Towards the end of every regular season, the rookies of Major League Baseball are subjected to the long-standing tradition of dressing up – very often as women – prior to departing for the team’s final road trip. Every year, photos of each team’s freshman class are posted on Twitter for all to laugh at before the team heads to the airport. At first glance, the practice appears rather innocuous; baseball players posing for the camera, many with smiles on their faces, in what has long been considered a rite of passage for having made it to The Show.
Underneath the surface, however, the subtext of such practice has increasingly been the subject of scrutiny. Many observers have come to question why a practice so clearly based on the idea that a man portraying himself as something less than the traditional notion of masculinity is somehow both hilarious and humiliating.
That concern must have reached the upper echelons of Major League Baseball, because on Monday it was announced via the Associated Press that MLB had henceforth banned the practice of “offensive” hazing involving rookies dressing up as women or as female characters.
The policy, which is a part of the new collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players’ union, prohibits “requiring, coercing or encouraging” players from “dressing up as women or wearing costumes that may be offensive to individuals based on their race, sex, nationality, age, sexual orientation, gender identify or other characteristic.”
Let’s be clear about something. MLB’s new hazing policy does not ban the practice of rookie hazing outright; rather, it simply eliminates the potentially demeaning practice of forcing rookies to dress up as women.
The announcement has prompted several former baseball players to ridicule the new rule. One very vocal ex-major leaguer is Vernon Wells, who through numerous tweets has expressed his opinion that dressing up as a female is an important part of the bonding experience amongst major league players.
I have no doubt that Mr. Wells enjoyed his experience of parading around dressed as a Hooters girl, as his unabashed candor on this matter has made it clear that, for him, the experience was positive. The same appears to be true of other former players who have been outspoken on this matter, including Aubrey Huff and LaTroy Hawkins. All three – and others – have suggested that rookies wearing women’s clothing in public is all in good fun and is in no way intended to demean either the rookies themselves or women in general.
Angels’ pitcher Huston Street wrote, “I believe in the rite of passage, I believe it’s team building and I believe that it can be done in a way that is sensitive but allows that team building process to unfold.” I happen to agree with him – Rookie Dress-Up Day, as Street states, is a healthy ritual when “done appropriately”. What I fail to understand, however, is why they (and others) insist that dressing up in women’s clothing is paramount to the bonding experience of finally making it to the big leagues.
The MLB’s decision to ban the practice of rookies being forced to dress up as women is not a war on fun, nor is it a response to “overly-sensitive liberals”, as some would have you believe. Rather, it is a response to a shifting consciousness about societal norms and values. Perhaps what goes on inside a clubhouse is none of society’s business; except that it has been made our business when teams and players post photos on Twitter and other forms of social media for all to see.
Photos of ballplayers in skirts and tube tops is certainly entertaining to some. To others, forcing men to dress up as women as a form of initiation suggests that women are somehow lesser than, that to be feminine is something to be ridiculed. It also suggests that men dressing up at women is something to be laughed at, which only perpetuates stereotypes that put the LGBT community at risk.
I understand the above sentiments are not the intended outcome of having rookies dress up as women, but it is an outcome. As too is the potential alienation of players who, for any number of reasons, do not find posing in a cheerleader’s outfit to be quite as humorous or bond-inducing as some of their teammates. In addition, Mr. Wells’ comparison to men dressing as women for Halloween is both disingenuous and tone-deaf as it fails to acknowledge the one aspect of rookie hazing that makes the practice outdated at best and insidious at worst: the rookies are not partaking of their own free will.
It is important to note that, to my knowledge, not a single player has spoken out against the practice. Not one. Yet, of all the players who have participated in such an initiation throughout the years, it is difficult to imagine that there hasn’t been a single player who was less than enthused about his inclusion in such a ritual. In fact, one would have to be incredibly naïve or deliberately obtuse to suggest that being required to dress in a skirt or lingerie, or carry around a pink Hello Kitty knapsack, or whatever form of female garb the rookie is forced to don, is a positive experience for all those involved.
And yet, again, no one has ever felt comfortable enough to voice their disagreement. This is because to do so would break the code of the hyper-masculine environment that professional sports often fosters among its players. However, the fact that this policy has been included in the CBA suggests that those union members representing the players’ interests know that it is not a wholly positive experience, and agreed that banning such costumes was a necessary step.
The policing of clubhouse traditions by non-players will not sit well with many people. The argument that rookie initiation fosters bonds and builds relationships is completely valid. But, if dressing up is paramount to building inclusivity among team members, then it should be done in a manner that does not utilize sexual connotations to embarrass players. There are any number of ways that players can dress up and bond together – just ask Joe Maddon. To dress up rookies as women is passe at best, but the potential to be demeaning must not be ignored. What is fun to some is hurtful to others. Kudos to MLB for deciding that bullying – intentional or not – will no longer be tolerated.
Lead Photo: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports