US Football Leads The Way on Gay

NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth. pic Keith Allison

American football (NFL) continues to surprise and delight with it’s mature, open and progressive attitude to gays in the game. I’ve written before about Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo, and wondered where on earth are the equally articulate and passionate straight allies in Australian team sports, especially the AFL.

Now Kluwe and Ayanbadejo have gone a step further, submitting a compelling and even beautiful amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of marriage equality to the US Supreme Court.

Pointing out, rather cheekily, that ” few would blink an eye if someone could name all eleven starting offensive or defensive players on their favorite NFL team, but not name half the members of this Court,”  they go on to explain that the bond between teams and fans, and between individual players and fans, is unique and special. And because of this, special responsibility falls on players, whether they like or want it or not. They explain:

These athletes understand that, because of their public stature, the consequences flow naturally from their actions even if they cannot see the consequences. Consequences of being a role model and leader. Consequences for young children and adults who mimic our behavior when they interact with other children and adults. Those consequences flow because children and adults want to “Be Like [insert athlete name here].”

Athletes are learning that they can no longer say “I am not a role model”— that they are forced to be a role model and privileged to be a role model, and that their words and actions, no matter how innocently intended, are magnified for both good and bad.

If a professional basketball or football player says something is “gay,” young boys on the playground will copy and magnify the statement. If a hockey player says homosexuals are not welcome in the locker room, a young girl will shun a teammate who she thinks may be gay—where that teammate was until then a bright, happy, smart, and promising kid. After, she will be afraid of being who she is, and will takes steps, even dire steps, to avoid it.

But if a Pro Bowler treats a teammate as being an equal who is worthy of his friendship and respect because that other person is a good friend who places the team before himself, then high schoolers in Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota will not—cannot—miss that example.

If that Pro Bowler speaks out publicly and kindly, kids will hear it and feel it. Kids who are already dealing with everything youth throws at them will know they can treat others as friends and equals, and those others will know they are equal and that, without question, it is better to be themselves than to be hurt. They will follow the credo, “Live on, and be yourself.”

The full text of their submission is here: The Kluwe-Ayanbadejo Supreme Court Submission. I urge everyone to read it, and I urge all AFL players, AFL managers, coaches and administrators, and players representatives, to take these guys as your role models.

Don’t tell me ‘it’s different here’. Don’t tell me you ‘don’t want to be a poster boy.’ Don’t tell me that the gay community are fickle in their support for their own spokespeople. I know.  Aussie kids are shamed, bullied into depression, stunted, and sometimes die, just the same as US kids. It’s not different at all.

The National Football Leage Players Association President Domonique Foxworth provides another role model, this time for the AFL and NRL players associations. He also has wise words for sportspeople. Please click through and read the piece in full. I just want to share one thought from it here with you.

The implication that gays are somehow too soft for a football team is an absurd fallacy. You may think that doing 50 sets of squats at the gym, playing through a sprained ankle, or being that last man standing after a grueling two-a-day workout is “tough.”

Surviving and thriving while enduring those physical challenges requires toughness, but truly being tough and strong is when you persevere while being ridiculed, ostracized or rejected — just for being yourself. Any person that flourishes in those conditions would be a great asset to an NFL locker room.

Actually, those people probably are already assets to high school, college and NFL locker rooms. And hopefully one day soon they will feel enough support to be openly gay while playing.

Later, he gave an interview in which he explained why he felt the need to speak out. Again, please click through and read – but here’s a couple of gems:

 I’ve always felt that being an athlete, you get a certain platform and you should use that platform for the right causes. I’ve always admired John Carlos and Bill Russell and Jesse Owens. These guys work their whole life to get there and they decided to sacrifice their pride and joy for advancement of a social issue.

But I feel this fight is one I should step into. It’s an obvious injustice, not just how gays are treated in sport but how they’re treated in the world. It’s hard to argue that it’s just.

Pity the leaders of our players in AFL, soccer and rugby don’t feel the same need to take such a strong leadership position. I know it’s uncomfortable guys, as Foxworth acknowledges, but it has to be done.

He is also very shrewd on the reasons why – when everyone acknowledges that in the locker rooms, homosexuality is not seen as a problem – we still don’t have elite out gay players. The management of the NFL duck the problem by claiming gay athletes is “a team issue.” Is it just a team issue, he’s asked, or is it an NFL issue?

I think it’s bigger than both. My focus as president is on the well-being of the players in the NFL. ….Overall it’s much bigger than a team issue.

I’ve said this about the League many times: Their priorities, and I say this on health and safety issues, and I think this fits into mental health, they’re interested in turning a profit. And the League and the teams are interested in doing things that produce higher revenues.

When you look at it through that prism, you understand why the league is reluctant to do step out on this issue. If they don’t do it now, they may do it years from now when it’s safer and the coast is clear. I don’t think they disagree [with ending homophobia in sport]. They just feel like it could affect the bottom line.

A mental health issue – as Kluwe and Ayanbdejo point out, not just for players, but also for GLBTI kids across the country. But the bosses won’t move because it might cut into their profits. That may well be true, but for how much longer are the players and their president going to allow profits to be put before lives in this way. In the US, not much longer, I’d say. In Australia, who knows?

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)