Thursday, January 24, 2013

Battling Homophobia in Professional Sports

In recent years (mostly the last two or three years) there has been an increasingly vocal movement within professional male sports to eradicate, or at the least confront, the pervasive homophobia that has long been a part of that world. We know things are beginning to change when hyper-masculine men such as Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns, and Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings (all are straight) become vocal and even "impassioned" spokesmen for same-sex marriage.

Even boxing has an openly gay fighter, featherweight Orlando Cruz.

But there has never, ever been a professional male athlete who has come out while still playing his (team) sport in the U.S. David Kopay (Redskins running back), Billy Bean (Dodgers and Padres outfielder), John Amaechi (NBA center-forward), and Wade Davis (Titans, Seahawks, and Redskins cornerback) are gay athletes who waited until they were well out of their sport to reveal their sexual identity.

The NHL (You Can Play), MLS, and MLB have taken some leadership in trying to create a more welcoming atmosphere for gay players to feel safe and not feel compelled to be closeted. The San Francisco Giants were followed by a handful of other baseball teams, as well as teams and players from other professional sports, in participating in Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project.

35 N.H.L. players, including Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, and Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators have supported You Can Play, a campaign created and promoted by hockey’s Burke family to open doors for gay athletes to participate in sports. Brenden Burke died in a car accident in 2010 - he came out while serving as manager of his college hockey team - his brother Patrick Burke is a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers. Their father, Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, marched in Toronto’s gay pride parade with Brendan, and again after Brendan died.

The You Can Play campaign . . .
. . . is intended to “make locker rooms safe for all athletes, rather than places of fear, slurs and bullying,” said Patrick Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and a founder of the project. 
The message will be shown for the first time during the first intermission of NBC’s Sunday afternoon telecast of the Bruins-Rangers game [note: this is from 2012]. Thirty-five N.H.L. players, including award winners and All-Stars, have committed to take part in the project, Burke said. The You Can Play Web site is scheduled to go online Sunday. 
Several Major League Baseball teams made similar announcements last season, as did N.B.A. players after a series of incidents in which fellow N.B.A. players used antigay slurs. (LA Times)
Unfortunately, there is still a rainbow ceiling for gay male athletes. 
Just ask soccer player David Testo. When Testo, a decorated midfielder with the Montreal Impact of the second-tier North American Soccer League, came out on a Canadian TV show 13 months ago he said the initial reception was positive. But his contract had expired two weeks earlier and after his announcement the phone stopped ringing. 
Testo, 31, hasn't played a game since. 
"It seems like there is a lot more support these days. But for someone to come out to the public or just to their teammates, it takes a lot of just coming to terms with it yourself," Testo says. "Most of these athletes are younger and they haven't had their time to kind of explore and just come to that kind of self-awareness. 
"I would love for someone to be able to do that in their prime and really be a role model, an inspiration for others. When that one special [player] does it, it's just going to open the floodgates. But it's hard. When there's a lot of money on the line, when there's endorsements on the line, it's different. Why would anyone want to risk that?" (LA Times)
While change is happening, men like David Testo still suffer from the homophobia infecting professional sports. He was a high quality player - nothing about his performance before coming out would have led team to ignore his availability when his contract ended.

In England, Manchester United's heterosexual goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard (of the Premier League - English football's version of the NHL or MLB, sports with lower tier professional leagues) joined the campaign to kick homophobia out of football (that's soccer to my American readers).

IT WAS bold and unequivocal. ''Gay people need a hero. They need someone who dares to step forward and stand for their sexuality.''
He's not the only one. West Ham winger Matt Jarvis became the third heterosexual Premier League star to appear on the cover of Attitude (a gay magazine). Former English rugby union international Ben Cohen launched a foundation with the goal of bringing an end to homophobic bullying. In Australia, Wallabies flanker (rugby) David Pocock has vowed he won't marry his girlfriend until gay couples are afforded the same right.

Still, according to Caroline Fusco (University of Toronto), homophobic attitudes are still embedded in professional sports.
“Sport as a space has been one that has really been there for the production of a certain kind of hyper-masculinity. Particularly when you think of pro sports, the big ones: hockey, football, baseball. These all tie in to the rugged notion of masculinity, and these attitudes remain — that gay men aren’t masculine,” she says.
“Homophobia is also tied in to social class, to race as well,” says Fusco. “Who gets this hyper proving ground for masculinity?”
According to Fusco, these anti-homophobia campaigns are important, but she feels they need to take "a more holistic approach."
“These campaigns are really important, [but] there’s something about the implementation of the plan. It starts very early for boys and girls, at school, and schools need to be involved. Municipal, provincial and federal governments need to get on board.
The same is true here in the U.S. If we want to change the nature of the culture, it starts with teaching our children that every human being has the right to love the person of their choice, whether that person is the opposite sex or the same sex is not relevant.

And this needs to be a part of our sports programs - with a zero tolerance policy for bullying or harassment of gay teammates, or even of other students in the school. Then the programs being created for athletes at the professional level need to be re-tooled for middle school, high school, and college athletes.

I played soccer in Seattle for a couple of seasons on a gay (well, GBT) men's team. There is nothing girlie or weak or contagious about those men. They were ferocious athletes and nice guys. As the token bi guy (most of the team was gay, with a couple of straight guys, as well), I was accepted without hesitation - all they cared was that I was a good passer and an efficient scorer.

Even though this was a "recreational" league, most of these guys had been stars of their high school teams and many of us had played college ball. The level of competition was at least equal to that of my NAIA-Division III school.

I don't know what it will take for the first man at the professional level to feel safe coming out while still playing. But I know that the efforts of You Can Play and the It Gets Better Project (among others) will be instrumental in creating that safe space.

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