AJC sports writer speaks out on Braves’ Roger McDowell anti-gay incident

GA Voice asked Schultz his thoughts about the McDowell incident and homophobia in sports in general.

GA Voice: You said McDowell was lucky to get only a two-week suspension. What does this punishment say to you about where MLB and the Braves are on homophobia?

Jeff Schultz: The McDowell situation wasn’t about merely homophobia. It was about the fan experience. If what has been alleged is true – and despite the suspension, there has been neither confirmation nor denials about specifics from MLB, Braves or McDowell – McDowell became involved in an inappropriate exchange with fans that included him using profanity and ruining what should have been a nice day at the ballpark for San Francisco fans. That in itself is worthy of suspension.

As for the alleged anti-gay slurs, clearly there is an issue that remains, not only in baseball but in all of sports, pro and college. How often do you see male athletes come out and admit they are gay during their careers? Answer: Never. They know they never will be fully accepted by teammates in the locker room. Consequently, coaches don’t want to coach gay athletes and general managers or owners of teams don’t want to sign them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are anti-gay themselves. But they’re in the “winning” business, and if they believe having an openly gay athlete in the locker room is going to disrupt team chemistry and diminish their chance for success, it’s a road they would rather not go down. That’s understandable to a degree. But obviously this situation allows homophobia to exist.

I’ve also believed that baseball clubhouses have long had that private “boys club” feel to it more so than other sports – football, basketball, hockey. When you walk in there, it’s almost like an outsider walking into somebody’s tree house. That’s not a statement on the Brave but just the general culture in baseball. It might have to do with the players spending so much time with each other in that one room. Football players spend a lot of time with each other too but they’re either on the field or going from meeting to meeting, watching film and going over strategies and game plans.

What about 10 years ago, or even five years ago? Do you think this story would have made sports headlines, one, and that any kind of punishment would have been handed down? Basically, do you think the MLB and perhaps professional sports in general are more sensitive to anti-gay rhetoric used by players, etc., than in years past? Why?

I believe everybody is more sensitive to everything now than they were 10 years ago, five years ago and five minutes ago. There’s no question about that. Understand also, however, that the media world and public criticism has a lot to do with disciplinary measures. John Rocker was suspended for 28 games (later reduced to 14) for his infamous rant in Sports Illustrated that including him referencing “some queer with AIDS” on the 7 Train in New York. But a big reason for the suspension is because it was in Sports Illustrated and therefore got attention. These days, something can be said in a weekly throw-away newspaper in North Dakota or a small blog site and it’s going to spread like wild fire the second somebody Tweets about it on Twitter. The information age has gone from wagon train to rocket ship. Once it’s out there, sports leagues and teams have to react. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and other past baseball heroes who were quasi-degenerates in their personal lives never would’ve made it today.

Do you know McDowell? Were you surprised to hear he used this kind of language or do you tend to hear a lot of anti-gay talk by pro athletes?

I do know McDowell, not as well as other coaches or athletes on the team but well enough. He’s a good man. He’s a family man. I believe he is generally remorseful. That doesn’t excuse what he said or did. He was a well-known goofball as a player and he said and did some crazy things, but never was known as a “bad guy.” But was I surprised he used the language or said the things he has been alleged to have said? Not at all – well, publicly to fans maybe but not in general in terms of his interaction with others on or close to the team. It’s part of the whole “guy talk” thing that still exists. And yes, I suppose you could make the case that it’s therefore part of the culture.

It’s interesting that a straight journalist like yourself came to the conclusion that McDowell needed to be seriously punished for what he has practically admitted to saying.

If somebody steals a car and admits they stole the car, should they not get punished? Admission is the first step toward healing the situation but discipline was still in order. As far as the length of the suspension, I had 30 games in my head. I can’t say how I arrived at the number but it just seemed appropriate to me. Therefore, I believed two weeks was light. I also thought that when a second family came out in public in a San Francisco Chronicle story and corroborated almost everything the other fans had said and painted a pretty ugly picture of the scene that there was a real chance McDowell might lose his job. But the Braves really went to bat for him (no pun intended) and for that he should be thankful.


Top photo: Jeff Schultz, sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (via Facebook)