MLB should start this conversation

In a recent Los Angeles Times story, Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter was quoted as saying his Christian beliefs would make it “difficult and uncomfortable” for him to accept an openly gay teammate.

Chris Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings punter who has publicly advocated for same-sex marriage, criticized Hunter’s comment as “bigotry.” Others used social media to support Hunter, saying he was entitled to free speech.

Me? I believe Hunter’s statement could prove constructive — but not because I agree with him. In fact, I don’t. Rather, Hunter has inadvertently provided baseball with the impetus to begin serious preparations for the sport’s next great social responsibility. One day, perhaps not long from now, baseball will have an openly gay player. And the only way for the sport to live up to its transformative legacy is to encourage a candid, informed discussion on the subject until that moment arrives.

Hunter, a four-time All-Star with nearly 14 years of big-league experience, is one of the game’s most respected players. Because of his standing within the sport, and the frankness with which he expressed his viewpoint, his perspective needs to be handled differently than the juvenile incidents the sport witnessed during the past two years.

Before a 2011 game in San Francisco, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell asked a group of fans if they were a “homo couple” and made sexual pantomimes with his hips and a bat. Last year, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar wore eye black bearing a homophobic slur. Each was rightly suspended for his actions.

Hunter’s case is different. He didn’t make lewd gestures. He didn’t use pejorative terms. He said this: “For me, as a Christian … I will be uncomfortable because in all my teachings and all my learning, biblically, it’s not right. It will be difficult and uncomfortable.”

Hunter later said on Twitter that his statements were “misrepresented,” although he never denied the substance of the quotes. And if Hunter has been consistent in his application of moral guidelines to the lives of his teammates, he must be similarly “uncomfortable” with those who violated the Christian prohibition on any sex outside of marriage.

But if we set aside the theological qualifier, we’re left with a 37-year-old professional athlete saying he’s “uncomfortable” with the idea of playing alongside a gay teammate. That’s not the worst starting point for this discussion. Those trying to end homophobia in sports specialize in that evolution from “uncomfortable” to “well, maybe” to “OK” to “comfortable.”

“I don’t think what he said is an uncommon feeling,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of the You Can Play Project, a leading group in the advocacy of rights for gay athletes. “That’s something a lot of athletes feel — just a little uncomfortable. They don’t know what it means. They don’t know the ramifications. They don’t know how to react when they find out the teammate sitting across from them in the locker room is gay.

“In every league, the next step has to be the education of players. You have to talk athletes through it. The problem I always have is when athletes are asked about this, the question is, ‘Would you support a gay teammate?’ That’s the wrong question. The right question is to point to a guy in the room, who’s put up numbers for the past five years and contributed to a winning team. Well, he’s gay. Now are you still uncomfortable? The answer is no.”

There has yet to be an openly gay player in the four major North American pro sports leagues, but the NHL has moved the furthest toward a culture of acceptance — due in part to the numerous all-star hockey players who have appeared in the You Can Play Project’s public service announcements.

Hockey was a natural place for the outreach to begin. Burke works as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. His father, Brian, is general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Patrick’s late brother, Brendan, was the inspiration for the You Can Play organization itself; Brendan, who was openly gay, worked as a student assistant for the Miami University hockey program and became a forceful advocate against homophobia in sports before dying in a 2010 auto accident.

Now baseball must nurture its own leaders on the issue, so our national pastime can properly support an out player. You Can Play is described as a collaboration of gay athletes and straight allies. In this instance, those allies need to be established, influential major leaguers. Candidates for that role may exist already. Greg Bouris, communications director for the MLB players’ union, said the association is exploring potential diversity training programs.

“A lot of individual players are very passionate about this issue,” Bouris said in an email to “We look forward to working with the players in the coming months to further develop these ideas.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig frequently invokes the sport’s standing as a “social institution with important social responsibilities.” The game’s greatest triumph came in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and helped to change the racial attitudes of a nation. Baseball has a similar obligation to protect the professional rights of openly gay players, particularly when considering the current collective bargaining agreement expressly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The CBA language works as a leaguewide guideline, but this issue demands a leaguewide audience. Burke has met with MLB officials to discuss educational initiatives and the possibility of producing PSAs featuring major leaguers, but nothing has been finalized. “The ball is in their court at this point,” he said. Burke would love to speak with all 30 teams; so far, he has tentative plans to meet with only one this spring — the Blue Jays, as a follow-up to the sensitivity training that went along with Escobar’s suspension last September.

One active major leaguer told me this week that he believes some teams — but not all of them — would be receptive to You Can Play seminars this spring. “I would do the minor leagues more aggressively than the bigs,” he added. “They’re the next generation.” That’s a logical view, in light of polling data that suggests younger age groups are the most receptive toward gay marriage rights — and may have similarly tolerant attitudes about welcoming gay teammates.

Yes, religion is an important consideration in this discussion. Many big leaguers are Christian, and the importance of faith to their lives is evident in the large number of them who attend Baseball Chapel services before Sunday games in every ballpark across the majors. But Christians aren’t monolithic in their attitudes toward homosexuality. One reason for that: Jesus actually says nothing about homosexuality or gay sex in the New Testament, according to Dr. Ellen Armour, professor of theology at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School and director of the school’s Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.

Varied interpretations of other Biblical passages concerning homosexuality (mostly in the Old Testament, Armour said) have given rise to differing conceptions of the doctrine across Christian denominations. Thus, no one knows how many big leaguers would agree with Hunter’s statement that homosexuality is “not right.” It’s also unclear how Baseball Chapel leaders would react to an openly gay player.

“We would be thrilled to work with Baseball Chapel on a way to tailor our message to make sure it’s something Christian leaders in the baseball community are comfortable with, but that also gets the message across that we need to change the homophobic culture, eliminate slurs and treat gay baseball players with respect,” Burke said. “I think that’s completely in agreement with what Baseball Chapel is preaching and Christianity as a whole is preaching.”

Asked how she would counsel a player struggling to square his Christian faith with the acceptance of a gay teammate, Armour said she would begin by talking about the specific Bible passages that concerned him before going into a broader discussion of the Christian message. “When Jesus was asked about the essence of faith, he said to love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” she said. “We have to ask, ‘What did Jesus exhibit? What did Jesus do in his own ministry?’ It seems pretty clear that Jesus’ ministry was anything but exclusionary.”

For athletes unconvinced by the Christian argument, Burke raises the predominant concern in sports: winning. He believes gay players perform better after coming out, because they no longer need to devote energy toward, as he calls it, “creating a false life.” A Palm Center study on the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy confirmed as much, saying the change had “no overall negative impact” on readiness or cohesion, adding, “Greater openness and honesty … seem to have promoted increased understanding, respect and acceptance.”

In other words: The military’s locker room improved.

“We all get into sports because we want to win,” Burke said. “I want to win a Stanley Cup. Whoever can get me there, I want them on my team. If a player came out on the Flyers tomorrow, and we had to cut him or trade him to get better, he’s gone without hesitation. I’d drive him to the airport if he’s not the best guy for the job. But if I can win the Cup with 22 gay guys, I’ll have the gayest hockey team in the history of the world.

“We’ve got a thousand stats — OBP, WAR, WHIP, all that (stuff) — to measure what a player brings to the team. Why are we using sexual orientation? Why would anyone care if he’s gay or straight? If a hitter gets on base at a .400 clip, or if a pitcher gets guys out, I mean, what else matters?”