There is no reason for Thom Brennaman to work as a broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds, or quite possibly anyone else, ever again. I don’t think there’s another reasonable conclusion to be drawn after Wednesday evening, when during the first game of a doubleheader against the Royals, the longtime play-by-play announcer used a homophobic slur to describe an unknown place, apparently unaware that the broadcast had returned from a commercial break and that his microphone was live. Brennaman continued to work the broadcast through the first four innings of the Game 2 before handing the broadcast off to Jim Day with the following on-camera apology:
Thom Brennaman apologized on-air and handed the broadcast off pic.twitter.com/fMXMmQz7Kd— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) August 20, 2020
After the second game ended, the Reds issued the following statement, which included an announcement that Brennaman had been suspended:
August 20, 2020
The Reds’ statement was doubled down on by the account for Cincinnati’s Fox Sports network, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group:
Statement from FOX Sports Ohio:— FOX Sports Cincinnati (@FOXSportsCincy) August 20, 2020
The language that Thom Brennaman used this evening is hateful, offensive, and in no way reflects the values of FOX Sports Ohio. We agree with the @Reds decision to suspend him until further notice. https://t.co/kL966OW6Gt
These statements predictably centered around Brennaman himself. His words were condemned, and also purposefully categorized as reflective on him and him alone. It’s perfectly fair to place Brennaman at the center of this — he is, after all, the one who used the slur in the first place. But it would be a mistake to allow Fox Sports Ohio and the Reds organization to distance themselves from his words. The fact that he felt the freedom to use them at all is a severe indictment of the workplace environment he has operated within for more than a decade and, importantly, those who will still be allowed to carry on with their jobs and shape the organization’s culture in his absence.
Proponents of Brennaman keeping his job will insist that he should not be permanently punished because of what they will describe as one mistake. There are two reasons for someone to take this position — one can either believe this is the first time Brennaman has ever used that word, and that he just happened to let it slip while unknowingly on a hot mic during a live broadcast, or believe that him not knowing he was on air is itself a sufficient excuse. Neither interpretation has any merit. The first is mind-bogglingly naive, while the second implies that using this kind of language is acceptable so long as one is expressing it privately.
The real truth implicit here is far more sinister — that in order to accidentally utter that word on the air, one must first choose to purposefully use it at all. And while straight white men are historically extremely hesitant to give up saying any given word even if an entire group of people is hurt by it, there’s been a pretty clear consensus about the specific word in question here for a while now. In the last few years, it’s hard to think of any public figure or group of people who have openly used it outside of the Westboro Baptist Church. We all know it’s an incredibly offensive term that has no place in society, and so does Thom. Of course he does. That’s why, in the more than two decades he’s been consciously speaking into a turned-on microphone, he’s never intentionally said it on the air.
But our character is not defined by who we are when the world is watching — it is defined by who we become when the door is closed, and our voice drops to a whisper. We are our most guarded words, the grace we extend to the vulnerable, and our response when there is pressure not to do the right thing. Of his pathetic remark, Brennaman said, “that is not who I am, it never has been.” Horseshit. That moment, in which a powerful broadcaster born into substantial privilege is having a conversation he believes will be heard by the people in his immediate vicinity and no one else, uses a homophobic slur he wouldn’t dare use when addressing a television audience, is exactly who he is. There could not be a more revealing moment in one’s life.
It also reveals who his co-workers are, both at Fox Sports Ohio and in the Reds organization. (I will make the disclaimer here that former Red Reporter Managing Editor Joel Luckhaupt works for Fox Sports Ohio as a researcher and statistician, but I’ve never personally interacted with him). Brennaman can’t use homophobic language on television because he knows people will take offense, and he’ll have to face serious consequences. That means whomever Brennaman is speaking to in that clip is someone he knows doesn’t pose that same threat — either because that person has used the same kind of language, or because he can assume an internal complaint regarding the play-by-play talent using hate speech would go nowhere.
Either possibility carries immensely troubling implications about what kind of safe and inclusive workspace Fox Sports Ohio and the Reds have. If the voice of the team is freely using homophobic language behind the scenes, what other kinds of hate speech are tolerated? What does the tolerance of hate speech of any kind say about the diversity of the staff currently employed, or the hiring practices being used? Zach Buchanan, a current Diamondbacks reporter who used to cover the Reds, paints a predictable picture.
Another thing is that the Reds broadcasting crew -- radio, TV, pre- and post-game -- is maybe the least diverse in baseball. At least the two years I was on the beat, it was all-male and all-white. Perhaps a bit harder to casually throw slurs around with a more diverse group.— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) August 20, 2020
Attempting to pass this off as an isolated incident with Brennaman alone shouldering the blame cannot be allowed to happen, because the problem isn’t that Brennaman let a homophobic slur slip on the air. It’s that he felt comfortable saying it at all. The reasons he felt protected will remain in place after he is gone, until there is a fundamental shift in who is represented on the Fox Sports Ohio team and the Reds organization as a whole. The shame that emanates from this touches Chris Welsh, Jim Day, Jeff Piecoro, Jeff Brantley, and every other person who failed in such a way that made what happened Wednesday possible.
In the moments following Brennaman’s slur, though, there was little indication anyone involved was willing to grasp the severity of what had just happened. Brennaman apologized on air before stepping aside, but in doing so, he never once mentioned LGBTQ people. Instead, the people named in his apology are his bosses, his coworkers, and the Reds. Once he finished, Welsh chimed in to say, “you’re a good man,” told him to hang in there. Then Day took over play-by-play duties, and carried on the rest of the broadcast uninterrupted. No one ever made another mention of the slur, or attempted to reach out further to those victimized by their coworker. Even when these men were actually supposed to be addressing their television audience, it still seemed as though they were only talking to each other, hoping no one else was listening.