Last week a sports writer visited campus to talk with students. Before the big presentation, a student asked him what he thought about Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer who recently announced he is gay, the first and only professional boxer to do so. And the writer simply said this issue is going to be the Jackie Robinson of this generation. The handful of 20 year olds sitting around the table got what he meant, maybe even more than 70 year olds that lived through baseball’s integration.
The issue of sexual orientation in sport has come center stage and field and ice the past several weeks, building on months of hastening dialogue. Just yesterday it was announced that Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets is the first NBA athlete to join Athlete’s Ally, an advocacy group trying to reduce prejudice in sport on sexual orientation and identity. Kenneth was raised by a lesbian couple and has spoken publicly on the importance of marriage rights for gays.
And just last week NFL linebacker and Super Bowl champion Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote a nationally syndicated column asking for an end to homophobia in sports. Even Kobe Bryant, less than a year removed from an NBA fine for using a homophobic slur during a nationally televised game, tweeted that he was offended by a fan using the word “gay” as a pejorative.
This all comes on an ebbing flow of banter on the issue, a slow climb that started far back in the days when Olympic diver Greg Louganis faced not only questions of his sexuality, but also the reality of competing with HIV. But that was about athletes in individual sports, where people competed by and for themselves. And it was largely assumed, and perhaps to some degree accepted that gay athletes competed amongst their straight peers.
Women’s team sport has confronted bias and bigotry for years, and not always successfully. College teams have been split apart, and professional sports leagues have wrestled with the viability of marketing gay female athletes to an audience that has historically been fed a diet of consumable heterosexual females. And even when basketball star Sheryl Swoops came out several years back, it simply seemed to reinforce the marginalized nature of the women’s game in general, a relative side show in the larger production of professional sports.
But now it seems, the issue has gone prime time, to the testosterone laced world of men’s team sports, perhaps the only scene that rivals the American military for stereotypical masculine camaraderie, where the locker room served court as the board room for male hegemony. Where men chided other men for showing anything less than a nearly predatorial thirst for female consumption. And yet something funny happened on the way to the showers. At some point, somewhere, being tough and being straight became less synonymous. Maybe it started when John Amaechi became the first former NBA athlete to publicly announce he’s gay. Maybe it happened when people condemned Tim Hardaway for mocking him. Or maybe it’s fines levied by the NBA and NFL towards athletes who make bigoted comments. Whatever the case, professional team sports seems poised to cross a great divide, where mocking a gay athlete will seem as barbaric as throwing a racing slur. And athletes will feel at least relatively safe in living their lives publicly as they do privately. What’s notable here is that this shift isn’t just about good citizenry. It’s also good business and strong leadership, where professional sports leagues have noticed that their largely affluent fan base increasingly accepts homosexuality as simply another form of diversity. Not making that a league mandate wouldn’t just be insensitive; it would be financial foolishness, something few pro sports leagues in this country can be accused of.
Sport as an institution is an easy mark, especially in the US. And yet sometimes we forget that it can also be an early adopter, a space that leads the masses into a more just position. And as much as today’s athlete has been criticized as simply a postmodern billboard, don’t discount the many pro athletes that recently publicly demanded an end to gun violence. And yes, NRA members buy shoes as well. Athletes can be role models, and in the case of Kenneth Faried and Brendon Ayanbadejo and yes, even Kobe Bryant, right now they are. I’d have to believe that Jackie Robinson would be proud.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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