By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) The thing about being a female sports fan is that you never know when casual sexism is going to rear its ugly head and smack you in the face. On Sunday morning, as I laid in bed, unsuspecting, flipping between EPL and NFL action, this tweet appeared on the New York Mets Twitter feed and hit me, hard, right between the eyes:
Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve rolled my eyes and shaken my head at the rookie hazing rituals MLB teams put their first-year players through every year. Ignoring the subtle jabs at all things feminine as a way of humiliating the rookies — the sparkly pink backpacks, the Dora the Explorer costumes — is par for the course if you’re a woman who loves baseball. In the past, seeing players dressed in drag has been nothing more than a minor irritant. But this, this felt different.
Maybe it was the fact that the Mets had dressed their rookies not as cartoon characters or Disney princesses but as real life ball-players, the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, that chafed so much. If you’ve seen the movie “A League of Their Own,” you recognize the uniforms of the Rockford Peaches and the Racine Belles. The AAGPBL existed from 1943 to 1954 and gave more than 600 women the chance to play pro ball. The league was created to keep baseball in the public eye during World War II, when many men were overseas. The women who played in the league were dedicated and worthy ballplayers.
Seeing Mets dressing their rookies as the Peaches and Belles in order to humiliate and demean them, for such is the purpose of rookie hazing, was tough for me to take, and I wasn’t alone.
“To trivialize the women who played hardball professionally through the ‘stigma’ of cross-dressing men privileged to do the same job is an insult to the history of the game as well as to women,” said ESPN baseball analyst Christina Kahrl, also one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus. “I look forward to the Wilpons and the Mets organization demonstrating a readiness to honor women in the game — past, present and future — by supporting initiatives like Baseball For All to keep girls on the field, and hiring women the way that other smart organizations have.”
Stacey Gotsulias — a writer for Hardball Times, Beyond the Box Score and Today’s Knuckleball — added: “It was the fact that they not only had dress them up like women but that they made it a point to film them getting coffee for everyone that rubbed me the wrong way. Because as we all know only women fetch the coffee and snacks!”
Meghan Montemurro, Phillies beat writer for the Delaware News Journal, felt similarly:
“My initial reaction was disappointment when seeing the choice, because teams can do their hazing ritual without going that route. The Phillies are a good example this year, dressing the rookies up in various costumes and none of them were dressed up as women. That was nice to see. I’d hope they made the choice without knowing any better, not realizing the meaning behind those AAGPBL uniforms and what they represented.”
The Mets aren’t alone, of course, in feminizing their rookies in order to degrade them. The Cubs recently dressed their rookies up as cheerleaders, complete with fake breasts.
The Giants sent their first-year players out to clubs in dresses and wigs.
No one will ever accuse pro athletes of being deep thinkers, and I doubt alienating female fans is ever the aim of this kind of thing. But it begs the question: With anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the MLB fan base being female, should teams be sending the message that one of the most humiliating acts one can to do a man is to have him pretend to be a woman? During 2015’s round of rookie hazing, the Globe and Mail’s Stacey May Fowles wrote an open letter to the Toronto Blue Jays:
How exactly do we explain to little girls watching baseball that players are being degraded by wearing signifiers traditionally meant for them? And when teams dress players up “like women” with the purpose of pointing and laughing at them, doesn’t that just confirm retrograde ideas that stereotypical feminization is somehow dehumanizing? Whether we like it or not, this kind of hyper-masculine jock culture is sending the dangerous message that being feminine is the most embarrassing thing you can be.
Of course, female baseball fans who point out the inherent sexism in rookie hazing are nearly always dismissed as being “angry feminists,” uptight whiners constantly on the look out for something by which to be offended. The tweets to that effect came fast and furious Sunday morning once I admitted it bothered me to see rookies “hazed” by being dressed as women. But I soon found out there were plenty of men who felt the same way:
And before the “lighten up, it’s just a joke” crowd has the chance to chime in, think about this: What if the rookies were all dressed in blackface as a joke? What if they were all dressed like Negro Leagues players? Is that OK? What if they were dressed as the current U.S. women’s softball team, complete with wigs and fake breasts? How do we feel about it then?
Rookies dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood, Princess Elsa and Minnie Mouse are harmless. Those costumes would be funny on adult women, too, and the joke is seeing an adult man dressed as a child, which plays off the old Baby Huey character. In a year in which female baseball fans have been asked to accept Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman, both suspended for incidents of domestic abuse, back into the fold and when women have had to weather hoards of men screeching online about the reality of the new FOX show “Pitch,” a little sensitivity toward the women who follow MLB is warranted — and frankly deserved.
Let’s be clear about what the joke is in these rookie hazing stunts. It’s players telling a significant portion of the MLB fan base this: ‘The most degrading thing we can do to a player is have him pretend to be like you.”
In the last few years, MLB has been open about its desire to attract more female fans. The way to make women feel welcome and included in baseball isn’t with sparkly pink hats, Pinterest and “Ladies’ Nights.” It’s by showing women they are valued as fans, not by allowing players to make them the butt of the annual joke.