Kobritz: Yankees’ hair policy may be illegal
BEYOND THE LINES
At the Yankees’ home opener in 1973, newly minted owner George Steinbrenner didn’t know his players’ names. But as he watched his players remove their caps for the national anthem, Steinbrenner wrote down a series of numbers on the back of an envelope. After the game, he gave the envelope to manager Ralph Houk.
When Houk asked The Boss what it was, Steinbrenner replied emphatically, “players who need a haircut.” Among the players on the list were stars Bobby Murcer, Fritz Peterson, Thurman Munson, Sparky Lyle and Roy White. The new rule on long hair applied to everyone.
Steinbrenner’s edict on long hair became a hallmark of the Yankees’ brand. It reads, “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.”
In the years since 1973, a number of players have questioned the policy, to no avail. It may have cost the team opportunities to sign free agents, including last winter’s premier starting pitcher, Dallas Keuchel, who sports a long beard. Keuchel never commented publicly on the Yankees’ hair policy, but ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves.
Employers are generally prohibited from employment practices that discriminate based on such things as gender or religion. However, they are allowed to exclude people based on such criteria if it’s a “bona fide occupational qualification.” For example, a camp for girls ages 8-12 can specifically advertise for a female counsellor but cannot discriminate based on race. Another example: If a university is affiliated with a specific religion, it can require applicants to hold similar beliefs.
Two recently enacted laws in New York may prove to be the undoing of the Yankees’ hair policy. Both laws ban discrimination in employment based on hair, although each in a different way. The first statute bans an employer from prohibiting, among other things, dreadlocks, braids, and twists. The Yankees’ policy arguably discriminates against race, as long hair – dreadlocks, for example – is frequently associated with African-Americans. As a result, the “Hair Discrimination Law” may render the Yankees’ restriction on hair below the collar unlawful.
A second statute bans discrimination in employment on the basis of both clothing and facial hair. It differs from the first law in that it prohibits religious-based discrimination. The “Religious Garb Bill” requires an employer to show that appearance, such as facial hair or the wearing of religious items such as turbans, yarmulkes or hijabs, would present a hazard or prevent a worker from doing his or her job. In other words, it may require an employer such as the Yankees to accept facial hair unless it is a hazard or interferes with the job.
Will the new laws sound the death knell for the Yankees’ long-held hair policy? Perhaps, but first it must be challenged by a player either in a court of law or an arbitration proceeding. Only then will we know if Steinbrenner’s views on hair remain enforceable.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.