The Racist Roots Of Facial Hair Bans In Sports

Like almost everything else, it boils down to white guys being awful

(Illustration: Diana Quach/ Vocativ)
Feb 23, 2016 at 4:58 PM ET

Over the weekend, news broke that the Miami Marlins will be instituting a “no facial hair” policy. “Guys will whine. Some guys like it, some guys won’t,” new manager Don Mattingly told reporters. “As long as we’re consistent, I think it’s not that big of a deal.”

However, the Domino’s pizza chain found out in 1991 that it is a huge deal. They were found in violation of equal employment opportunity law after firing a black man for breaking their “no beards” policy. Langston Bradley, the employee in question, is affected by a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB), a skin disorder that causes irritation after shaving. PFB is a genetic disorder, almost exclusively affecting black men. As many as 45 percent of black men are affected by PFB, and roughly half of these cases, like Bradley’s, are so severe that they must abstain from shaving.

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The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bradley’s favor, agreeing that Domino’s no beards policy disproportionately affected black men. The decision reads in part: “This evidence clearly permits the inference ‘that some black males would be eligible for … positions [with Domino’s] if they did not suffer from PFB,” and “proportionately fewer blacks than whites were eligible for [these] positions’ because of Domino’s no-beard policy.”

Still, when it comes to sports, policies like these are candy for fans who like an authoritarian approach to team management. The enforcement of a “professional” look and a “my way or the highway” attitude appeals to conservative ideals. But in American sports, efforts to control grooming habits have a racist history, used by white sporting bodies and coaching staffs to restrict opportunities and control the identities of black athletes.

Sylvester Hodges had a chance at a NCAA wrestling championship in 1969. Wrestling for California State College at Hayward, Hodges won the Far West Conference title without a loss or conceding a point. But when Hodges took to the mat for his first match of the NCAA Championship tournament, the referee stopped him. “Hodges, I can’t let you wrestle,” the referee told him. “We’ll give you two minutes to cut your mustache off.”

The year prior, the NCAA had added a new rule declaring that wrestlers must be “clean shaven,” which they later specified to mean “no hair below the earlobes.” The rule was never enforced until Hodges, a black man, threatened to run through his largely white competition at the NCAA championships. Eleven other wrestlers—eight black, three white—shaved off their facial hair at the competition. Hodges, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, refused.

“For someone who doesn’t have a bit, not a damn bit of business to do with some part of my body to tell me to do something with it—just couldn’t see doing it,” Hodges told Dr. Jack Scott for the 1970 book The Athletic Revolution.

The late 1960s were a ripe time for these kinds of policies, as activist movements gained steam on college campuses. Often, they weren’t aimed at restricting an opposing athlete from competition, as Hodges experienced. Instead, they were used as an attempt to emasculate rebellious black athletes, many of whom were beginning to get involved in black campus movements.

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According to a 1969 Sports Illustrated feature, Oregon State University head coach Dee Andros considered “sideburns and beards and sandals without socks” to be “dirty, smelly, unappetizing.” Andros, known as “The Great Pumpkin” for the combination of his roly-poly 250-pound frame and Oregon State’s orange colors, said of facial hair, “It ain’t neat. It ain’t athletic.”

That year, Andros’ policy faced its first opposition, from black middle linebacker Fred Milton. Milton was one of 47 black students at Oregon State, 18 of whom were athletes and six of whom were on the football team.

Milton refused to back down and was suspended for a full year and had his athletic scholarship revoked. The black students organized a boycott in support of Milton, but white alumni and athletes supported Andros. The fight garnered national attention and support from black students and athletes at other campuses.

“The moustache and beard are historical and valid external signs of… black manhood and black culture,” a writer for UCLA’s black student newspaper, Nommo, wrote in support of Milton’s cause. Rafael Stone, a basketball player for the University of Washington, told a student newspaper, “Coaches are trying to mold black athletes into thinking white.”

Having signed a fresh five-year contract, Andros’ position was safe. He thought the fight was all about his “coaching prerogative.” Indeed, but Oregon State’s program suffered the consequences of Andros’ insensitivity and stubbornness. The next year, seven of Oregon State’s 18 black athletes transferred, including four of the six football players. Oregon State failed to recruit a single black player in 1970.

Andros told Sports Illustrated in 1969, “I’ve coached 20 years and was never reproached by blacks before. No one ever charged me with racism. If you’re a bigot it will catch up to you and you won’t win.”

He was right. In 1969, Andros’s Beavers went 6-4, their fifth consecutive winning season. By 1975, the end of his five-year contract, Oregon State had fallen to 1-10. He stayed on as Athletic Director for another 11 years, and Oregon State’s futility continued: they wouldn’t have another winning season until 1999.

In baseball, not a single player wore a mustache or a beard on the field between 1917 and 1971—Dick Allen’s muttonchops notwithstanding—although only certain teams, like the Yankees and Reds, had actual policies against facial hair. It wasn’t until 1968, the first year over 15 percent of Major League Baseball’s players were black and over 25 percent were men of color, that the league’s executives considered a league-wide ban on “mustaches, beards, and extreme sideburns.”

Ed Short, the Chicago White Sox GM, told the Associated Press, “Our concern was to keep the proper image of major league players before young fans especially.” Although MLB never instituted such a policy, there was concern baseball’s conservative white fanbase would react poorly to facial hair, whether it was worn as an expression of black power, anti-war sentiments, or general disobedience.

Generally speaking, though, highly paid professional baseball stars had enough leverage to win the right to wear their facial hair as they pleased. Reggie Jackson broke baseball’s facial hair trend in 1972 when he showed up to camp with a beard, stating he hadn’t shaved since his Athletics lost to the Orioles in the playoffs the year prior.

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A’s owner Charlie Finley knew Jackson wouldn’t respond to a direct confrontation, and instead he went so far as to offer a $300 bonus to his players if they grew mustaches, hoping the non-conformist Jackson would be driven to shave. It backfired—the A’s facial hair became an integral part of their look as they dominated baseball throughout the early 1970s—but Finley managed to make the most of it, as he turned it into a successful marketing ploy with “Mustache Day” on Father’s Day 1972.

Perhaps influenced by the A’s brilliance in the 1970s—they won five straight American League West championships from 1971-1975 and three straight World Series from 1972-1974—most teams relaxed their facial hair policies when confronted with the prospect of losing a star or a free agent target. The Reds under noted racist owner Marge Schott held out until 1999, but even they relented to star power when they signed black slugger Greg Vaughn after he refused to shave his goatee.

Still, Schott was adamant that her club would be “presenting a clean-cut image” and demanded Vaughn keep it “neatly trimmed.”

The Marlins have actually tried this tactic before—they had a no facial hair policy in 2011 that was swiftly overturned once they hired the goateed Ozzie Guillen as their manager. Chances are it won’t last long this time either.

Marlins stud pitcher Jose Fernandez wasn’t thrilled with the change. “I’m afraid I’m going to look 16,” he said. David Price made headlines in 2013 when he said he wouldn’t sign with the Yankees or any other team that maintained a no facial hair policy. Dmitri Young, a black outfielder with the Reds when Vaughn signed, told CBS News, “I’ve even talked to some who said that’s the only reason they wouldn’t want to play for the Reds,” referring to their former policy. Maybe that won’t matter for the Marlins, a team too cheap to make waves in the free agent market anyway.

But regardless of the Marlins’ spendthrift nature, their policy won’t last because grown men don’t take kindly to these kinds of restrictions of self-expression and identity. Mattingly ought to know that.

Mattingly was benched by the Yankees in August of 1991 over his refusal to get a haircut; his brown hair, according to the AP, “drops over the collar and is cropped closely at the sides. The Yankees want it neat and trim.” Mattingly was furious. “Maybe they want an organization that is full of guys who are puppets,” Mattingly said, “Maybe I don’t fit into the organization anymore. Maybe this is a way of saying I don’t fit in…”

The Marlins employ mostly young, cheap talent. Further, 13 of the 29 of the players listed on the club’s depth chart are men of color. Owner Jeffrey Loria wants to be a puppetmaster, just as George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott and Dee Andros before him, and control the images and identities of his young workers. Dog whistles like “professionalism,” “clean-cut,” and “proper” are no justification for restricting the self-expression of ballplayers. But this battle has already been fought and won by previous athletes of color who showed the simple yet profound power of standing up and saying “no.”

And Loria, should he keep this policy, shouldn’t be surprised when his young players choose not to be treated like puppets and tell him “no” when they finally get a chance to choose their employers.