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Big-League Courage

Top names in the world of spectator sports use their influence to support gay rights and marriage equality.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011
AP File Photos
NBA MVP Steve Nash has voiced support for gay rights

Last week, perennial NBA All-Star and five-time champion Kobe Bryant called an official who had just hit him with a technical foul a "fucking faggot." The offensive slur was captured on national TV, prompting basketball analyst Steve Kerr to suggest, "You might want to take the camera off him right now for the children watching from home."

Bryant received a fine of $100,000 for his communicative indiscretions (money that will likely feed the league's coffers, instead of, say, being donated to GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). And sports fans were once again reminded that, in a society that has witnessed some impressive gay rights victories over the past several years, our nation's overbearing sports culture continues to be mired in an unnecessary amount of homophobia.

Which is unfortunate, considering that many of our social justice struggles have literally played themselves out on the court and the field. Sports history is filled with memorable moments in which athletic competition has mirrored societal struggles in significant ways. From Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King, the actions of athletes who weren't afraid to take a stand have contributed to the fights against racism, militarism and sexism in impressive ways.

Conversely, the sports community has largely failed to champion the struggles for gay rights. But recently, with the actions of a regional journalist, a college coach and a professional football player, there is hope that sports might be ready to take the fight to homophobia as well.

Sports are big business in this country, and, with the seemingly omnipresent sports media, are followed with near-religious fervor in these parts. So when longtime Boston Herald sports columnist and WEEI sports radio regular Steve Buckley went public with his homosexuality in his January 6 piece, "Welcome to my coming-out party," the news traveled through New England's spectator sports community faster than a c. 2007 Jonathan Papelbon fastball.

While Buckley is not the first to announce that he is gay, there have been few sports writers to come out openly, and fewer male athletes. In fact, not a single athlete in any of the the four major leagues (MLB, NFL, NHL or NBA) has done so while still playing. Yet.

"If more people are able to be honest about who they are, ultimately fewer people will feel such devastating pressure," wrote Buckley in his courageous confessional. "It's my hope that from now on I'll be more involved. I'm not really sure what I mean by being 'involved,' but this is a start: I'm gay."

To date, most local fans have been largely accepting, if not dismissive, of Buckley's life-changing announcement. After all, Buck, as he is commonly called, seems every bit the proverbial regular guy: an Irish-American UMass grad who has covered sports for the Herald since 1995, a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America who routinely appears on WEEI's The Big Show and Comcast SportsNet's Sports Tonight complete with his wicked awesome Boston accent.

But, of course, his decision can't be dismissed. It takes courage to come out in any profession, but it is especially tough to do so in the sports world. If it weren't, Buckley's article likely would have been written well before he entered the fifth decade of his life and his 15th year at the paper.

It also takes courage for straight athletes to stand up against homophobia. A new organization, Athlete Ally (athleteally.com), in supporting members of the sports community who want to "take proactive steps to end homophobia in sports," is doing just that.

"When we inspire teams and athletic departments to commit to a new standard of athletic integrity," states the organization's founder, Hudson Taylor, "we will change the environment in locker rooms and on playing fields."

Now working as Columbia University's wrestling coach, Taylor is a recently graduated "Division I three-time All-American wrestler & [who] currently ranks among the top five pinners in NCAA history."

But, despite his personal athletic accomplishments, the University of Maryland alum is best known for wearing "a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his wrestling headgear & to show solidarity," he said, "with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community."

Taylor, who began as an undergraduate theater major, experienced two very different sides of campus life with regard to the acceptance, or lack thereof, of his school's gay students. "Pretty much once a month, one of my friends, one of my classmates in theater, would come out. It would just be a very wonderful occasion," he told Doug Merlino. "Then a few hours later & in the locker room with teammates, arguably my best friends ... to hear them use that homophobic and derogatory language all of a sudden affected me a lot."

So Taylor decided to do something about it. He wore a Human Rights Campaign sticker during his wrestling matches.

The overwhelming encouragement he received convinced him to do more. "I was contacted by OutSports.com, and did this interview with them about why I put the sticker on," Taylor remembers. "I got hundreds and hundreds of emails from just that interview. [Mostly] ... from young, closeted athletes who didn't feel safe in this space, and I was crying reading a lot of them."

At his website, gay rights supporters are encouraged to sign the Athlete Ally Pledge. For Taylor, it's the first step in creating a more tolerant sports community. "I'd also like to make a database from the pledge of safe spaces in sports," he explains, "so if a football team in Miami signs the pledge, I'd like a young LGBT kid to know that they can play football in Miami because it's an open environment."

Taylor is well aware that the odds are stacked against him. Not many well-known athletes have allied themselves with the fight for gay rights. But Taylor remains hopeful of a changing sports community nonetheless.

Former NBA MVP Steve Nash and NFL Pro-Bowler and former Super Bowl champion Scott Fujita are among the few standout athletes to voice their support for gay rights. But none of them have advocated to the extent of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo.

More than a half dozen states, including Maryland, are currently in the process of formatting official marriage equality bills. Last month, the multiple-time Pro Bowl linebacker posted a video supporting gay marriage for Equality Maryland.

It is not the first time Ayanbadejo has voiced his support for gay rights.

"If Britney Spears can party it up in Vegas with one of her boys and go get married on a whim and annul her marriage the next day, why can't a loving same-sex couple tie the knot?" he wondered in his "Same Sex Marriages: What's the Big Deal?" opinion piece on Huffington Post. "How could our society grant more rights to a heterosexual one-night stand wedding in Vegas than a gay couple that has been together for three, five, 10 years of true love?"

Having played for the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and now Baltimore Ravens over his nine-year career, Ayanbadejo has been on some of the league's toughest defenses. But, many are arguing, no bone-crushing sack he has ever delivered on an opposing team's quarterback has equalled the kind of hard-hitting impact he is making as a successful football player supporting marriage equality.

"To hear [this] from an NFL linebacker ... you take notice," Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Anyone who thinks the NFL locker room culture isn't less than enlightened about gay rights hasn't spent any time in an NFL locker room. I'm not saying homophobia runs rampant in football, but I am saying Ayanbadejo is demonstrating a special kind of toughness being so vocal about his beliefs."

For better or worse, support for gay rights in the sports community, whether its proponents are a newspaper reporter, a college wrestling coach, or an NFL linebacker, could go a long way towards making marriage equality more acceptable for the general populace, which includes an overwhelming number of sports fans.

"Churches can always have their beliefs," Ayanbadejo notes in the Equality Maryland video, "but government is supposed to treat everyone the same, and that's equal. America is supposed to be the land of the free, but in order for this to be true for all of us, then we must have the ability to marry whom we love, regardless of their gender."

Ayanbadejo is certain that marriage equality is inevitable. "Maybe I am a man ahead of my time," he says. "However, looking at the former restrictions on human rights in our country ... I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as everyone else."

As it will, hopefully, be dumbfounding that a Boston sports writer would struggle over his decision to announce that he is gay. Or that an organization of athletes confronting homophobia was necessary.

But for now, these actions are immensely necessary. They are part of the long arc of change bending towards justice that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of. And they promise a more just future.

"Join me in the land of the brave," concludes Ayanbadejo, "for standing on the side of love."

How could we not?

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