The Changing Face of LGBT Acceptance in Sport
A pivotal six months for the anti-homophobia movement in sport.
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For many, the Sochi protests put the subject centre stage in the media but possibly the biggest change has been the number of athletes declaring their sexual orientation while still competing. With sports agents and sports marketing agencies supporting their clients with these decisions, as opposed to encouraging them to keep quiet, the landscape is changing, and not a moment too soon.
The level of sport’s appeal and the extent of its reach means it commands ability like few others to influence and educate. With its effect stretching beyond the field, ring or track it has the capacity to exact positive and tangible change within society, changes multiplied by a constant stream of media exposure. While negative stereotypes still exist like the ones associated with sexuality, so to do positive stereotypes like those associated with sportsmen. What better way to remove all predetermined opinions and break down barriers than to blend the two worlds into one.
Roy Simmons, the former New York Giants and Washington Redskins offensive lineman, must be a classic example of an elite sportsman experiencing the pain of having to live up to the heterosexual athlete image in line with traditional sport. Coming out on his retirement, Simmons was only the second NFL player to do so at the time. The 57-year-old hid his sexuality for the entirety of his career, and is widely regarded to have led to a troubled life both on and off the pitch. Simmons recently succumbed to a battle with pneumonia.
Speaking to the New York Daily News in 2006, Simmons said that in the current climate there was nothing worse than being gay in the NFL. This was echoed by broadcaster Dale Hansen in his support of Michael Sam, a gay college football player who look set to become drafted into the NFL this season. Simmons’ former Giants team mate, Harry Carson, said that the dressing room would have accepted a gay player and while Sam’s college team mates have been reported as being supportive of him, only time will tell if this attitude tracks through to professional levels of the game. If so, the national appeal and esteem of NFL could see the anti-homophobia message penetrate deep into society.
Another player to come out recently was Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets. He was the first openly gay basketball player to take to the field. The 35-year-old who has had a long career in the NBA, said he hoped the decision would encourage an environment that is welcoming for gay athletes.
Such an environment will have been helped greatly by the coming out of Darren Young. The wrestler, real name Fred Rosser, became the first competing WWE professional to reveal he was gay. The biggest impact of his decision will be on the thousands of young children who follow the sport. Despite their aggressive and arrogant personae, WWE superstars are often regarded as role models among younger fans. Young’s decision will have repercussions well beyond the ring, by presenting a positive image of gay individuals through a popular medium that children adore; an image that they can uphold for later generations.
Across the pond and in the UK, milestones are being marked too. Football is a sport with a macho façade and has lagged behind the progress of society in general. Thomas Hitzlsperger, who again came out on retirement in January 2014, became the first openly gay player to have played in the Premier League. He follows American, Robbie Rogers, who briefly retired after coming out but who returned to the sport with LA Galaxy. Plying his trade in England at the time, he became the first professional footballer in Britain for 23 years to come out. Both incidents marked a significant step in the history of the most-watched sport in the world and gave the GLBT movement a real boost.
Their decisions have shone a spotlight on football, inadvertently raising the profile of England Football Ladies’ captain, Casey Stoney. Stoney is out and having quietly won 116 caps for her country, recent events have now made her the most high-profile gay footballer in England. It is hoped that this will set an example for the thousands of young, gay women – and gay men – within the sport and society.
The bodies that govern sport are now being openly reminded about how their decisions affect all athletes. The most recent example of this is tennis great, Billie Jean King, asking the IOC to take equal rights into its consideration when awarding host nations. Also speaking out is John Amaechi, the first NBA player ever to come out, who has called on competing athletes to take a stand against discrimination, believing silence is complicity.
Amaechi and Roy Simmons share much in common, including a belief that sport is still not safe ground for gay athletes, yet sport has the power to change that, not only for itself, but for society also. By breaking through the barriers into active sportsmen, one of the toughest frontiers has been crossed. The decision to come out will still be a tough one for those hiding their sexuality, but at least the option is now there. It has been proven that there is, and will always be, support for gay individuals. Though Roy Simmons has passed on, the legacy which he and other brave, out athletes have created, continues to grow. The more this growth occurs, the more society will grow with it.
Words: Tom Mellor of ENS
ENS is a sports public relations agency based in London. With a catalogue of world class clients across a multitude of sports.