By Dirk Hayhurst
Last week, a youth league baseball coach from Pincher Creek in Alberta, Canada, asked one his players, Liam Nazarek, to cut his hair.
Shortly after, the world ended.
According to reports, the 16 year-old Liam, with hair down to his shoulders, said he wouldn't cut it because he'd been growing it out for over a year with plans to donate the hair to a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients.
Liam's coach, Bryan Mackenzie -- with no ill will meant for those in need of wigs and an appreciation for Liam's charity efforts -- demanded that Liam cut his hair regardless, or be banned from his team.
Liam refused and the coach followed through with his ruling.
Liam's mother, Kimberley Jorgenson, intervened like any good meddling parent. She demanded to know where it says in the rules of baseball a player can't have long hair. Coach Mackenzie countered with the argument that his baseball team has rules which include cutting hair, and Liam's choice was to not obey those rules; a choice that has consequences.
You can see the whole thing for yourself here:
I'm willing to bet an argument like this takes place thousands of times a year, every year, on baseball fields across the world. A kid wants to express his individuality in one way or another, and a coach wants his players to obey team policy, which may include rules ranging from logical to ludicrous to oppressive.
The only difference in the case of Liam's Hair versus Coach Mackenzie is, Liam's mother felt the need to secretly video the discussion about the matter and put it all on social media for the world have its say.
And boy did it. The video went viral, with stories on sites like Huffington Post, and has gone so far so fast that, on Monday Night, Coach Mackenzie was Keith Olbermann's Worst Person in The Sports World.
Because of the viral video and the hook about Liam's hair being grown for a cancer charity, it's easy to paint Coach Mackenzie as the villain. He's forcing a child to, at the expense of a good cause, conform to something that has no bearing on the team's success -- hair.
Some may say that Liam is in the wrong because he should understand that no one player gets to have special treatment on a team, hair privileges included.
But the real villain here is Liam's mother, who captured all of this on film, and made the coach Mackenzie, the board that backs him, and even Liam himself look like characters in some grand soap opera when all this is just another footnote in the development of a young man's life in sports -- a life that isn't always known for it's fairness.
The whole incident may bring to mind the Yankees, that classy institution often cited for winning thanks to the power of a clean shave, which got their hair rules thanks to one man's dominant and uncompromising opinion: George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner, at the Yankees home opener in 1973, was so appalled by the shaggy hair and bushy mustaches of his newly purchased team that he wrote down the names and numbers of players on a list and demand hair cuts and shaves for all the offenders. When questions of professionalism come up, these rules are often cited, mostly because the Yankees win while adhering to them. The Bronx Bombers could have very easily went on to be just another average team, only clean shaven. The new hair policy would have been a quaint act of a meddlesome owner who cared more about irrelevant issues than winning.
However, looking back at the Yankees record since that time, it's quite obvious that it was the superstars Steinbrenner stockpiled that helped his club succeed (at least during the last couple of decades), not any grooming edict. The Yankees won and the strict hair policy was canonized because of it. Furthermore, despite the Yankees being the Yankees, hair rules not being a part of real baseball rules, and barbers playing no role in wins and losses, the players continue to obey now like they did then because that's what their bosses ask them to do -- even though some probably think it's dumb.
Hair's not a factor on most major league teams (as you probably figured out by the championship run of last year's bearded Red Sox). But there are other club policies that are enforced. The Blue Jays have rules on music volume in the locker room. The Padres have rules about how much sock has to be shown when in uniform. The Rays have rules about red meat in the minor league locker rooms. And every coach on every team in every organization has his own peculiar sets of dos and don'ts heaped on top -- and have for as long as I can remember.
It's not a form of oppression to make rules that deny a young player a privilege -- it's a form of teaching. Out in the real world, they will eventually be expected to follow the rules of those above them without question. Some of these rules may be downright stupid, but they're rules nonetheless. That means extensions of self, like dress or hair, may be legislated. When they are, pride will have to be swallowed.
Coach Mackenzie made a rule that prepares boys like Liam for the future they are entering: Young men will be asked to shave, get haircuts, dress professionally, and obey for much of their life, until they get to make the rules.
Of course, this whole incident could have been resolved a million different ways. Liam could've worn a skull cap to tuck his hair under and preserve his appearance on the field. He could have cut his hair for charity at a set time the coach and team agreed upon or done extra work in order to be allowed the privilege.
As previously mentioned, the baseball board in Pincher Creek sided with the coach and said it had a problem with Kimberley Jorgenson using social media to voice her displeasure.
In a sense, Jorgenson broke an unwritten rule. She posted an unbalanced, out of context speech and, in the process, generated a swath of collateral damage, chief of which may be her son's ability to fight his own battles.
I respect coaches of young kids, parents of teens, and the game of baseball. I also have a great amount of respect for the digital age, where social media can topple nations, and viral videos can reveal even the smallest injustices. I just don't believe this is one is worth our time, and I sincerely hope it doesn't start a wave of angry, parent-made videos from youth leagues, revealing the so-called "oppression" of their children for all the world to see.
* * *
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on twitter at @thegarfoose