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The battle for gay rights in sports

University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam announced in a television interview that he is gay. The All-American’s revelation on ESPN now challenges the stand of the National Football League on homosexuality, since Sam is set to be drafted into the NHL. Will he still be drafted, and will he still be drafted as highly as he was touted to be? What will his life be like once he enters the bastion of hardcore masculinity in the sporting world? Though there have been many world and Olympic champion athletes who have come out, there have not been many in professional sports leagues.

The main debate about homosexuality surrounds the separation of gender from sexual preference. Gender testing in international events like the Olympic Games verifies the former; it ascertains which genitalia you possess, not what you choose to do with it. In a way, it is separating the doer from the deed. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

There is a very long list of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) athletes. It includes champions from sports as diverse as athletics, basketball, bodybuilding, boxing, cycling, field hockey, figure skating, football, golf, hockey, mixed martial arts, snowboarding, volleyball, water polo and others, even a handful of coaches. But again, the vast majority are national athletes or world champions and Olympians, amateurs. This includes multiple Olympic gold medalist diver Greg Louganis and several other high-profile athletes.

Among the pros, tennis player Billie Jean King was considered the pioneer in fighting for gay rights in professional sports. If you recall, she was goaded into a match with the older Bobby Riggs forty years ago in what became known as “The Battle of the Sexes”. In September of 1973 at the new Houston Astrodome, King soundly defeated the loud-mouthed Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. King was striking a blow for female athletes after Title IX was passed, allowing equal access to sports facilities to women. This was a tremendous victory for female athletes in an era when sexual equality was encountering resistance. But largely forgotten was the fact that Billie Jean King was later more well-known for being openly gay. In other words, she also broke down barriers for gay athletes everywhere.

An observation by R.W. Connell, studying the hegemony or self-perpetuating nature of masculinity in sport, says that mainstream sport media (primarily in the US often characterizes male professional athletes as being avatars of idealized masculine traits such as aggressiveness, power, assertiveness, and emphatic heterosexuality. They revel in asserting their masculinity over their opponents, and, in most cases, are more attractive to the opposite sex. 

In 2006, Sports Illustrated conducted a survey which revealed that 60 percent of NBA players said they would be comfortable with an openly gay teammate. That contrasted sharply with the 80 percent of National Hockey League (NHL) players, who said in the same poll that they would openly accept gay teammates. Initially, race was considered a defining variable in the differences between the two leagues’ acceptance level. In 2004, 73 percent of the players on all 30 NBA rosters were African-American while there re only 12 African-American players in all 30 NHL teams in 2007.however, other surveys show reverse results based on the race of respondents.

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A report posted on Elite Daily’s website about Sam says that 84 countries have anti-homosexuality laws. In fact, Russia’s touch stand on homosexuality was a major concern for other countries sending athletes to the Sochi Olympics. Sports officials assured the public that athletes and fans would not be encompassed by the law signed by head of state Vladimir Putin last June. But Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko made the proviso that nobody would be exempted from laws against promoting homosexuality to minors. That would have been difficult to enforce, at best, if any openly gay athletes were to be celebrated after winning in the ice. How would they have censored the international broadcast? By the way, Billie Jean King is part of the US presidential delegation to the closing ceremonies at Sochi. I wonder what she’ll have to say about their new anti-gay law.

Michael Sam joins a growing list of athletes who have recently come out. Last year, former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins revealed that he was gay, and received much public sympathy, also for his twin brother Jarron, who is heterosexual. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s interview with Jarron went viral when he presented the latter with a t-shirt that read “I’m The Straight One”. In 2007, retired NBA center John Amaechi first broke the ice with his own revelation, unnerving some former teammates and creating a stir when NBA All-Star guard Tim Hardaway revealed his own hatred for homosexuals afterwards. In May of last year, LA Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers broke another barrier, seeing action as the first openly gay athlete in a US professional sports league.

There is now more discussion about another separation, the dichotomy between masculinity and sexuality. No matter how masculine you may consider yourself to be, you may actually pale in comparison to many openly gay athletes in terms of physical prowess. Some people, fans in particular, have trouble dealing with that. But then again, look at how predominantly male coaches also use their being physically superior over female athletes, with a few being accused of various abuses. Perhaps they are afraid that openly gay athletes will reflect the predatory nature of some of their straight counterparts. Perhaps they are all just afraid of the time when the shoe will be on the other foot?

The next question is how Philippine society would ever deal with an openly gay athlete. In what is considered a very religious nation, homosexuality is frowned upon as not being accepted in Scripture. But Pope Francis himself has expressed a more open, accepting, non-judgmental view of homosexuality, which quickly made news among the Catholic faithful worldwide.

One way of looking at it is by again separating the athlete’s accomplishments with their personal lives. Magic Johnson is still considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time despite his contracting HIV. Pete Rose was a gambler as a manager, but as a baseball player set an example for a generation. Mike Tyson committed crimes but is still considered an all-time great boxer. Dennis Rodman made the Naismith Hall of Fame despite his eccentric lifestyle and suspect behavior.

If we can achieve that level of enlightenment, we will better appreciate athletes as athletes and refrain from judging them as persons based merely on their sexual orientation.


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