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April 29, 2013

Homosexuality and Professional Sports: A lesson from Brittney Griner to the NFL

By Angela Hattery

This op ed examines the complex relationship between sports and homosexuality.


Brittney Griner accepting Wade Trophy, WBCA Awards show, Denver CO, 2 April 2012 by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported / Wiki

On April 15 th , 2013 Brittney Griner, arguably the best player in women's college basketball, was selected as the number one pick in the WNBA draft; she was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury and will play alongside the legendary point guard Diana Taurasi.   Three days later SportsWorld buzzed with the news that Brittney Griner had "come out" as gay.  

Critics pondered how Baylor, as a conservative Baptist institution, would deal with Griner's announcement given that the Baylor student handbook reads in part:

The University affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.

  Her coach, Kim Mulkey, while acknowledging that Griner was taunted and harassed during her career "professed ignorance" of her players' relationships.

The official Baylor comment is that they will not "call out" Griner given that she has brought so much positive attention to the university.

Last night, April 25, as the NFL draft got underway, there was speculation about the only "out" gay player in Division 1 college football, a kicker at Middle Tennessee State, and whether he might become the first "out" gay player in the NFL   

When interviewed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell indicated that that the NFL will develop a policy about gay players---really, Roger, you need a policy about this?  And, second he noted that the NFL wants to move beyond tolerance of homosexuality toward acceptance, but only if doing so doesn't bring negative attention to the league. 

Clearly, SportsWorld is grappling, as the rest of the nation seems to be, with the movement for rights for all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.   

As a feminist scholar and an avid sports fan, I am not at all surprised by the different reactions by the WBNA---which helps to create lucrative endorsement opportunities for their lesbian athletes, including with NIKE---while the NFL which is pondering a policy to deal with the possibility that there may be openly gay players in the not so distant future. 

To be sure, the culture of hypermasculinity that characterizes college and professional football (and men's basketball) creates a site of intense resistance to homosexuality, especially among men. 

In contrast, the culture of women's sports, which is often characterized as a somewhat masculinized female institution, has included lesbians for decades and even embraced them in the last twenty years or so.  (Not so for lesbian athletes like Martina Navratilova who played in the mid 1980s).  Most WNBA rosters have openly lesbian athletes and these athletes endorse products that are marketed to the general population and to the lesbian community as well.  For example, in contrast to the NLF's approach, The New York Times' headline reporting Griner's decision to come out read "Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs."

Another interesting layer to the story is Griner's decision to  "out herself."  This decision can be viewed through at least two lenses.  First, much like Tiger Woods and Lindsay Vaughn deciding to make their relationship public which removed it as a topic of gossip for outlets like TMZ, Griner removed any speculation and made her sexuality essentially a "non" issue.  Second, it is clear in reading interviews with Griner that she is most of all comfortable with every part of herself, from her physicality and height (see my recent blog) to her sexuality.  She makes it clear that if you have a problem with her---any part of her---that is in fact your problem and not her's.

What an outstanding lesson for all of us.  Our sexuality shouldn't be anyone else's concern except our own. 

Lastly, Griner says that she'd like to make a career out of working with LGBTQ youth.  They will be lucky to have her!  Unfortunately many LGBTQ youth face discrimination and harassment at school, at work, in the streets and even at home.  Sadly, LGBTQ youth are bullied, thrown out by their parents' homes, often leaving them homeless, and have the highest rates of suicide among young people.  

My hope is that the incredible enthusiasm and presence of Brittney Griner can provide hope to all young people, especially those who feel marginalized by their height or their sexuality or whatever, and that those among us who continue to believe that a person's sexuality is a matter of public debate or a reason to harass, bully or discriminate will realize that it is our own problem not the problem of those feeling marginalized. 

We should all be so lucky as to love and accept ourselves as much as Griner does and be blessed if we can find someone willing to love us back, flaws and all.

Regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity, don't stand idly by.  Become an ally!  If you are looking for a way to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, consider programs like the Trevor Project, the It Get's Better Campaign, PFLAG, or an ally program at your school or workplace---if one doesn't exist, start it!

Submitters Bio:

Associate Director of Women & Gender Studies, George Mason University, author of African American Families: Myths and Realities (2012), the Social Dynamics of Family Violence (2012), Prisoner Reentry and Social Capital (2011) and several other books and articles.