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Thom Brennaman, Mark Grace and the problem with being yourself

You are what your words say you are. When you’re paid for the words that roll off your tongue, it can be a dangerous existence.

The Reds have suspended broadcaster Thom Brennaman for using an anti-gay slur on air during a game Wednesday.
The Reds have suspended broadcaster Thom Brennaman for using an anti-gay slur on air during a game Wednesday.
AP

You can’t be anybody but you. You can try, but eventually, over time, the real version of you will emerge, in all its glory and in all its imperfections.

That’s the lesson of Thom Brennaman and Mark Grace. You are what your words say you are. When you’re paid for the words that roll off your tongue, it can be a dangerous existence.

Brennaman, the Reds’ TV play-by-play announcer, was about to come out of a commercial break during a game Wednesday when a hot microphone caught him referring to an undisclosed place as “one of the f-- capitals of the world.’’ The Reds suspended him for the anti-gay slur, and Fox yanked him from this season’s NFL broadcasts.

Grace, who appears periodically on Cubs’ TV broadcasts, referred to his ex-wife as a “dingbat’’ on air during a game a week ago. He hasn’t been seen on a telecast since, and there has been no word on when he’ll return.

I’m not equating the words the two men used. Brennaman’s was clearly more deplorable. I’m noting the way that true colors inevitably come out.

If that hot mic had caught Brennaman saying “one of the gay capitals of the world,’’ I’m guessing there wouldn’t have been as much of an uproar. But he didn’t. He used an epithet for a homosexual. That doesn’t come out by accident. It comes out by habit. It reminds me of something somebody would say in high school. But Brennaman is a 56-year-old man, not a 14-year-old freshman.

As for Grace, his use of the word “dingbat’’ to describe his ex-wife tells us that he’s stuck in 1975. But it also tells us that he has absolutely no self-awareness. Who thinks “dingbat” is something that can be said on a broadcast? Someone who is clueless.

Whenever I was around Grace in the Cubs’ clubhouse, I always felt like I was listening to a guy who had watched “Bull Durham’’ about 100 times too many. I couldn’t tell where he started and where Kevin Costner’s sage, folksy Crash Davis character ended. People often laughed at the things Grace said when he was a player. Maybe a guy starts to think that everything he says is funny. That doesn’t explain why Grace thinks “dingbat’’ is a good word to describe a woman, but it might explain why he would utter it publicly. I’m not just the life of the party. I am the party.

Both men apologized, but public apologies mean almost nothing. Few people trust them. In Brennaman’s case, what was he apologizing for? That something he very clearly meant to say was caught by a busybody mic?

In a later apology, he tried to say that his subsequent research into the history of the homophobic word he used opened his eyes to the ugliness of it. He said he had “no idea it was so rooted in hate.’’ Really? What did you think it was rooted in? Whimsy? This is a very good example of making a bad thing worse. Of words revealing what you are.

Cancel-culture watchdogs immediately complained that Brennaman’s punishments were a prime example of political correctness gone haywire. But nobody canceled him. He canceled himself, and he seemed to know it almost immediately.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be putting on this headset again,’’ he said during his on-air apology.

I don’t know Brennaman, a former Cubs broadcaster. I’ve met him a few times. He might be a great person. But if you know a word that can get you into deep trouble professionally, it makes sense that you’d do everything in your power not to say it in a work environment. Yet he said it anyway. That suggests it wasn’t a one-off thing with him.

He’s human. So is Grace. So are we all. We’ve all said things we wish we hadn’t. But when you say something publicly, it’s a pretty good indication of who and what you are. And when you say it with a microphone near your mouth, it’s an indictment. NBC hockey analyst Mike Milbury praised the NHL’s bubble on the air Thursday night, saying there were no women to distract the players. Viewers criticized him for being sexist. What else would they have to go on?

It’s up to Brennaman and Grace to decide if they’re happy with themselves, regardless of what happens to them professionally.

You can’t be anybody but you. That sounds fatalistic, I know. It sounds like everything in life has been predetermined, that none of us can change, that we’re not in charge. That’s not true.

You are who you are. You’re what you say. But you’re also what you do after that stupid thing you just said. Gentlemen, your move.