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MLB's New Anti-Hazing Rules Splits Players

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Sean Doolittle understands the concern.

The veteran Oakland Athletics reliever, asked about the new, collectively bargained Major League Baseball rule that prohibits the long-standing tradition of forcing rookies to dress as women for a late-season road trip, stressed that he does not think ballplayers ever meant to marginalize any fans in the practice. But, Doolittle said, if the increased social media attention around the annual rite of passage alienated fans, there's no good reason to keep it going.

"It has always been one of those sacred clubhouse rituals," Doolittle said. "With the nature of media now and the transparency that comes with social media, that stuff gets a lot more publicity. And while it's meant in good fun, we also have to be aware of what it looks like to other people.

"And if other people say they're offended by it, who are we to say what you're allowed to be offended by or what you're not allowed to be offended by?"

To hear it from players, forcing rookies to dress as women was never meant to humiliate them, only to humble them. Many maintain fond memories of the experience: Wearing, say, a cheerleader costume on the team flight helped them feel like they were paying their dues and part of the team. Seniority carries a lot of weight in a big-league clubhouse, and for some, dress-up day marked an obvious and important step toward veteran status.

"I didn't think it was a bad thing," said Mike Trout, who dressed as Lady Gaga for a road trip in 2011. "I really looked forward to it, to doing stuff like that. Coming up, we all did it. It was good for the guys just to feel that, if we're messing around with them, you know, it just makes them feel like part of the group. Obviously the dresses and stuff makes people uncomfortable, but we were trying to accept guys into the group. It's gone now."

"I think in this world we live in, we've gotten way too damn sensitive about some things," veteran major league slugger Aubrey Huff said. "I had to dress up twice: once as a Hooters girl, once as a fairy. I had no problem with it. It was a form of acceptance, you know? It was a fun thing to do, and we all felt like, 'Hey man, we're in the big leagues. This is awesome!'"

The new rule, part of an anti-hazing and anti-bullying supplement to the league's workplace code of conduct, does not prevent teams from putting young players in costumes for travel. But while men dressed as women, for better or worse, has been culturally coded as funny for centuries -- from Shakespeare to Kids in the Hall and beyond -- dressing a rookie as a woman to demonstrate his lesser status in the clubhouse can be read to imply that people who wear dresses are lesser.

Former major league outfielder Billy Bean, the sport's ambassador for inclusion since 2014, explained the reasons for the new policy. It's not about protecting rookie players as much as it is about ensuring an inclusive culture for fans and preventing parroted traditions in younger and more impressionable groups.

"There was never a moment when we were going to try to eliminate it," Bean said. "I understand that it's part of the process in your journey as a big-league player, but the point of what we wanted to introduce during the CBA was making sure that the players understand that when kids that do look up to them, they see a hazing tradition as part of the process, so those examples are then relayed down to environments -- high school sports, college sports -- where they are unsupervised.

"We didn't want to eliminate it, but if you're making images that are disparaging to women, to the LGBT community, to people of different religious faiths, that gets translated and altered in other environments and sends a message that baseball does not want to send anymore. We have a high responsibility, being the sport of Jackie Robinson, and, for us, it was just about building a greater awareness, a better understanding and a challenge to each club to be as respectful of those parameters as they can."

Not every player welcomed the perceived obligation. Huff remembered a teammate outright refusing to wear the costume left in his locker after a game and the repercussions of that refusal.

"He threw a temper tantrum," Huff said of the teammate, whose name he did not share. "One of the veteran guys came up to him, tried to calm him down, got in his face, and it actually became a big altercation. The guy threw a trash can across the locker room, and at that point it was, 'OK, he doesn't have to wear it.' But from that point on, he lost all credibility in the locker room. Nobody spoke with him. It's a bonding experience, and if you're not going to bond with your teammates, as silly as it may be, you just weren't accepted."

"I don't dress up as a woman regularly, so it's not something I enjoyed," said Oakland Athletics outfielder Rajai Davis, who endured the ritual twice. "But it's something that, you had no choice, so you just do what you have got to do.

"It is necessary? I think maybe it got a little out of hand. But as far as keeping guys hungry, sometimes you don't want guys to feel entitled, and that's kind of a humbling experience. For some guys, they just can't take that. It's definitely a humbling thing: 'OK, you made it to the big leagues, now humble yourself.' But I suppose there's a thin line between what's necessary and what's a little overboard, a little over the top."

While many players were unclear on the particulars of the rule -- which, again, does not prevent teams from dressing rookies in costume, only from dressing rookies in certain costumes -- those familiar did not seem terribly concerned.

Bean cited the example of the 2016 New York Yankees, who dressed the group of young players nicknamed "the Baby Bombers" as actual babies, as an example of the tradition reimagined in a less controversial way.

"That's how you bring the attention in a positive light, as opposed to guys being shamed into wearing something that is obviously denigrating towards women or to people of other faiths or different cultures," Bean said. "It's making us a little more accountable."

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March 27, 2017
 
 
 

 

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