Proud to Play
Pride Week follow-up: respect for out gay athletes
“The Games have always been a little gay. Let’s fight to keep them that way.”
That was the tagline for an advertisement put out by the Canadian Institute for Diversity and Inclusion (CIDI) in response to the Winter Olympics held in Sochi earlier this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin faced harsh criticism for his negative views of LGBTQ+ people and rights. Activists and the media put Putin on trial with news coverage that exposed Russia’s cold human rights climate.
Athletes who come out, still to this day, can’t be sure how they’ll be received at major sporting events or even in local locker rooms.
The big question is: how does being LGBTQ+ influence an athlete’s performance? Should it hinder their right to play? The obvious answer is no — it doesn’t and shouldn’t.
In January 2014, MRU hosted a panel on Sochi and the politics of sport. Professional athletes and scholars voiced their opinions on how and whether or not Olympians should involve themselves in human rights-related conversations at the Games.
During the panel, former Canadian swimmer, Olympic gold medalist and LGBTQ+ advocate, Mark Tewksbury, said, “It is not an athlete’s job to be a politician, but it is an athlete’s job to compete.”
Tewksbury was talking about human rights issues in Russia, but his statement speaks true in to other contexts. Athletes, no matter where they are or what they’re playing, should be able do what they set out to — play sports — without the fear of identity-based backlash. Although, athletes who are still actively competing should pave the way for others to do the same.
Tewksbury came out publicly in 1998. After his announcement, many more athletes followed suit. Notable athletes who are openly LGBTQ+ include Jason Collins (basketball), Michael Sam (football) and Billie Jean King (tennis).
While many athletes are out publicly, there is still stigma around being LGBTQ+ and playing sports. Some, like John Amaechi (basketball) and Robbie Rogers (soccer), have waited until retirement to come forward about their sexuality.
Sports communities seem to be moving forward in their inclusive practices. Organizations like Patrick Burke’s You Can Play and the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association seek to eradicate homophobic attitudes in both professional and amateur sports. They want to ensure that all players are treated with respect regardless of their sexual orientation.
Still, we don’t always know what kind of homophobic treatment is going on behind closed doors, like activity that might be hidden in locker rooms. Locker room “teasing” can easily shift from funny to hurtful if players are not actively remembering and reminding each other of the importance of respectful behaviour.
MRU men’s hockey coach Bert Gilling says that it’s important to speak up if you see someone being hurtful.
“The locker room culture has always involved some teasing and whatnot. There certainly are points where a line can be crossed. Personally, I’ve never been fond of making fun at another person’s expense. In the end, it is important to understand and respect the individual. It is also important that people have a voice to let others know when that line has potentially been crossed.”
The Cougars’ Student-Athlete Handbook states that all student-athletes must follow MRU’s behaviour requirements. The handbook includes a harassment policy. According to the policy, the university will not tolerate any discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Players could be suspended or released from their teams if they don’t follow the rules.
Respect is an integral part of appropriate player conduct. The Cougars are responsible for upholding a positive and respectful atmosphere says Gilling.
“We define culture by what we affirm, what we confront and what we demonstrate. It doesn’t matter what an individual’s background is — we are all in this together.”