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On Beards and Control

After reading Albert Chen’s article on the Oakland A’s in the June 23 issue of Sports Illustrated, I began to wonder why organizations such as the Cubs (mentioned in the article) and Yankees (infamous for a similar policy) continue to implement policies forbidding their players from growing beards or exhibiting any form of personality. Beards are beyond popular in this new technology age whether it be due to the hipster culture, a show of manhood, or just simple laziness. Even the widely popular reality TV show Duck Dynasty uses the tagline “The Beards are Back.” With all this hooplah surrounding a fairly innocuous facial feature, it’s not unreasonable to wonder why exactly a Major League organization would have a problem with it, especially considering the recent success of the Oakland A’s. But the problem goes further than just wins and losses. This policy enacted by some franchises represents a bigger problems plaguing all professional sports nowadays: the idea of control.

Josh Reddick
Josh Reddick

The Yankees first enacted their notorious beard policy under the management of the late George Steinbrenner in the 1970’s in order to tame some of the wild personalities of those “Bronx Zoo” teams. Ever since then, the policy has stood and has come to represent the Big Brother-like attitude that surrounds the front office of the Evil Empire. While the thinking behind the policy is reasonable–the team wants their players to look professional–the implications behind it address a different problem all together.

George Steinbrenner
George Steinbrenner

At the heart of the issue, George Steinbrenner simply intimidated his players into doing what he wanted because he was the owner and wrote their paychecks. For many people, the statement carries no weight, and most fail to find a problem with it. So what, an employer is setting guidelines for his employees, it’s a practice that occurs all around the world on a daily basis. But one key difference that is becoming more and more apparent across professional sports is the wording of that statement. George Steinbrenner isn’t the players employer, he’s their owner. And with that word owner comes many unpleasant and often outrageous connotations that have no place in professional sports.

When Donald Sterling told his mistress last month that he did not want her to bring black people to his games, the backlash was immediate and decisive. NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the league and mandated him to sell the Clippers. However, Donald Sterling is not alone in this type of situation as much as we would like to believe. By far, the majority of sports team owners are middle-aged to elderly rich, white men. Similarly, the majority of professional athletes are minorities or foreigners of some type. The issue of ownership here goes much deeper than some racist comments one man made to his mistress; this issue is addressing the loss of individuality of an entire group of people because of their chosen profession.

Now before I continue this thread of thought, I am not going to compare professional sports to slavery. These men and women are being paid outrageous sums to play a child’s game, nothing at all like what millions of people had to suffer through during the years of American slavery. That comparison is unfounded and honestly insulting to those who were slaves or are descendants of slaves. The point I am trying to make though is that the perception of the system of professional sports is misguided. While in theory the relationship between an owner and player is an employer/employee relationship, there are some key differences that remove certain human rights necessary for a working relationship. For example, in what other profession does your boss own all the rights to your life and livelihood? In what other position can a man legally purchase another man from a different company? The whole concept of the draft and trading players removes any real control the employee has over his life. None of this even addresses how much more freedom players have today than when the first professional baseball league was created.

To come full circle, the issue of the Yankee’s no-beard policy is minimal when viewed through the lens of the broader picture, but it does reflect the problems of ownership in a microcosmic sense. Steinbrenner used his position to intimidate and belittle other men beneath him. As the beard is becoming more and more synonymous with the ideal of manhood, the Yankee’s policy is equivalent of stripping a man of his virility. It still remains the player’s choice to sign with the team though, so the problem lies less in minimization of the players than it does in society’s tendency to put money above human rights.

The A’s are succeeding because their management is allowing their players to be themselves. While a step in the right direction, the amount of possessives in that sentence illustrates the greater problem. People have to be told to be themselves in this new society, they cannot choose to follow that route of their own volition and that truly is a tragedy. The hierarchy of professional sports is not only backwards, but it is an abhorrence to natural human rights. While many may hate the new trend of facial hair and personal expression, I personally am glad that the beards are back.