The Perception of Equality in Sports

There is a debate raging on a national and international scale in terms of what is right and wrong when it comes to equality in sports.  The Olympic games in Sochi, Russia were a black eye on what is supposed to be a setting where diversity and humanity are celebrated via sports as opposed to ostracizing people based on their individual qualities.  Couple that with the many rumors of current NFL players who may be gay, Michael Sam publicly declaring his homosexuality before his appearance at the NFL Combine, and Jason Collins being signed and playing for the Brooklyn Nets, and it seems like the metaphorical dam is ready to rupture.

I had the opportunity to speak with a former NFL punter, Chris Kluwe, the talented actress, Sophia Bush, and Brian Healey who is the Program and Social Media Coordinator at Athlete Ally – all of which aim to bring awareness to embracing equality in sports.  Athlete Ally is a group that has teamed up with Chris, Sophia, and multiple other professional athletes such as Greg Louganis, Yogi Berra, Kenneth Faried, and Brendon Ayanbadejo amongst others.  Athlete Ally’s mission is simple; they aim to enable athletes to be role models by challenging homophobia and transphobia in sports while looking to find ways to achieve victory through unity.

Olympics

The Winter Olympics wrapped up last week in Sochi, Russia, and while the Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of diversity and sport, there was an intense focus on the anti-gay laws that were enacted after the Olympics were awarded to the former soviet country.  Part of the Olympic Charter reads, “The practice of sport is a human right.  Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”  When I asked Sophia why she was so passionate about equality and what that meant to her she said, ‘To me, it just seemed like a very sad place to hold the games that are supposed to talk about bringing the World together and [are supposed to be] highlighting exceptional people and having so much diversity in one place under the guise of sportsmanship.”

Sophia is right; the Olympics are supposed to highlight individual achievements and bring every participating country together regardless of religious beliefs, cultural differences, or anything else that typically divides us, yet the Winter Games did just the opposite of that.  When I asked Brian what he thought of the potential negative impact this would have on Russia as a tourist destination or as a site to have major sports competitions like this in the future he said, ‘They’re already going to get the World Cup in 2018 so I don’t think its really done too much in terms of sliding them down in terms of how they are viewed as a World power.”

So how do we move forward in creating an inclusive environment where athletes and vacation goers don’t have to worry about hiding who they are based on which country they are in?  How do we ensure Sochi 2014 doesn’t repeat itself in the future and create an issue where the games can be overshadowed by a controversy that could easily be avoided?  Brian’s thoughts were, “We can ask the IOC to add special orientations to its charter and advocate more investigations into human rights violations before they award the games.”  By ensuring that these countries don’t have a history of violating basic human rights and that they are not a country that has firm roots in discriminating against citizens or visitors, there never has to be a repeat of this travesty in the Olympics or any other major sporting event for that matter.

Sports and Equality

The topic of an openly gay player in the NFL has been debated pretty heavily the past few years and there have been people outspoken on either side of the issue.  Rumors have swirled about current players such as Kerry Rhodes and Aaron Rodgers being gay.  Manti Te’o was rumored to have potentially made up the story of his fake girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, in order to cover up his sexuality.  Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe, Scott Fujita, as well as many other current players have come out in support of any potentially gay athletes and have offered their support in ensuring that any individual who chose to reveal himself as gay would have a support system in place, people to turn to when times got tough, and people who understand what an NFL locker room is like and how to potentially navigate those waters.

Michael Sam chose to be the athlete that set the standard for any future player who chooses to brave the storm that will come with being an openly gay player in the NFL.  He is the Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC, he is an African-American and he is openly gay.  When I asked Chris what Michael might be facing when it comes to treatment in comparison to how he felt he was treated by the Minnesota Vikings organization, Chris said, “I think he’ll be treated fairly by some teams and unfairly by others.  I think there are some teams who will look at him and say ‘you know, we don’t want a gay player on our team’ and that’s really a shame.”

Sam was projected to be a 3rd to 5th round pick before he came out in an ESPN interview, but what did the knowledge of his sexuality do to his draft day potential?  There were a lot of scouts, GM’s and coaches who said that he would be evaluated just like every other player on their boards. At least one team official, who chose to remain anonymous, told SI’s Peter King that he didn’t see him as a player that would be drafted at all, that he was overrated.

Sophia Bush applauded Michael, saying, “It does take an incredible amount of courage to tell the world who you are.  You’re not just telling your family or friends.”  She went on to talk about the challenges of coming out to the entire world and how difficult that must have been.

So what does Michael telling everyone in the world he is gay accomplish?  Will he be a better football player?  Will fans be respectful and polite?  Will he be given a separate locker in a little side room away from the team to change in by himself?  No, none of these things will happen.  Michael Sam will still be an athlete who has to adjust to the NFL.  There may be some fans who will show how incredibly uneducated, hateful, and discriminatory they can be by the insults they hurl toward him while he is in warm ups, walking out of the tunnel, or on the field.  His teammates will embrace him because, at the end of the day, if he can help their team win there is nothing more that matters.

What happens if Michael isn’t a high impact player?  Would the gay community in sports benefit more if Aaron Rodgers had said he was gay?  Would they have benefitted more if Te’o hadn’t famously said, “No Far from it…faaaaar from it.” when Katie Couric had asked him if he was gay?  What if it was someone like Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry as opposed to Jason Collins who stepped on the floor as the first openly gay player in the NBA?  The answer to these questions is simple…

Michael’s biggest impact will come in terms of helping to pave a path, along with Jason Collins, where people are not afraid to be themselves while pursuing their dreams of playing their sport at the highest level.  Chris Kluwe said, “I think that there are a lot of player who are going to watch and see what happens with Michael Sam, and if it does turn out to be a positive experience, then I think you’ll see more players coming out in a year or two because they see the atmosphere is changing.”

Reality v. Perception

Michael said in his combine press conference that he “wishes people would see him as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of as Michael Sam, the gay football player.”  There will come a time where his sexual orientation is less of a concern than what he is doing on the field, but in this time of year, news is slow, there isn’t much going on, and sports journalists need something to write about.  If he had made the play that NaVarro Bowman made against the Atlanta Falcons in the last game at Candlestick Park, there would be very few 49ers fans who cared that he is gay; they’d be ecstatic that a player on the Niners was in position to make that play and that the last game at Candlestick was a win.  If Michael had been the recipient of the Richard Sherman tip against the 49ers, there would not be a lot of people who care who he goes home to…they would be ecstatic that he made the pick and that their team was going to the Super Bowl.

Players who suggest that they could not play with a gay teammate, shower with a gay teammate, or co-exist with a gay teammate have one large flaw in their argument; they have been doing so since the beginning of their playing days, they just didn’t know it.  Sophia Bush had an interesting take on this aspect of the discussion, saying, “If you guys want to talk about how manly you are, real men don’t give a shit about what people do in their bedroom.”  She added, “You’re actually being a little whiny child when you say, ‘oooooooooh, I don’t know if I can play a game with a guy who likes guys.’ Seriously?! That’s your biggest problem?  What a champagne life you lead, man.”

I guess that’s the issue with perception versus reality.  These players think that they have never played a game with a gay athlete before, but they have.  They also come in contact with gay people at the grocery store, church, coffee shops, the gym and anywhere else they may go on a regular basis.  The perception from a closed-minded NFL player’s standpoint seems to be that all gay men are flamboyant hairdressers or interior designers and that they are too soft to play in the NFL.  The reality is that there were two players on the ’93 Houston Oilers who were gay; they were tough enough to play.  Two players on the Washington Redskins, Jerry Smith and Dave Kopay were gay; they were tough enough to play.  If it were to ever come out that Aaron Rodgers, Manti Te’o, or Kerry Rhodes were gay, would anyone questions their toughness?  Would any Green Bay Packers fan ask for Brett Favre back and act like their most recent Super Bowl doesn’t count if the Rodgers interview were true?

People fear what they don’t know, so maybe these athletes are afraid of a gay athlete because they aren’t sure what to expect when he comes into the locker room.  Maybe they are frustrated because they can no longer use terms like faggot, queer, or princess without fear of offending a fellow teammate.  Maybe they think he is going to walk into the locker room in a pair of spandex shorts and a cutoff t-shirt that exposes his midriff.  Maybe they’re afraid he’s going to look at them in the shower and get some crazy idea and hit on them.  Maybe they think he will wear pink while he’s on the field as opposed to the team’s colors.  Oh yeah, NFL players already wear spandex shorts and cut off shirts that show their stomachs, they’ve probably (but not certainly) never been hit on or seduced in a locker room, and the NFL and MLB both allow their players to wear pink for causes, but the rest of the time everyone wears the same uniform.

The issue of homosexuality in sports, and in life, isn’t going away.  There have been gay athletes for years and they aren’t going away.  The NFL preaches that it is an inclusive organization and that they applaud Michael Sam for coming out but then, as Sophia pointed out, ”they say they don’t discriminate, but then everyone in the league is coming forward and saying, ‘this kid is going to have a hard time.’ That’s a problem.”  The leagues can have guest speakers come in and talk to the athletes, team representatives, and everyone else involved about tolerance and acceptance, but the only thing that is going to change people’s perspective is experiences.  Experiences lead to beliefs, beliefs lead to actions, and actions lead to results.  If you want to change the actions and results of any current issue, you must first aim to change the experiences that the people within your organization have with that group of people.

Michael Sam is a trailblazer, whether he wants to be or not, and the experiences he allows others to have while he is around will ultimately help shape the current landscape of the NFL.  Jason Collins is a veteran in the NBA and is helping to shape the experiences of every person he comes in contact with.  The experiences these athletes share with other people will go toward helping foster discussion and dismissing any preconceived thoughts based on watching Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or Modern Family.  These will be real life experiences, not experiences based on stereotypes, and those experiences will allow their fellow athletes to draw their own conclusions and realize that having a gay teammate isn’t nearly as bad, awkward, or horrific as they once thought it might have been.

“It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde

 

This article was originally written by Jason Neal for Konsume.com