The Big Ten on Monday unveiled the names of its new divisions and awards, and in doing so enshrined the conference's embrace of a man who has fought against civil rights.
This week former University of Minnesota quarterback Tony Dungy became one of only four men in the history of Big Ten football to have a postgraduate award named after him. And it isn't just another award. It's the conference's humanitarian award. That's right: In the 114-year history of the conference, of the thousands of men to play football at the member schools, the Big Ten felt the need to name their humanitarian award after a man who has actively fought against the equal rights of gay Americans.
Dungy hasn't simply spoken against gay civil rights, he has put his money where his mouth is. In 2007 he used his new-found Super Bowl-champion status to raise over $70k for the Indiana Family Institute, a group whose primary purpose is to keep gay marriage illegal. Dungy specifically endorsed the organization's anti-gay position at a fundraising event:
"I'm on the Lord's side, and I appreciate IFI for the stance their taking, and I embrace that stance, and that's important."
Big Ten schools have made steps forward on gay issues. Indiana hosted LGBT Appreciation Day during their game against Northwestern earlier this year. Earlier this year Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel said a player's sexual orientation would be a non-factor for him. So why would the Big Ten make such a clear statement in support of institutionalized homophobia?
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gave some insight while singling out Tony Dungy in an interview with ESPN as someone the conference wants to embrace:
"We think the leadership issue is a powerful issue, whether it's Tony Dungy or whether it's Pat Fitzgerald or whether it's [former Big Ten commissioner] Wayne Duke, whoever it is. We think that those things resonate and carry meaning that's tied to who we are, who we want to be."
Who we are. Who we want to be. Leadership. Those words are powerful. And they are unmistakable.
Certainly Dungy has done good work in his life. His outreach to youth is praiseworthy. The problem is that, in a world where gay youth are killing themselves, the Big Ten has made it clear that outspoken homophobia isn't a consideration for them. David Duke attended LSU. Strom Thurmond attended Clemson. Will we now see the SEC or ACC name their humanitarian award after either of these men? Of course not. They are and were racists, and in sports it's not all right to be a racist. On the other hand, outspoken homophobia isn't just welcomed, and you don't just win humanitarian awards...you can have the awards forever named after you.
It isn't the rookie award. It isn't the offensive player award. It is the humanitarian award. Humanitarians are people like Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Mohandas Gandhi. These are people who fought for understanding, equality and civil rights. Never would they have supported an organization whose sole purpose is to prevent a group of people from realizing equality.
If it was written into a Hollywood script it wouldn't be believable. A man raises tens of thousands of dollars to fight against civil rights, he says he embraces the fight against civil rights... and he has a humanitarian award named after him.
It's bad enough that gay sports fans have to watch an outspoken homophobe like Tony Dungy on NBC every Sunday night. Now Big Ten and college football fans will be reminded of his fight against gay equality every year. The conference just pushed those Big Ten athletes struggling with their sexual orientation two steps further into the closet. All in the name of humanitarianism.