You Can Play Strives for LGBT Equality in Sports
On April 14, San José Earthquakes forward Alan Gordon called Portland Timbers player Will Johnson a "fucking faggot." The anti-gay slur was caught on camera and Major League Soccer officials suspended Gordon for three games, fined him for "using unacceptable and offensive language, and also had to attend sensitivity and diversity training. Gordon, who later apologized, was the third player suspended by MLS for using that word, a historically common epithet in most sports venues.
In 2011, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant received a technical foul and called the referee a "fucking fag." When Oakland Athletics manager Billy Martin introduced a gay baseball player to his new teammates, he said, "this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot."
While male sports seem to be an impenetrable bastion of institutionalized discrimination where homophobia is often par for the course, intolerant attitudes and behaviors are experiencing a welcome smack-down. In this emerging era of "do ask, do tell," alongside the current support of the Supreme Court, "the time is right to start a discussion about ending homophobia in sports," according to Brian Kitts, who co-founded the You Can Play initiative a year ago.
Kitts, who has worked in the front offices of many professional sports teams, and his partners saw problems at the recreational, collegiate and professional levels.
The premise is simple: "if you can play, you can play," and this mantra is being turned into public service announcements by professional athletes. Comcast SportsNet Bay Area rolled out spots this June, which feature all-stars from all of Northern California’s pro-teams. Players from the Oakland A’s and Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Giants, San José Sharks and Earthquakes, and the Golden State Warriors reiterate "winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing," adding "gay, straight, bi, whatever. We don’t care. It’s time to support our LGBT friends, family, and teammates."
Three years ago, CSNBA President Ted Griggs produced a documentary called "Out" about A’s player Glenn Burke, who retired from baseball in 1980 due to intolerance of his sexual orientation, leaving a promising career at age 27. In the film, a sports agent notes that, "Glenn was comfortable with who he was. Baseball was not comfortable with who he was," and a teammate added, "It was the kiss of death for a ball player."
Burke turned to drugs, however, ended up in jail and died of complications from AIDS in 1995. Griggs credits his involvement with the doc as impetus for promoting further awareness, and when asked "why now?" he said, "Why not now?"
As a college actor and dancer, Griggs didn’t experience or understand homophobia in extracurricular activities himself. He felt it was natural to start the YCP media campaign on his home turf, because the Bay Area is progressive and people are already sensitive to this topic. He emailed the teams, and said getting the sports stars to participate in the PSA was easy, "like a hot knife through butter," Griggs said.
San José Sharks hockey player Tommy Wingels is passionate about the You Can Play project due to his friendship with Brendan Burke (no relation to Glenn), who was gay. When Brendan Burke came out to Wingels, it didn’t change anything, because "he was the same person, regardless of his sexuality."
After Brendan Burke was killed in a 2010 car accident, his brother Patrick, a Philadelphia Flyers scout, co-founded You Can Play and created the PSA campaign along with CSNBA and producer Sean Maddison. Wingels was a YCP founding board member and wrote one of the first donation checks.
"It’s a no-brainer, the right thing to do," Wingels said.
Before his passing, Brendan Burke quit college hockey because he felt uncomfortable, due to an environment where most guys "weren’t ready to have that conversation." Now Wingels wants to help any questioning kids in sports feel accepted, and encourages allies to stick up for LGBT youth and say that "intolerance isn’t cool." Wingels even marched in Chicago’s 2012 Pride Parade and wants to make hockey a safe environment.
"It’s such a great sport, and we want everyone - everyone - to enjoy it as much as we do," he said.
Former MLS player Robbie Rogers came out last February, and the Earthquakes’ Justin Morrow now wants to make soccer conducive for gay players too. During his Catholic high school and college career at Notre Dame, Morrow didn’t know any out athletes so he wants to take that extra step to make sure that everybody "feels comfortable in their own skin."
"At one time in this country, the ’n’ word was thrown around," Morrow said. "But not so much anymore. I hope gay slurs will be wiped out too." On July 15, the Quakes hosted a fundraising game in San Francisco, and donated all ticket proceeds to YCP.
Golden State Warriors President/COO Rick Welts, who was also instrumental in establishing the WNBA, has a deeply personal connection to the You Can Play project: he came out in 2011, and is the highest ranking openly gay man in American sports. For most of his life, he was completely closeted, thinking that there was "nobody like me," he said.
Welts, 60, was drawn to sports because, "it’s the last place in society where great numbers get together for a common cause to share in a live experience." At 16, he was a ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics, then rose through the ranks of the NBA, but he never tried to throw co-workers off track about his sexuality. He showed up by himself at office events, and nobody ever asked "are you gay?" he recalls.
"Maybe they did that out of respect for me," Welts said. "But I led a more measured life than I would have liked. I had limited depth in my relationships because if I asked them about their lives, then they would have to ask me about mine. Not being able to reciprocate was a sacrifice. Not being out constricted my life."
Welts is involved in the YCP campaign because he wants to use instances of intolerance as teachable moments and to bring homosexuality in sports out of the shadows to engender constructive conversations.
"A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine this," he said. "Culturally, men have a more difficult time with full acceptance, because of a lack of knowledge, thinking they’re not personally engaged, or out of fear. It’s amazing to watch this transformation."
Welts credits social media, and sports as a "social mechanism to impact society," for helping dispel preconceived stereotypes because now "nobody doesn’t know an LGBT person." He’s pleased with the NBA’s zero tolerance for anti-gay behavior and the anti-discrimination language included in player contracts, and is happy to "harness the energy of the Bay Area," where he now lives with his partner. The Warriors hold "LGBT Night" games, plus a contingent of about 80 employees participated in San Francisco’s 2013 Pride Parade. Welts also shares his coming out story at college campuses.
The You Can Play PSA was shown in heavy rotation in June, remains online and is customized for each of the sports’ studio programs. Griggs said he’s received no negative feedback on the spots.
"For everything we do, we usually get an email or a tweet, saying ’bad tie’ or something, but for this, nothing," he said.
He knows that if these high profile, public affirmations can help even one young kid, then the project will have been worth it. He’s proud that that Bay Area is the first part of the country to get all their professional teams on board with this sexuality equality stance, and he’s also proud of his son, a chip-off-the-block theater major at Boston University.
Kitts reports that there’s been a considerable shift in dialogue among many athletes. Many players say they are fine with LGBT teammates; it’s just that nobody ever asked them about it. YCP is close to having 100 participating professional and college teams, from baseball to crew, badminton and roller derby.
"Our next step is to engage fans in changing sports arena culture now that we have traction from athletes advocating acceptance in their locker rooms," he said.
And there has been some traction -- Gordon apologized for using the anti-gay slur, saying, "The language I used came during a heated moment and does not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian community. I made a mistake and I accept full responsibility for my actions."
Furthermore, Jason Collins started a sea change when he said, "I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay." His announcement made him the first active player in one of the four major U.S. pro-sports to come out. "I’m happy to start the conversation," he said. "I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ’I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand. Why not live truthfully?"
You Can Play continues to "team up for respect," promoting focus on athletic talent, work ethic and heart, rather than on sexual orientation or identity. After Rick Welts came out in the New York Times, his 13-year-old niece told him "the kids at my school found out you were ’that guy.’"
"It was my best day ever," she said. Welts’ niece now belongs to the gay/straight alliance in Carmel, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis.
It’s the biggest group at her school.
You can watch the YCP PSA by clicking here.