Should Thom Brennaman be forgiven?
The disgraced Reds broadcaster is looking for redemption after using a homophobic slur on-air during a game last month.
Last month, Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman was unaware his mic was being broadcast live after a commercial break. In what appeared to be a conversation with at least one of his coworkers, Brennaman used a homophobic slur. After the video immediately went viral, Brennaman issued an on-air apology, left the booth in the middle of the game, and was later indefinitely suspended from his duties with FOX Sports Ohio.
In his on-air apology the night of the incident, Brennaman appealed to religion, calling himself “a man of faith.” He also spent considerable time apologizing to “the people who sign my paycheck” and “the people I work with.” He did not apologize to the LGBTQIA+ community, importantly. He also claimed, “I have never used that word in my life.”
Brennaman has laid low in the time since. He finally spoke to Mark Fischer of The New York Post in what was described as his first interview since the incident. The title of Fischer’s article is “Should Thom Brennaman be forgiven?” The article is a bit of a puff piece, focusing on Brennaman’s redemption while only vaguely touching on the damage he did in using an historically oppressive slur.
Fischer notes that Brennaman has been speaking with Evan Millward, an openly gay newscaster for Cincinnati’s WCPO 9, as well as Ryan Messer, a Cincinnati-based LGBTQ activist. Brennaman reportedly had lunch with Millward and will soon have dinner with Messer and his family.
Brennaman also penned an insincere apology op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He claimed, “In the past 24 hours, I have read about [the slur’s] history; I had no idea it was so rooted in hate and violence…”
To be perfectly clear, Brennaman was caught saying that some as yet unknown location – it could have been Kansas City, where the Reds were playing – was the “f—capital of the world.” I am struggling to think of a way someone who has “never used that word in my life” and “had no idea it was so rooted in hate” would put together such a sentence.
Forgiveness is earned, not given, as the saying goes. And if your apology is insincere, or appears insincere, it will be a lot harder to earn that forgiveness.
For people who do not belong to any historically oppressed group, it can be hard to understand why Brennaman’s slip-up is such a big deal. NBC’s Mike Milbury said last month during an NHL game, shortly after the Brennaman situation, that there were “not even any women here to disrupt your concentration.” That, too, went viral. Shortly thereafter, Milbury agreed to step down from broadcasts for the remainder of the playoffs. What Brennaman said is just a word; what Milbury said was a harmless little joke. What’s the big deal?
Broadcasters wield immense power. They shape attitudes. Their voices become part of the game. Ask any Phillies fan who watched games between 1971 and 2009 how important Harry Kalas was to their enjoyment of Phillies games. Ask any Dodgers fan how important Vin Scully was and continues to be. Baseball fans who watch every game hear the same voice going into their head 162 times a year for three to five hours at a time. That’s, on average, around 600 hours a year! That’s 25 days!
Consciously or subconsciously, we adopt the attitudes of broadcasters. Phillies fans loved Mickey Morandini, a light-hitting second baseman who was objectively below-average – he had a .697 career OPS and 9.8 total WAR over 11 seasons. But Kalas had a way of enunciating Morandini’s last name that endeared him to fans. What if Kalas had used his reach and influence to espouse hate?
This is not about seeing a man in power and trying to tear him down. It’s about stopping hate in its tracks before it can take root and fester. It’s about showing people from marginalized communities that they are not alone, that people will stand up and fight with them, that bigotry will not be tolerated.
Think about a time you were seriously emotionally hurt. It could have been a bad break-up, emotional abuse from a parent or other loved one, maybe being taunted by a school bully. How did you protect yourself? How long did it take you to trust again? When we get hurt, our instinct is to go into defense mode and not let it happen again. We become less trusting.
Last year, the FBI reported that hate crimes against LGBTQ people were on the rise and had risen each year from 2014-17. Most of those incidents targeted gay men. Sadly, the FBI’s statistics are incomplete because those reflect only reported incidents. They leave out the myriad incidents where the victim chooses, for any number of valid reasons, not to report the incident, which includes those perpetrated by law enforcement itself.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled this year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from employer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Before that (in 2019, even!), 28 of 50 states did not provide state-level protection for LGBTQ employees against discrimination against their employers, per Catalyst.org. Members of the LGBTQ community are also at higher risk for abuse and poverty. And as the 1969 Stonewall riots showed, they are prone to police brutality as well.
Politicians have let the LGBTQ community down. The police have let them down. Their employers have let them down. Their neighborhoods, their families, and their friends have let them down. And other people in the public eye, like musicians, movie stars, and broadcasters, have let them down just the same. Hard to be trusting of anyone, right?
Brennaman, by the way, donated $2,300 to the presidential campaign of John McCain in 2008. While McCain was better on LGBTQ issues than his Republican peers, he was not exactly friendly to the LGBTQ community. Brennaman has also donated a total of $7,400 to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican who was staunchly anti-LGBTQ until 2013, when his son came out.
That’s why it is such a big deal to ask for forgiveness after publicly espousing hate the way Brennaman did, and only apologizing for it seemingly insincerely. Brennaman is asking the LGBTQ community to trust him again when he has shown no reason why they should do so. He wants the LGBTQ community to let him back into their homes, into their ears. With his words and with his money, Brennaman has shown nothing but hostility to LGBTQ people. He has done nothing since to change that. Eating shit publicly is nice, talking to a couple of gay activists is nice, but he needs to show actual growth. He needs to put his money where his mouth is, donating to LGBQT causes and LGBQT-friendly politicians. He needs to put in time.
Mostly, though, I’m less interested in giving a straight white man a second chance and more interested in getting people from underrepresented communities into the broadcast booth. According to an article from the New York Daily News in 2016, Major League Baseball had only three broadcasters from minority groups. Not much has changed. MLB broadcasting is, almost entirely, done by straight, white men.
Kalas and Scully painted beautiful baseball narratives for us on a nightly basis over decades, but as a group, they offered us a narrow, privileged perspective. How might our lives have been enriched with more diverse perspectives rather than those almost exclusively of straight white men during our lifetimes? How might our lives be enriched going forward if we open the door to a more diverse array of voices? Cry not for Thom Brennaman’s second chance; cry for the marginalized voices we are shutting out of the booth.