Athletes can help strike out bigotry

There’s a major problem in sports. It’s not steroids; it’s not cheating. Not the NBA lockout or the BCS.

A couple weeks ago, Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson went on a radio show and called someone a word that no one, in polite company or otherwise, should ever utter. The media calls it a “gay slur.”

I call it proof.

Sports, from the professional leagues on down, remain one of this nation’s great bastions of homophobia. They’re like the military, only it’s not “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s “don’t even assume because there are no gays in sports.”

In men’s sports like football and baseball, we figure that everyone is straight. In many women’s sports, especially softball and basketball, the classic stereotype is that they’re all lesbian — a different, but equally, homophobic sentiment.

The history of gay athletes, as it is now written, is full of silence. It wasn’t until 1975 that a professional team-sport athlete, NFL running back David Kopay, admitted to being gay — three years after he retired. In 1993, former Dodgers and A’s outfielder Glenn Burke was the first of two (count ‘em, two) Major League Baseball players to come out.

As humans, we continually evolve (see: the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, etc.) but this evolution has been painfully slow. Just this summer, former Giants wide receiver David Tyree said that legalizing gay marriage would lead to “anarchy.”

But over the past few months, some have shown that we may be turning the corner.

More and more, athletes are being punished for using gay slurs. This year, Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for apparently calling a ref a “fucking faggot” and A’s prospect Ian Krol was suspended immediately upon using homophobic language on his Twitter. The message is finally coming across, loud and clear: Free speech does not, and should not, cover the right to degrade others.

This month, Michael Irvin graces the cover of Out magazine. In the cover story, Irvin admits that his hypermasculine behavior derived, in part, from his fear of becoming like his gay older brother Vaughn. Now, he is promoting tolerance and support for all people fearful of being harassed because of their sexuality.

“When these issues come out, I want to have a voice to speak about them,” Irvin said in the article. “… When a guy steps up and says, ‘This is who I am,’ I guarantee you I’ll give him 100-percent support.”

MLB has also joined the fight against discrimination. The Giants, Cubs and Red Sox have all made videos for It Gets Better, a campaign that seeks to offer support to LGBT kids and teens. A YouTube video may not seem like much, but in pro sports — where supporting gay rights is almost as bad as admitting to being gay — this kind of everyday bravery marks a leap forward.

Then, there’s New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, the first pro athlete to support New York’s gay marriage bill. His appearance in a video supporting marriage equality sparked a firestorm of opposition. But that opposition in turn unleashed something far more powerful — an outpouring of support for Avery’s position from people everywhere, from fans to radio personalities to players.

For the first time, the polls show a majority of Americans in support of gay marriage. And, as history has shown, social change doesn’t come from the top — it comes from the people.

We all have an obligation to speak out against discrimination, athletes perhaps more than most given their idolized status in society. For better or for worse, their voices matter. When the Sean Averys of the world speak, we listen.

Some have said that the gay movement in sports needs its Jackie Robinson. But in this world, we rarely depend on one shining hero to save us.
The most important contributions, the ones that really matter, come from the crowd — the thousands of athletes, coaches and fans who, through small steps and little words, help strike down intolerance.