The world of athleticism is all about movement, all of which starts with a single step. A baseball player steps up to the plate to take a whack at a ball. Coaches fill up whiteboards and playbooks with the X’s and O’s to show where their players should step in trying to take the ball and score. Broadcasters wax poetic about a player’s pivot step on a buzzer-beater, or a high-step on a breakaway move toward the end zone.
But the most key move in the playbook of athletes — coaches and managers alike — is the sidestep, the practiced move of speaking generically on critical questions from the media by providing clichéd responses straight out of the “Bull Durham” postgame interview lexicon.
The realm of professional sports has been privy to plenty of black eyes as a result of a blind eye turned away from an important situation, like concussions in football or performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. But one issue that has been swept under the rug for decades that is just now starting to see the light of day is homophobia — and homosexuality as a whole — in sports.
It has become an en-vogue topic of discussion thanks to a recent rash of high-profile cases of gay slurs by athletes, combined with historic acknowledgements of homosexuality both in sports and by those who partake in them.
The first — and arguably most talked about — incident that raised eyebrows occurred when Lakers star Kobe Bryant shouted a homophobic slur at a referee after he called him for a foul in a game last month. Bryant was fined $100,000 by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and issued an apology, saying that he called the referee a “f—ing f—–” out of frustration and that this was not meant to convey his attitude towards homosexuality.
Two weeks later, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was suspended for two weeks after making lewd remarks and gestures towards fans before a San Francisco Giants game. He allegedly approached three men sitting together in the stands and asked them, “Are you guys a homo couple or a threesome?” He then followed up these comments by motioning suggestively with his hips and a bat. When another spectator sitting nearby intervened by saying that there were children nearby, McDowell responded that kids don’t belong at a ballpark, then picked up his bat and asked the fan how much his teeth were worth.
Most recently, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 last Monday for shouting the same slur as Bryant towards a fan who was taunting him from behind the Bulls’ bench. He acknowledged his mistake, as well and said that he was willing to “pay the price” for his actions.
But what did paying the price really mean for Noah? It meant a little bad press and a few pennies from his wallet that amounts to 1.6 percent of the roughly $3.1 million he made this season. It meant having to issue an apology and receiving the ire of gay advocacy groups for a day but then having this story get lost in the swath of other less taboo, more simplistic sports news.
This isn’t something that McDowell, Bryant or Noah could have lost their jobs over, and nor should they have. Their comments were ignorant and egregious, but it’s just another reminder that athletes aren’t heroes and shouldn’t be treated as such, even though they sometimes appear to have superhuman physical abilities compared to us ordinary 9-to-5 folk.
However, that doesn’t mean that we should excuse any kind of wrongdoing on their part with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Granted, while the commissioner’s offices of Major League Baseball and the NBA did act swiftly to condemn these derisions and punish the athletes responsible, the issue of how homosexuality is regarded in sports is something that cannot be solved with a check and a forced public apology.
The larger issue at hand comes down to the cultural identifications that exist with regard to homosexuality and its countering ideology found in the concept of machismo. The undeniable core of this problem is that homosexuality in men has been forever linked to being less of a man and thereby being feminine and weak. And there’s no place where any sign of weakness is a bigger sin than on the playing fields and locker rooms of professional sporting arenas. It’s the whole “there’s no crying in baseball” temperament that had sports fans making fun of Miami Heat superstar Chris Bosh for crying after a tough loss in March, the overall locker room mentality that breeds physical and mental toughness over the display of any emotion other than anger.
Clearly, this state of mind isn’t something that can be tackled over any short period of time, and perhaps it will never fully go away. As long as there are football dads and soccer moms that disparage their kids by calling them pansies when they cry after getting hurt, this equation of emotion = weakness = bad (meaning it makes one a “queer”) will continue to live on.
That’s where it comes back to the athletes. While they should not be wholly responsible for trying to address the matter of homophobia in society as a whole, sports is such a large part of our culture that athletes can make a dent in the problem by educating themselves and others about it.
As the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage goes, the first step in recognizing there’s a problem is admitting there is one. The commissioner’s offices of all the professional sports should determine a way in which they not merely impose a fine on their players for saying these slurs, but also — or even alternatively — encourage them to seek out knowledge on the issue of homophobia by talking to advocacy groups. This shouldn’t be handed down as a punishment like court-ordered community service but should be framed in a light that allows the athletes to see it as an opportunity for them to really learn from their mistake philosophically — not just financially.
Over the past few weeks, a couple of steps have been taken by pro athletes that could have a positive long-term effect on addressing this subject.
Last month, Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts revealed to the media that he is gay. He is believed to be the first man in a prominent position in sports to have ever openly stated his homosexuality and said he did so to help address a topic that is “off-limits” in his industry. Subsequently, Suns star point guard Steve Nash made a video in support of New York’s marriage equality proposition.
Additionally, the San Francisco Giants organization recently released a clip for the “It Gets Better” anti-homophobic video campaign aimed at giving hope to gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual adolescents who are bullied for their sexual orientation. They are the first professional sports franchise to jump on board with an “It Gets Better” video.
While it is laudable that these moves have been made to step up and address homophobia as a whole, professional sports as an entity should try to improve how the sports world percieves homosexuality by dealing with it from the inside out. In this day and age, they will not be alienating people by bringing a seemingly political issue into sports. Rather, they will alienate themselves from spectators more if they continue to plug their ears with their fingers and act as if they are inside a bubble.