Few industries have as storied a history of discrimination and prejudice as the world of sports. Before the late 1940s, this manifested as racial segregation, with African Americans kept from playing in the Big 4 professional sports leagues. Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington helped do away with that.
Before 1972, this was a gender problem, with schools either offering very few and/or severely underfunded athletic opportunities for girls wishing to play sports. Cue Title IX.
Of course, neither of these divisions have completely disappeared: the NFL seems curiously dominated by white quarterbacks and black running backs, while WNBA players make less than 1 percent of their NBA counterparts. But no one can argue these situations aren’t far better than they were several decades ago.
Sexual preference seems to be the latest division in sports. Among the Big 4, only nine former players have ever come out of the closet. None have come out while still playing professional sports, though Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts has. Taking the Big 4 to the college level, only two have have publicly acknowledged their homosexuality: Brian Sims, defensive tackle for Div-II Bloomsburg University, and Brendan Burke, former goalie and team manager of Miami of Ohio’s men’s hockey team.
Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, died in a car crash in February 2010, and his brother Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, started the You Can Play Project in his honor. Intended to make it easier for openly gay athletes to play, You Can Play picked up a lot of steam when many of the NHL’s best appeared in this ad:
Since then, several smaller hockey adds have appeared on the site, including one by our very own Zdeno Chara. The group notched another huge victory Thursday, when UConn’s men’s hockey team pledged their unilateral support.
Many athletes who played during less-tolerant times came to tragic ends, leaving their teams in disgrace or even attempting suicide. That sports have more same-sex contact per 60 minutes than maybe any other job in the world would be funny were it not for the sadness this irony tends to result in. If YCP can prevent such sad endings, more power to them.
And as great as YCP is, it’s just one side of a battle that seems, bit by bit, to be turning towards a happier ending for gay athletes. For every David Tyree who spews a nonsensical, moronic, hateful rant against gay marriage, there seems to be slews of football players – including second overall 2012 draft pick Robert Griffin III – publicly stating they’d have no problem with a gay teammate.
Interestingly, most of these NFLers’ rationale is almost identical to the NHL’s: if a teammate can help win a ballgame – if he can play – sexual preference shouldn’t keep him out of a locker room.
Does this mean homophobia in sports has been solved? No, obviously not. And I can’t help wondering if the in-roads these once homophobic institutions are making may be indirectly leading to the war I see conservative leaders publicly waging on women these days, abandoning one suddenly losing effort to oppress someone else and maintain their power.
But the NFL’s public tolerance, the NHL’s alliance with You Can Play and the NBA’s effort to curtail homophobic language are all absolutely steps in the right direction. Small steps, yes, but steps nonetheless.
Steps that hopefully lead us to a day when anyone – gay or straight, male or female, black or white – with the chops to make it in a particular sport pursues his or her dream free of fear.