On February 9, 2014, All-American University of Missouri football player Michael Sam publicly disclosed that he was gay in an interview with the New York Times. Sam’s announcement sent shock waves around the sports world. Many reactions were positive: the University of Missouri publicly supported him and the NFL released statements in support of Sam’s decision to reveal his sexual orientation. He came out to his teammates in 2013 during his senior year and was largely well received by his teammates and college staff. However, Sam has also been met with homophobic remarks and resistance to his entry into the NFL. Some critics argued that Sam, along with the discussion about LGBT rights and gay athletes in sports, should be benched.
In spite of the controversy, the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam on the final day of the 2014 draft. He has already begun to challenge the hyper-masculine stereotypes that have long defined sports culture. By both identifying as a gay player and being a college standout, Sam has directly challenged the perception that gay men cannot also be aggressive, strong, talented athletes. By entering the NFL, Sam has shaken the strict adherence to hyper-masculine stereotypes in sports culture in which players, coaches, team owners, fans and staff often insist that a gay man will disrupt the balance of the locker room and negatively impact team performance. However, as the first openly gay NFL draft pick, Sam faces the possibility of discrimination and the reality of criticism in a way that no other athlete has before.
The NFL and the other three major sports leagues (NBA, MLB and NHL) have all made some strides in furthering the acceptance of gay athletes in sports: all four major leagues enumerate “sexual orientation” as a protected class in their Collective Bargaining Agreements and many players participate in initiatives such as the pro-acceptance “You Can Play Campaign.” Sports have been a vehicle for change through their unifying power and promotion of players such as Jackie Robinson, who defied the longstanding exclusion of black players from professional sports. Racial tensions once divided the sports world in a similar way to LGBT discrimination, although gay athletes face the unique hurdle of the perceived dichotomization between hyper-masculinity and homosexuality. The sports world has certainly lagged in its acceptance of gay players, but the major leagues, along with individual players such as Michael Sam and his supporters, have the power to add significant weight to the national trend towards LGBT equality.
The movement for LGBT equality has experienced several major victories on a national and state level. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. As of 2014, sixteen states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. This general trend was supported by the June 2013 decision by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor to strike down Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA“), which defined marriage as between one man and one woman and thereby denied legally married gay couples from receiving federal benefits. In the eight months following this landmark ruling, fifteen different courts have relied upon Windsor in striking down legislation preventing the recognition of gay marriage as a constitutionally protected right. Several states, including the overwhelmingly conservative states of Utah, Kentucky and Texas, have appeals pending after anti-gay legislation was struck down in court. However, a total of thirty-two states still have statutory or constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and anti-gay legislation is still being produced by state legislatures.
The major sports leagues have not sidelined themselves from the national discourse regarding the advancement of LGBT equal rights. On February 19, 2014, the Arizona House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 1062. SB 1062 sought to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, thereby allowing business owners to refuse service to prospective LBGT patrons as long as the refusal was based upon firmly held religious beliefs. Proponents of the bill argued that the bill merely protected the religious freedom of private business owners, but its critics, including Senator Ana Tovar (D-AZ), felt that the bill would “permit discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.” Arizona is home to teams from all four major sports leagues: the Cardinals (NFL), the Suns (NBA), the Coyotes (NHL) and the Diamondbacks (MLB). Arizona is also slated to host Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. Adding to mounting pressure from businesses, the public, fellow politicians and economists pushed for Governor Jan Brewer to veto the bill. The MLB and the NFL released league statements opposing SB 1062, and the Phoenix Suns released a joint statement with the WNBA’s Arizona Mercury.
Through its public relations Twitter account, the MLB released a statement in which it invoked the memory of Jackie Robinson and stated that the league and its thirty teams “stand united behind the principles of respect, inclusion and acceptance…We welcome individuals of different sexual orientations, races, religions, genders and national origins.” The statement went on to say that the MLB “has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation, as reflected by [the MLB CBA]. Accordingly, MLB will neither support nor tolerate any words, attitudes or actions that imperil the inclusive communities that we have strived to foster within our game.” The Suns’ and the Mercury’s joint statement echoed this sentiment, stating in part that “[both teams] are steadfastly committed to the principles of inclusivity and acceptance, and cannot support anything that is not in line with that philosophy.”
The potential of lost revenue for Arizona from the 2015 Super Bowl makes the actions taken by the NFL possibly the most impactful. In response to the bill, NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello wrote, “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other improper standard. We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law…” Following this announcement, the NFL reportedly began investigating the necessary steps to remove Super Bowl XLIX from Arizona. This was not the first time that a controversy over equal rights threatened an Arizona Super Bowl; in 1993, the game, and its revenue, were moved from Arizona to California after state voters did not approve recognition of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday. On February 26, 2014, Governor Brewer vetoed SB 1062.
The major sports leagues have acted to advance civil rights in the past and they have the capacity to affect equally powerful change in the struggle for LGBT equality. The leagues have proven that through using their political and financial weight and mobilizing their enormous fan base, they can be major players on a national level. Still, gay athletes face an uphill climb towards equality in a culture where being gay has long been equated with weakness. However, there are signs that this is beginning to change. By establishing and continuing to be a vocal presence for change on a large cultural scale, it is possible for the major sports leagues to become an increasingly progressive force for LGBT rights.
S. Masoud Mortazavi earned a B.S. in Political Science with a Minor in Economics from the University of Utah. Masoud currently serves as the Managing Editor for the St. John’s University School of Law’s Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development.
Suggested Citation: Masoud Mortazavi, How The Four Major Sports Leagues Influence LGBT Rights, JURIST – Student Commentary, Nov. 6, 2014, http://jurist.org/student/2014/11/masoud-mortazavi-sports-lgbt.php
This article was prepared for publication by Josh Guckert, a Senior Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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