By Mark Canfield
Sports has historically been an epicenter for social change, most notably the impact of sports can be seen on the Civil Rights Movement. Great athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russel have been immortalized, not just for their heroics as athletes but for their contributions to help further the African American community.
Even today athletes use their influence to help remedy social injustice. Most recently we have seen the Missouri football team threaten to protest games, the Los Angeles Clippers protest their owner, the Rams walking onto the field with their hands up, members of the Miami Heat show solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s family and numerous professional basketball players wearing T-shirts with the phrase “I can’t breathe” written across it; referencing the death of Eric Garner in New York. Sports has acted as a tremendous catalyst in the past for social movements.
However, many professional sports have what can best be described as a subpar relationship with the homosexual community. The various leagues in the United States, predominantly the NBA and NFL, need to adjust and help create an environment that is more friendly and more importantly less discriminatory for homosexuals.
The NBA has notable flaws in regards to its relationship with the gay community, most notably the lack of an openly gay player. Recently Jason Collins, a former NBA player for numerous teams, opened up about his personal life and came out as homosexual making him the first openly gay athlete in all four major American sports.
However, he did this when he was a free agent, an aging player, and a player declining in production resulting in him not being picked up by a new team. The metaphorical baggage that a gay player brings on to a team is a major deterrent for many sports teams.
Why should one’s sexual orientation be considered baggage though? Should we not help to foster a league, or more importantly a society, that is accepting of all people? The NBA is not even close to reaching this point.
In 2011 NBA superstar and icon Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 dollars for uttering the phrase “fucking faggot,” expressing his irritation by a call made by the referees. During this current NBA season, Sacramento point guard Rajon Rondo was suspended for calling NBA referee Billy Kennedy a “faggot” and some other choice words. Shortly after the incident, Billy Kennedy came out as a homosexual. However, speculation of his sexual orientation spanned back many years.
In fact, it was thought that his chippy relationship with Doc Rivers was caused by his sexual orientation, Rivers is devoutly Christian and supposedly their in game chats were less than civil. Rondo was a member of those Celtics teams that supposedly clashed with Kennedy and his comments earlier this year might have been a direct result.
Regardless of the circumstances, it is quite evident that the NBA has failed to create an environment that is friendly for gay athletes. Players who are gay feel as if they cannot come out as who they are due to locker room issues. Furthermore, many players use hostile language towards homosexuals, whether it is intentional or inadvertent. Hopefully in the coming years the NBA will make the necessary steps to reach out to the homosexual community and help further social justice.
The NFL has found itself in a very similar situation as the NBA. There are currently no active NFL players who are openly gay. As of recently, this almost changed due to Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. Leading up the the NFL draft, Michael Sam announced to the world that he was gay.
Previously he had done this in August before the college season started for his teammates and they openly accepted him. The NFL was not as kind however. Many athletes have said in the past that they think a gay athlete would not fit well into an NFL locker room, one of these players was Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers.
The disturbing part of this is not the fact that locker rooms might be homophobic, as that has come to be expect as an inevitable problem despite it being unreasonable. What is disturbing is how much this truly affected Michael Sam’s chances at becoming part of the NFL when many teams claim they will do whatever it takes to win.
Michael Sam was the defensive player of the year for the SEC in 2013. Many of the preceding SEC defensive player of the years were first round picks, Michael Sam on the other hand was not picked until the near end of the seventh round. Admittedly, Sam’s combine measurables were not as outstanding as previous SEC defensive player of the year draft prospects but his on field production was impeccable.
It is hard to imagine the SEC defensive player of the year going 7 picks away from going un-drafted. Despite being drafted, he was cut shortly after and at this point is out of the league all together. Whether or not Michael Sam can play in the NFL is not on trial here. Even if he wasn’t very good, an ex-SEC defensive player of the year would be on an NFL roster coming out of the draft and most likely muddle around the league a few years as a backup (i.e. every draft bust ever, I’m looking at you Jamarcus Russel). Michael Sam was deliberately eliminated from the NFL due to fear of locker room clashing caused by an anti-gay sentiment.
America’s two major sports league do not have a good track record when considering their respective relationships with gay athletes. Both leagues currently have fostered environments that are not conducive to having gay players participate in the leagues. Gay players need to feel comfortable enough to come out in the locker room and not hide who they truly are in order for us to progress as a society.
There are already gay players in these leagues, but due to media pressure and a culture not conducive to their participation they feel unfree to come out to society. These athletes do not deserve to be discriminated against and denied the opportunity, not by law but in a de facto manner, to compete and make money at the highest level due to their sexual orientation. One can only hope that in the ensuing years both of these major leagues will undergo a cultural shift to allow gay athletes to be themselves and compete in these leagues.