Why can't more sports stars champion gay rights?

OPINION - Michael Irvin's words are a stark lesson for the kind of bigotry that is too often tolerated in our community and throughout professional sports -- not just football...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Sport is the American religion — with many rituals and different temples of worship. The gods, heroes and giants wear varying colors and play on opposing teams. Everyone has a preference, and we often choose the sports we love at an early age. The culture surrounding professional athletics in America and abroad has traditionally been hyper-masculine, but this has not excluded women from excelling and exceeding. The final barrier it seems is not in accepting the heroism and exceptionalism of females, but of gay men and lesbians as icons and role models: capable of all feats and triumph on the field, court and track.

Naturally, competitive environments like the NFL and NBA are fueled by testosterone and the desire to win at all costs. The people who excel are not just those with the most talent, but those with the strongest will to win. Bravado and aggression are commonplace. Grandstanding and womanizing are all par for the course (pun intended). Bigger, stronger, better, harder is the only language these athletes speak; and true to a competitive nature, they dominate and intimidate.

But the same environment that embodies the physical and competitive ideal has left a residual culture of homophobia, bullying, name-calling, slurs and all the amateur antics associated with it.

Evolved minds agree that homophobia in general — and bullying in particular — is destructive and antithetical to the very spirit of the games: a spirit which should embrace comradery, teamwork, equality and strength through cooperation and coordination.

Public policy is already moving in the right direction. With greater societal awareness of the dangers of bullying, the warnings and acknowledgment of suicide rates among gay and lesbian youth, and campaigns like “It Gets Better” dominating the airwaves, billboards and blogosphere — slowly (but surely) change is coming.

But change has its enemies, and heroes often must go it alone. In an America still new to grappling with these issues, on social, political and personal levels — it takes leaders in professional sports to provide positive examples and set a new tone. Some do, some don’t. Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame receiver known for his legendary style — on and off the field — is one who did.

Talking publicly for the first time about a part of his life that he tried to hide for years, Irvin is on the cover of the August issue of Out magazine, the best-selling gay magazine in the world, discussing his struggle to accept his older gay brother, Vaughan. Irvin, who played twelve seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, won three Super Bowl championships and was inducted into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in 2007, had a reputation for womanizing throughout his career. In the article he admits that this was due, in part, to the fear that others would think he was gay because he had a gay brother.

Irvin, who now appears on the NFL Network and his own radio show in Miami, has become a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage and says he’s waiting for an active player in the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL to declare publicly that he is gay.

“Until we do that, we’re going to be stuck in the Dark Ages about a lot of things,” Irvin told the magazine. “When a guy steps up and says, ‘This is who I am,’ I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support.”

Irvin — who had never publicly discussed his brother’s sexuality — explains that living with the burden of Vaughn’s secret gives him a hint of how difficult it may be for a homosexual athlete to hide his orientation.
“If I’m not gay and I am afraid to mention it, I can only imagine what an athlete must be going through if he is gay,” Irvin said. “I would like to see players come forward and be happy with who they are. Hopefully, as we move forward, we’ll get to a place where there’s no way it’s even considered; it just is what it is and everybody can do what they do. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Irvin had a message for the African-American community in particular. “I don’t see how any African-American, with any inkling of history, can say that you don’t have the right to live your life how you want to live your life. No one should be telling you who you should love…When we start talking about equality, and everybody being treated equally, I don’t want to know an African-American who will say everybody doesn’t deserve equality.”

Irvin’s words are a stark lesson for the kind of bigotry that is too often tolerated in our community and throughout professional sports — not just football.

In April, Kobe Bryant, upset about a technical foul, called the referee a “f**king fa**ot” — and was later fined $100,000 by the NBA; and in May, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah fired a “f**k you, fa**ot” during a heated exchange with a fan. It seems there is still a place — and tolerance — for this kind of discourse. The fans often agree that this language isn’t particularly homophobic, as much as it is aggressive and competitive.

Two weeks ago, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, in a radio appearance on Sirius XM, engaged in a heated exchange with a caller in which he referred to the caller as a ”>“gay-a**…fa**ot.” Jackson has since apologized, but his actions speak louder than four letter words. He immediately went on Twitter to defend his comments, and received the support of lots of his fans who all agreed there was nothing wrong with his reaction. Such is the twilight zone of the American sports arena. So much progress, but moving in the wrong direction.

Chicago White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham, last week, scrawled a message in the dirt to Kansas City Royals second baseman Chris Getz during a game which read, “GETZ IS GAY! ” Steelers linebacker James Harrison, in a recent Men’s Journal magazine article, attacked the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell using homophobic slurs.

In light of these stories it is clear that Michael Irvin’s stance is a necessary one. It is more than likely that the slurs are either the result of competitive aggression or immature ignorance, but the sentiments they belie is dangerous and destructive.

In a field where men become giants and legends grow stronger, run faster, and jump higher than what is considered possible — is it too much to expect our heroes to be humane?

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook>