Since 1973, the New York Yankees have had a policy in place that regulates how their players should look. Then-owner George Steinbrenner created the policy after noting several players who had grown their hair so long it was covering their numbers. The official policy states: “All players, coaches and male executives are forbidden to display any facial hair other than mustaches (except for religious reasons), and scalp hair may not be grown below the collar. Long sideburns and ‘mutton chops’ are not specifically banned.” For the last 45 years, the policy has remained.
Back in 2006, Johnny Damon was forced to shed his “Caveman” look when he signed with the Yankees, as did Randy Johnson when he was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2005 regular season. Two recent examples, Clint Frazier and Andrew McCutchen, have brought the policy back front and center and has many people asking why this is still a thing and is it time for the Yankees to end the policy?
Steinbrenner apparently wanted the Yankees to adopt a more corporate attitude while being like the military appearance policy, of which Steinbrenner was an Air Force veteran. Players in the past have protested. Famously, Don Mattingly refused to cut his hair during the 1991 season leading the team to bench him and fine him until he agreed to trim his hair.
Lou Piniella was quoted as telling Steinbrenner “I don’t understand, Mr. Steinbrenner, what long hair has to do with your ability to play baseball… I’m a Christian. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had hair down to the middle of his back, and it didn’t affect the way he went about his work.” Steinbrenner responded by telling Piniella that he could wear his hair so long as he wanted if he walked on water across an 8-foot-deep pond.
Back when David Price was still with the Tampa Bay Rays, he said he would never sign with the Yankees if the policy existed. Frazier was forced to answer questions about the policy in 2017, saying “I think people are making my hair bigger than my game, I’m here to play baseball.” McCutchen, who was just traded to this Yankees this past weekend, shaved his face while holding his infant son, because he was worried his son would not recognize him without a beard.
These recent examples are why this policy needs to change. For one, it was issued nearly half a century ago which means it’s archaic and two, allowing players to express themselves and have individuality is a good thing. Having a personality is not a fault, it is a positive trait that should be encouraged, not shuttered.
The policy is authoritarian in nature, as one owner gets to dictate how the players must look and hold the threat of reduced playing time over their heads for something that does not affect performance. It should be mentioned that without these players, whom the Steinbrenners impose this policy on, the Yankees would not exist, nor would they generate the large amount of revenue that the Yankees currently do.
There is historical context for the abolition of the policy as well. Remember how Steinbrenner wanted to adopt a more corporate attitude? Well, in 1993, a Federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled that Domino’s Pizza must waive its ban for black employees who have a common and sometimes painful skin ailment. Domino’s pizza, for reference, is a corporate entity.
The policy was argued to limit employment opportunities for Black men and the courts agreed, given that there would be no impact on their ability to do their job, as Piniella once argued with Steinbrenner.
Despite this, Yankee legend Reggie Jackson defended the policy when Frazier came under fire last Spring. He was quoted explaining, “It’s very important nowadays to maintain some of the older philosophies that we have as people and what we’re trying to teach our youth and kids… some change is good, and as long as you live life there’s going to be change, but there must be a constant. Sustained excellence has a place here, but it’s not easy, so there are some guidelines in doing things the way you’ve always done them to keep up that excellence.”
This continues to feed into the idea that the appearance policy somehow affects performance when it does not. Sustained excellence is always a goal, one that can be achieved by the front office doing things such as not worrying about the luxury tax or by not alienating potential free agents like Price, who want to have their individuality.
So, is it possible to change the policy? Do players have legal options they could pursue like the Domino’s Pizza case? I asked Sheryl Ring, contributor at FanGraphs, general counsel at Open Communities and an attorney, to shed some light on the topic.
Sheryl explains, “The first question to determine if the facial hair policy can be challenged is this: how is the policy codified?” The answer to this question is somewhat murky, it is a policy that is public knowledge but no one to my knowledge has brought up that it was written in as a rider.
Sheryl continues, “A player who signs with the team with knowledge of the policy probably can’t sue under most circumstances. A player who is traded to the Yankees might have a better case, but still, what is his cause of action?”
However, there is an exception to this: “What if the player is Sikh, Muslim, or a Chasidic Jew? If the company says, ‘no facial hair’ and makes no exceptions for religion, a player would probably have a pretty good case under state and federal law barring discrimination in employment.” In this case, it would be religious discrimination. This is because it is not a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification for playing baseball to be clean-shaven.
“It’s a reasonable accommodation to allow somebody to have a beard, or long hair, for religious purposes so long as it is within reason.” One exception may be if a player’s religion requires that hair never be cut or washed. Then the team would be within reason to say that would be a health hazard.
Sheryl continued, “But a blanket ban on facial hair is probably invalid the instant somebody with a bona fide religious belief contrary to the policy comes along.” What about in a case like the Domino’s case above? “If a player wants to keep his beard because when he shaves, his skin falls off, do the Yankees have to let him keep the beard? Yes! Because it’s a medical condition.”
I still had one question for Sheryl, is there any possibility that this policy could lead to accusations of racial discrimination? No, as she explained, “If your policy is generally applicable, then the policy itself is probably okay.”
However, as with many earlier examples, there are exceptions.
“If for example, there was a race of people who were ten times more likely to wear facial hair, you could reasonably argue that the policy was what is called a proxy, disincentivizing hiring that race by other means.”
The other exception? “Let’s say a couple people of a given race asked for an exception on cultural grounds and the team said no. If the team refuses an accommodation and makes clear the purpose of the policy is to make people appear like a specific race or make them appear less like a specific race, then it is illegal.”
In short, there is a chance that a player could threaten legal action against the Yankees due to their policy. It would have to be in very specific situations such as the ones listed above. The question is if one player acts, will it signal to other players that they too refuse to follow the policy? Given the resistance from Frazier in 2017 and more fans voicing displeasure, we may be closer than we think to see an end to the policy.
Special thanks to Sheryl Ring for answering all my questions, she can be found on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl
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