One of MLB's first openly gay players explains why its new hazing policy is a big deal.
It's one of baseball's most time-honored traditions: Veteran players making rookies dress up in embarrassing costumes.
Recently, the New York Mets rookies dressed like the women's team from A League of Their Own and fetched coffee for their teammates. A few years back, the Washington Nationals dressed as the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team and rode the train around D.C..
Starting to see a pattern?
This kind of hazing isn't unique to baseball. You see it in other team atmospheres too, from exclusive clubs to fraternities and sororities. It's meant to build camaraderie, to prove that the newbies are willing to put the team ahead of anything else.
But sometimes — OK, a lot of the time — this kind of hazing goes too far and crosses into offensive or dangerous territory.
That's why the MLB just announced a new zero-tolerance policy for all forms of hazing that mine humor at the expense of someone else's gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation.
Billy Bean — a former player of six years, one of the first pro players to come out as gay, and now the MLB's vice president of social responsibility and inclusion — explains what the big deal is:
"We didn't used to take pictures or talk about what we used to do. Now players are posting pictures in the clubhouse in real time ... We need to be cognizant of the 7- and 8-year-olds that have access to your Twitter feed 24/7," he says.
"If the hazing is disparaging toward women, or the LGBTQ community, or old stereotypes that people used to think were funny about ethnic backgrounds or religious views, that's not funny anymore."
Plenty of players and ex-players have come out against the new policy too, but as far as Bean is concerned, they can suck it up.
"We have an average salary of over $4 million a season," Bean says. "I don't think it's too much to ask of the players to think a little bit before they engage in this tradition."
The league isn't out to be the fun police. Bean says there are plenty of friendly initiations that don't send a harmful message.
He says the New York Yankees rookies recently dressed up as "the baby bombers," an ode to their reputation as a young team full of powerful sluggers.
"That wasn't mean-spirited," he says. "It was creative. It was funny."
The bottom line? No one should be forced to do anything they truly don't want to do.
Since the news, many players have come out in support of "the old way of doing things," which is disappointing to some. But league officials say a lot of other current players are glad about the changes and had complained about being forced to dress in offensive costumes.
This move by the MLB certainly doesn't mean pro sports culture is "fixed." There are currently no active MLB players who openly identify as gay, for example, and the odds of that being the case are astronomically low.
But this new policy is a small step — however small — in the right direction.