I’m back from an absolutely amazing nine weeks in Colorado. I made several mental notes throughout the summer and hope to write a commentary on the (more-positive-than-I-could-have-even-dreamed-of) dynamics and attitudes that I encountered. First, though, I want to write about this story that appeared as the “cover story” on msn.com the day I got home.
On July 31st, Billy Van Raaphorst was an umpire for the Golden Baseball League (GBL) game between the Edmonton Capitals and the Orange County Flyers. In the first inning Bowers disagreed with a call made at first base. For the second day in a row, Van Raaphorst ejected Bowers from the game. After being thrown out for his antics (he reportedly rolled up his sleeves and mocked Van Raaphorst with a “gun show”), Bowers began screaming homophobic remarks at Van Raaphorst, who identifies as gay. “You know what I heard? I heard you’re a f---ing f----t." Bowers continued, yelling derogatory language and even “acting out” an offensive scene (I’m sparing the details; you can read about the rest here).
The GBL immediately suspended Bowers for two games and fined him an additional $500. Unsatisfied with this judgment, umpires from all over the league demanded that the league come down harder. They even threatened to strike. Following an investigation, which concluded August 6th, the league moved to suspend Bowers for the rest of the season and increased the fine to a $5,000 penalty. Soon thereafter, Bowers resigned. The Capitals have also announced that all of their employees will undergo mandatory diversity training.
The rest of Van Raaphorst’s personal story illustrates how being in the closet often negatively affects one’s sports performance:
Billy Van Raaphorst grew up in a sports-charged environment. His dad played in the NFL and both his brothers played football in college. Billy also played college football until he suffered a career ending injury during his senior season. The whole time that he was growing up and even as he continued to play football at a Division I level, Van Raaphorst yearned to be behind home plate in a major league stadium. His career ending injury gave him the perfect opportunity to break away from his family’s legacy of football and pursue his passion for calling balls and strikes. He graduated No. 1 in his class from “the Harvard of umpiring,” the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School. Working his way up through the ranks of the minor leagues, Van Raaphorst made it to the double-A level in 2001. Van Raaphorst, who says he knew he was gay “pretty much all [his] life” but had never “acted on it” before, went to his first gay bar and had his first relationship with another man around this same time. Subsequently, things started going poorly for him as an umpire. He dropped to being 27th in the rankings and then was 45th (of 47). He wasn’t out to his colleagues, so he lied about his post-game plans and tried to ignore his coworkers’ questions about who he was seeing. By 2002 he was released from the minor leagues. He wanted to fight his release in 2002, but he says he was discouraged by family members and friends who “didn’t want all of the attention that would’ve brought.” He’s learned a lot since then and regrets ending his first relationship because he was scared and not coming out. Now? He refuses to ever make those mistakes again.
"I don’t make decisions out of fear anymore. I try to make fearless decisions now.”Something we should all aspire to do.
Now, for a few scattered thoughts:
- Serious kudos to the umpires who threatened to strike over this. Seriously. I’m so impressed that they took it so seriously and really saw it as an injustice and a threat to a safe working environment. The league had already “dealt” with it and there was no reason (excluding injustice, of course) that they had to intervene. That they did so on their own volition is HUGE. Call me an optimist, but while some may see this whole incident as evidence for the “sad state of sports,” as Jason Whitlock does, I can’t overlook the evidence of progress as demonstrated by the courage of these umpires.
- I was utterly shocked to read what Bowers said (and did) in its entirety. I know that homophobia is out there and I know that it can get “really ugly.” But I’ve never seen it or even read about a recent incident which went to the level that Bowers did.
- In an interview since the incident, Bowers said that “I didn’t care that (Van Raaphorst) was gay…My mom works with a lot of gay hairdressers and I joke around those guys all the time. My cousin, she’s a lesbian. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as people are happy.”
I don’t know what all of this means 100%. Is this like the “I can’t be racist, I have a black friend” mentality? And what does he mean to imply by saying that he jokes around with his mom’s colleagues? It sort of seems to suggest that in his mind he was “just joking” and that Van Raaphorst just didn’t get it. Which, given the explicit nature of his comments and actions, is just ridonculous.
- It isn’t really clear to me whether Van Raaphorst was released from his position as an umpire because his performance declined (presumably due to being in the closet and having to exert so much energy to stay there) or if he believes that it was some sort of homophobic firing decision (though he did not come out to any of them, he believes that other umpires found out he was gay since they all started incessantly questioning him about his romantic life).
- Also kudos to msn.com for featuring this story on their home page. Another sign of progress, if you ask me.