Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Two Little Words

Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement guarantees five more years of labor peace. There's been plenty of talk about the new wild-card playoff plan, the league re-alignment (moving Houston to the American League), and the new drug-testing policy which includes blood tests for human growth hormone (HGH).

But largely below the radar screen, two little words have been inserted that speak volumes about how far the world of sports has come on the issue of sexual orientation. Baseball's long protected the rights of players based on their "race, color, religion, or national origin." The new CBA adds "sexual orientation" to the list of protected categories.

Of course, merely saying the sport protects the rights of gay ballplayers (and don't kid yourself, there certainly are gay ballplayers) doesn't mean the anti-gay slurs will dry up and blow away. Just last season, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell dropped a crude anti-gay comment (amplified with a gesture involving a bat) on some fans at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

No, the homophobic sports culture won't change overnight. But the times, they are a-changin'. Most other pro sports leagues already have similar language in their basic agreements (notably, the NBA does not, though one hopes that will be addressed in current labor talks). Many baseball teams hold "LGBT Nights" in recognition of the fact that you don't have to be straight to be a fan. And a number of teams, including the Giants, have produced videos as part of the "It Gets Better" anti-homophobia program.

Eventually, the term "out" will have multiple meanings in big-league baseball. That might still take some time. But for now, it's a step forward to see the sport--owners and players--agree that gay ballplayers deserve full protection. I know plenty of gay and lesbian fans; they root just as hard and wear their teams' colors just as proudly as anyone else. Now they can feel that the sport speaks for them, too.

Nobody wins when somebody is left out or marginalized.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lord Acton Is Right (Again)

In 1887, Britain's Lord Acton wrote a letter containing the following passage:

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

The first part of that passage has been used myriad times since it was written to caution against the excesses of power. The second half is seldom quoted, but I include it here to inform the discussion about Joe Paterno and the horrifying revelations at Penn State.

It's possible Lord Acton thought "greatness" guaranteed "badness". It's also possible he meant that unchecked power, unbridled ego, would inevitably lead to trouble.

And so we have Joe Paterno. For many a year, Paterno ran what he liked to call a "Grand Experiment", believing that it was possible to succeed in college athletics while also upholding academic integrity. And it seemed to be working. Penn State won often, and its football players achieved their degrees and avoided controversy.

But now we know what we know (and surely, there is much more that will be known before this is over). And we are left feeling angry, duped, outraged, saddened. How could Joe Paterno be both good and bad?

The answer, as Lord Acton wrote so long ago, may lie in the intoxicating and corrosive influence of power. Read this piece by Southern California psychologist Ronald Riggio. It was written two years ago but you can almost see the Penn State story in it if you look closely enough. One phrase stands out: "Leaders can delude themselves that they are working for the greater good (using socialized power), but engage in behavior that is morally wrong."

In other words, Paterno could well have believed he was preserving something "greater" (his "Grand Experiment") by ignoring the rape of children. Sounds strange, even horrifying, but human nature isn't always logical or even explainable.

So where does that leave us? How do we not go here again?

Perhaps Lord Acton had it right. If so, the answer would be to avoid granting absolute power anywhere, and college athletic departments might be a good place to start.