In the sports world, the holidays are all about football. On Thanksgiving Day, many families in America watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, gorge on turkey and all the trimmings, and settle in for a day of watching – football. On Christmas (at least among Christians and other Americans who celebrate Christmas), everyone wakes up at the crack of dawn, spends the morning tearing through Christmas stockings and wrapping paper, and zones out all afternoon watching – football. For a die-hard baseball fan like myself, spring can’t come fast enough.
And for a die-hard baseball fan like myself who is also an advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, I’m waiting for the day when an openly gay athlete can play comfortably side-by-side with his or her teammates. A pie-in-the-sky goal, I realize, for homophobia in sports is such a longstanding, entrenched tradition. Many families urge their children (particularly sons) to play sports because it builds character, fosters team spirit and collaboration, and teaches life lessons about hard work and fair play. And more than a few parents push their sons into sports like football, baseball, or basketball to shore up their masculinity – and to protect them from “becoming” gay. The more aggressive the sport, the better – there’s a reason why Billy Elliot’s father encouraged boxing and discouraged ballet dancing. In fact, not playing sports can cause suspicion among a boy’s peers that he might in fact be gay. And girls and women who play sports aren’t immune – even though a number of lesbian athletes are out, “lesbophobia” seems to be alive and well, particularly in women’s team sports. The WNBA, for example, offers its rookie players courses on make-up and fashion tips as a way of ensuring that their players maintain a “feminine” persona – not surprising, given that lesbianism is often assumed in sports like softball and basketball.
This year, things have been changing – all because of the “F-word.” When Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, in two separate incidents, used the “F-word” publicly, the NBA came down hard and fined both players heavily. In response to the fines, iconic former basketball star and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said the following: “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play. Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person … I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.” In addition, a number of former professional athletes have come out of the closet, either as gay or as allies. As quoted in an interview for New York magazine, Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of OutSports, said this: “Something has happened in the last year. It’s almost like homophobia is no longer considered cool in sports.” And the data seem to confirm this – several studies conducted by Eric Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Winchester, reveal that homophobia, at least in college sports, appears to be on the decline.
Not only is homophobia becoming uncool, it also violates newly-implemented labor agreements. On November 22, 2011, Major League Baseball announced that their new collective bargaining agreement adds “sexual orientation” to its section on discrimination. Earlier this year, the NFL made a similar change in their collective bargaining agreement, adding sexual orientation as a protected class. And just this past week, a senior vice-president for the NBA, in perfect tipping-point style, announced that “non-discrimination language was added into the agreement that protects players from discrimination, including based on sexual orientation. The NHL and Major League Soccer have also added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies. In my opinion, I think it’s fair to say that, in 2011, we’ve witnessed more significant change in professional sports regarding LGBTQ civil rights than in any other American institution. And that includes the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
And still, we don’t have an openly gay male active professional athlete in any of the major U.S. sports franchises. When that happens (which, given the changes that have been taking place in rapid succession, may be sooner rather than later), if his sexuality is going to be accepted by his teammates and, more importantly, his fans, he’ll need to be a superstar – a player with All-Star status. In the words of John Amaechi, quoted in New York magazine, “I came out three years after finishing a reasonably average career, and everybody freaked out. Imagine if I had been good.”