Brendon Ayanbadejo is a 10-year NFL veteran who last played with the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens and is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights. In August 2012, Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti requesting Ayanbadejo cease and desist all public support of marriage equality after Ayanbadejo donated Ravens tickets to help fundraise for marriage equality in Maryland. A law allowing same-sex marriages in the state eventually passed in late 2012 and took effect Jan. 1.
One phenomenon I am currently trying to wrap my head around is the emotional dichotomy between the casual acceptance of lesbians versus the rigid non-acceptance of gays in the sporting arena, and in society in general.
In the past month, two professional basketball players, one male and one female, have made their sexual orientation public. One was a second-page story, primarily carried by sports media; the other shouted as the lead story on the national evening news and splashed across front page headlines in major newspapers.
Is this chasm of gender-biased acceptance possibly due to the perverse and lingering ménage-a-trios college fantasies of straight males? Could it be due to women being more comfortable in their own skin?
Is it society buying into and accepting the stereotype of successful, competitive, athletic women as “butch?” Is it due to men having to live up to the stereotype of a machismo sports culture, defined by aggressiveness, strength and a bevy of buxom women?
No matter the rationale for response, it is safe to say that progress toward full inclusion is moving more slowly than one would hope.
As one of many straight allies striving tirelessly for inclusivity in sports, I recently sought insight from Esera Tuaolo, a professional athlete who came out post career. Tuaolo played nine years in the NFL as a defensive tackle.
Deep in the trenches of battle on the gridiron, mano y mano against fellow 300-pounders, the defensive line is no place for a man who shies away from physicality. Esera never considered coming out during his career as he felt the environment was not ready for inclusion.
"I never considered coming out while i was still playing, it just was not a safe environment at the time," Tuaolo told me.
COLLINS COMES OUT
- NBA vet Collins comes out as gay
- Collins says support 'incredible'
- World reacts to announcement
- Collins' former fiancee stunned
- Announcement surprises friend
- Matthew Shepard's parents moved
- ESPN regrets Broussard's remarks
- ESPN reporter sparks controversy
- Whitlock: Brace for hate, Collins
- Reiter: Bold move paves way
Others who might agree with him about the sports environment are MLB's Billy Bean and the NBA’s John Amaechi, both of whom also came out post-career.
In 2013, we do have a society that is more accepting and open-minded than it has ever been, but the sports world, though making strides, still has far to go toward the time when someone’s sexual orientation is not an issue.
Tuaolo is elated about Jason Collins coming out this week in a Sports Illustrated article. The foundation had been laid by these former athletes and by the growing strength of organizations like Athlete Ally, for Jason Collins and others like him to reveal to the world who they are.
"I believe society has a lot to do with that, my friend, but times are changing and the younger generations have a lot to do with that," Tualolo told me. "Before the image of the gay man has always been that flamboyant guy or the kid that you get to beat up on the playground, the definition of gay was, weak, sissy.
"Thats why its so important that we speak up and break down stereotypes. Positive images and positive role models gay or straight, stepping up and taking a swing at hate. The closet door on professional sports is about to break down my friend, it started to day with Jason Collins. Ready or not, here comes Change… :-)"
Many opponents to LGBT inclusivity argue behind the relative anonymity of social media and radio talk shows against the need for these athletes to flaunt their gayness to us.
As Jason so eloquently stated, it’s not about flaunting his gayness; it’s more about not going to extraordinary lengths to conceal his gayness.
Basketball is blazing the trail to acceptance in America and the sports world. Perhaps that makes sense, for in a sport where teams typically have 12-15 players, that more intimate team environment may foster more secure team relationships, compared to baseball and football where rosters can be two to three times larger. Internally, maybe the risk is less.
Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley, Baron Davis, David Stern, Steve Nash and the majority of Collins’ past and present teammates have all come out to support him. Bill Clinton, President and Michelle Obama and other public figures have expressed their support as well. In the few days since the SI story broke, Collins’ Twitter account had increased by 85K followers.
Not only have individuals sped to Collins’ side, but so have organizations like MLB as a whole to individual franchises in the NBA like the Nets, Wizards, Warriors, Hawks and Celtics. So there is good news.
But still perplexing is the contrast with the response to a similar recent announcement from a female basketball star. In mid-April Brittney Griner was selected as the first overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury.
Shortly after the draft, Brittney revealed that she was a lesbian. This story barely had any legs nor should it have. No “breaking news” segments were devoted to her statements.
Martina Navratilova and Ellen Degeneres broke this ground years ago.
Brittney commented in a SI.com article that her parents always encouraged her to be who she is, and while being bullied in school for her sexuality and her height, Griner now vows to be an advocate for the LGBT community and anti-bully campaigns.
Griner, who turns 23 in October, becomes yet another female athlete whose sexual orientation is accepted and not met with hours of angry callers into sports radio. Has Jason Collins helped move us toward the day when a male athlete’s sexual orientation will elicit the same response of acceptance?
Organizations like Nike hope so. The sports giant is open about its support of LGBT rights, and has been seeking a current gay male athlete for marketing campaigns. Nike wasted no time in pouncing on the opportunity to sign Griner as a Nike athlete.
As the tides turn legislatively, socially, and commercially, corporations like Nike and people like Brittney and Jason who embrace themselves and the diversity of others will pave the road towards a more accepting culture.
There will not be one person or epiphany moment that all of a sudden spells the end of discrimination in America or puts an end to the banner headlines about a male athlete coming out. The change will occur with more subtlety, over time.
While Griner barely made a splash and Collins’ tsunami is still engulfing a bigoted society, these two exemplary Americans have done their part to help drown out discrimination.