Pro sports, still homophobic in 2014

Editor’s note: Hudson Taylor, a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland, is a wrestling coach at Columbia University and the founder and executive director ofAthlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that educates, encourages and empowers the athletic community to help end homophobia, transphobia and bullying. It is partnered with All Out on the Principle 6 Campaign around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

(CNN) — First, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers addressed rumors that he was gay on his weekly ESPN radio show, saying, “I am not gay. I really, really like women.”

Then former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe penned a nuclear account in which he said his former coach was such a complete homophobe that it may have cost Kluwe a job in the NFL.

Both players, in very different ways, illustrate that despite all the progress made by the LGBT community in sports over the last decade, some things are very much the same.

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

Flash back to 2002, and it was baseball’s Mike Piazzauttering those recurring words, “I am not gay” at a news conference after a midseason tabloid report stating otherwise.

Pointedly denying a similar gay rumor more than 10 years later, while obviously personally important to the intensely private Rodgers, highlights that being gay in sports — or being perceived as gay — still carries a huge stigma (though mainstream conversations often steer toward men’s sports, this problem is rampant in women’s sports as well).

And this was so, even after the feel good year of 2013, when we saw monumental strides with the coming out of the WNBA’s Brittney Griner, MLS star Robbie Rogers and the NBA’s Jason Collins.

Speculation of homosexuality is still perceived as such a threat that Rodgers, who makes an estimated $6 million a year in endorsements, felt the need to characterize the rumors as “crazy” and his radio co-host, in an awkward, fumbling moment, expressed sadness that the rumors were started in an “attempt to make you look bad.” And according to Kluwe, his vocal support of marriage equality was so intolerable to Vikings assistant coach Mike Priefer, that the coach once said in a team meeting: “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” (Priefer issued a statement denying Kluwe’s allegations and saying he does not tolerate “discrimination of any type.”

How are young sports fans hearing these messages? If you want to insult someone, the most surefire way is still to use the anti-gay F word. In fact, 85% of youth hear “gay” used as a slur on a regular basis and 80% of LGBT youth experience harassment and are five times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide.

Time and time again, educators will point to the importance of peer leadership in improving this climate, and, more often than not, athletes are leaders at their schools. Yet frequently, the jock culture promotes silence at best or instigates and reinforces abusive behavior at worst.

I should know. As a three-time All American wrestler at the University of Maryland, I was one of those athletes who privately condemned an intolerant culture yet did nothing about it.

As a straight person, it didn’t feel like it was my battle or my place. But in college, my world started to change. In addition to being an athlete, I was also a theater major. Seeing how accepting and supportive my theater friends were to people of all sexual orientations made me look at my locker room differently and question why my sport wasn’t as open-minded and proactive.

Ultimately, fueled by the reasoned logic and fundamental humanity of the marriage equality battle, I found my voice and started speaking out. Now, as the founder of Athlete Ally, I travel around the country educating and empowering the athletic community to take a stand against homophobia and transphobia in sports.

With all the great strides last year, and the commitment from men’s and women’s pro leagues to fully address inclusion issues in professional sports, at times it has felt like advocacy groups like Athlete Ally (in full disclosure, Kluwe is an ambassador for the organization), GO! Athletes and Br{ache the Silence have already changed sports culture as we know it.

While Rodgers effectively put an end to the discussion of personal life and vowed to “keep on trucking, ” what was left unsaid was any support for the LGBT community or contemplation of the broader questions such rumor-mongering raises about our sports culture and the specter of acceptance. Kluwe’s allegations shed new light on why one of the NFL’s best players and articulate spokesmen felt pressure to stand down on that type of intelligent dialogue.

Rodgers is one of the most respected, revered and highest paid players in the game. His fan base includes straight fans and gay fans. He is admired by youth in this country spanning all sexual orientations. And most of all, the ubiquitous tweet from fans after the gay rumors emerged was: “I don’t care!”

Maybe one day, athletes everywhere, of every orientation and identity, will be confident that they can live by Kluwe’s credo: Never be afraid to do what’s right. If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.



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