sports condition fans to accept violence and toxic masculinity. How will consuming more queer pain make a difference this time? Pillar might learn from this, he might grow as an individual and make substantive changes and become a true ally of the LGBTQ community broadly, and the Toronto queer community specifically. Or his words might just be empty platitudes, a media friendly script that will help him earn ally points in some queer circles. Today it’s Pillar in the spotlight but tomorrow it will be another player. Nothing has changed with Pillar’s apology or the team’s suspension. For non-queer fans this is a teachable moment, but for me, and many other queer fans, teachable moments are repetitive and tiring.

I am so tired of writing about this. I’m so tired of queer pain being exploited by players I want to root for and teams I love. I am so tired of consciously deciding to share my personal experiences in hopes of creating those teachable moments non-queers seem to crave only to be ignored. I am so tired of seeing issues of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in sports covered through a non-queer lens for cishet consumption. I am so tired of “allies” only highlighting queer voices when a player calls someone a faggot on the field or mocks trans women with their Halloween costume. I’m tired.

More than one baseball writer pointed out the irony of Pillar using a homophobic slur on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. We live in an age of irony and an era of ever-increasingly anti-queer sentiment and rising anti-queer violence. Sincerity is necessary to counter our current ironic sensibility; sincerity in the face of an anti-queer sporting landscape and world. But we cannot require more sincerity from queer sports fans. Sincerity must be an act of queer allyship and queer baseball fans need it now.