Speaking of Women's Rights...: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Lives On - In Professional Sports

Friday, May 13, 2011

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Lives On - In Professional Sports

by David Ward

Earlier this week, pro hockey player
Sean Avery appeared in a video supporting marriage equality for LGBT couples. Avery, who is straight, isn’t well-known outside the hockey world. But his statement received national attention because it was such a rarity: A professional male athlete speaking out for LGBT rights.

We’ve come a long way in combating homophobia in this country. After years of effort, Congress finally passed legislation to bring an end to the military’s infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay servicemembers. But in the world of professional sports, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” remains an unwritten rule for gay and lesbian athletes.

Consider this: There has
never been an openly gay player on any professional men’s sports team in the United States. Even after retiring from the game, only a handful of male athletes have come out of the closet.

The record is only marginally better in professional women’s sports. True, there have been some outstanding openly lesbian athletes, including tennis greats
Martina Navritolova and Billie Jean King and basketball star Sheryl Swoopes. But few others have followed their courageous leads, and homophobia in women’s sports remains a problem.

So what’s it going to take for LGBT athletes to feel safe to come out of the closet?

Of course, it’s an important step for straight athletes like Sean Avery to show public support for LGBT rights and players. Avery joins a handful of male athletes from major pro sports teams who have recently spoken out for LGBT rights, including
Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of basketball’s Phoenix Suns and Brendon Ayanbadejo of football’s Baltimore Ravens. Let’s hope that more straight athletes join this movement.

But it’s going to take more than support from teammates. League officials, team owners, and major sponsors have to step up to the plate. They need to make it clear that openly gay athletes will be welcomed, supported, and protected from discrimination.

So far, those at the top have done little if anything to encourage LGBT athletes to come out. David Stern, the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was recently asked about why there has never been an openly gay player in the NBA. His response: “
I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue but I think sports, male sports, has traditionally not been an inviting environment for gay men to identify themselves.” While Stern predicted that “eventually... we will get to a place where it is not an issue in sports," he acknowledged that “it’s going to be hard” for the first player to come out – without offering any support or encouragement for a player to make that difficult decision.

And in the Women’s National Basketball Association, a league that depends greatly on support from LGBT fans, Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson took the incredible step of banning the use of “kiss cams” at home games. The “kiss cam” is a staple of pro sports, where the camera picks out a couple in the crowd and projects their image on a Jumbotron, while other crowd members cheer for them to kiss. Johnson said it would be “
inappropriate” to have kiss cams at Mystics’ games – apparently because it may show lesbian couples kissing. As LGBT sports expert Pat Griffin put it, this decision sent the message that “lesbians in the stands and on the court are expected to be ‘appropriate’ which, of course means shut up, sit down and make yourself as invisible as possible.”

Everyone knows there are LGBT athletes in professional sports. We also know that there are legions of LGBT sports fans and that LGBT teens could benefit greatly by having more gay athletes as role models. Sports officials, team owners, and sponsors need to stop ignoring those facts and take steps to assure LGBT athletes that they will be welcomed and supported if they come out. Some athletes are starting to lead the way. It’s time for the leaders to follow.