Symbols are powerful forces in our lives. The gold bands on our left ring finger show the world our commitment. The stars and stripes breed images of freedom. The five Olympic rings conjure visions of excellence and strength.
When Chick-fil-A's COO Dan Cathy said his company opposes the very relationships that define a growing population of our society and admitted to spending millions of dollars to fight the legalization of said relationships, the symbolism of Chick-fil-A shifted dramatically for some to one of oppression, inequality, and legalized discrimination.
This was no accident. It never is.
Companies spend untold resources crafting what values their logo and name symbolize. Nike's swoosh, McDonald's golden arches, Apple's apple -- the message these symbols inspire are well-researched, well-crafted, and well-conceived. The feelings they elicit are nearly scripted.
This Labor Day weekend, college football players from the University of Tennessee, North Carolina State, Auburn University, and Clemson University will put on their jerseys and kick off their 2012 season. They'll be filled with excitement, ready to hit the gridiron. Of the 300 or so athletes, at least one of them will be gay. Most likely, he'll be closeted. Maybe a few teammates know about him, a couple of close friends. But if he has NFL-caliber dreams, like so many of them, he'll be struggling deep in the closet. His life will be defined in part by this secret he feels forced to keep.
When he puts on his jersey for the first time this season, Chick-fil-A's logo will be staring back at him. The company is the name sponsor for the two ACC-SEC kickoff games that weekend in Atlanta. The two conferences have a relationship with Chick-fil-A that extends to the Chick-fil-A Bowl this winter.
It is time for Chick-fil-A to stop forcing athletes to wear their logo. And if they won't do that, it's time for the ACC and SEC to end their relationship with the bowl game.
Cathy said his company stands for "the biblical definition of the family unit," which would leave same-sex relationships on the trash heap of history. "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said.
For the gay football player or coach in Atlanta that weekend, the words of Cathy, diminishing him to second-class citizenship, will be ringing in his ear.
On that day, he will become a walking billboard for a symbol of his own oppression. As ESPN broadcasts the game, the nation will watch this player glorify the very words of a man who blames him for "inviting God's judgment." It's an image that will live branded in his head for years to come.
A month ago Neil Giuliano, head of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and former Mayor of Tempe, Ariz., asked me what I thought about Chick-fil-A's name being on one of college football's major bowl games. At the time the company was guilty, at most, of quietly donating some money to anti-same-sex-marriage organizations. I don't like it, but I also try to give people a little leeway with their political beliefs. We both felt that the time wasn't quite right to cause a stir about it.
Until this summer, the company's logo was not a symbol of discrimination. It is now.
Some people will say that being anti-same-sex-marriage isn't discriminatory but simply a difference of opinion. It's a faulty argument. What makes gay people different, what sets us apart from the majority of Americans, is our relationships. It is inherent to what puts us in a minority. It's like saying, "I don't mind Hispanics, I just don't like people who speak Spanish." Or, "I don't mind black people, I just have a problem with dark skin." Our relationships are what make us different. When you oppose same-sex marriage, you oppose who I am.
The standard should be high for a company whose name embodies a bowl game. The company name is on the stadium during the game. It's in the newspaper headlines. It's on the players' jerseys. It's on hats and TV broadcasts and game tickets.
They are the "Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games." It is the "Chick-Fil-A Bowl."
This goes beyond simply opening a store and selling chicken. Everyone can avoid that store if they so choose. No one has to work there. No one has to eat there. Anyone can opt out.
The college football players of the ACC and SEC cannot.
The appropriate steps are simple. While it would be ideal for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce to force out Chick-fil-A as the name sponsor of the bowl game, we know the power of the corporate dollar. If they won't do that, they can certainly reduce the impact of the Chick-fil-A logo's symbolism. At the very least, they must remove that logo from the jersey, shirt, and hat of every player and coach in the game. No person should be forced to wear that logo.
If they will not do that:
- The ACC and the SEC should end their relationship with the Bowl game, and the schools involved should withdraw from this year's Kickoff Games. How can any institution of higher learning force an athlete to wear the name of a company that says he is a second-class citizen? It is outrageous. (The schools that are affected: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Maryland, Miami, Mississippi State, Missouri, UNC, NC State, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest.)
- ESPN should not broadcast the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Kickoff Games. The network is a powerful tool in strengthening the message and impact of the athletes, companies, and symbols it broadcasts to the world. It also has a long history of fighting discrimination, the latest of which is the launching of an employee ally network. Broadcasting these games, and glorifying the Chick-fil-A symbol, flies in the face of that.
- The NCAA should stop all monetary support of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Did you know that the bowl is one of only three that receives money from the NCAA? This should stop immediately.
- The BCS commissioners and presidents should not even accept a bid from the Chick-fil-A Bowl to host the impending college football playoff games starting in 2014. Gary Stokan, Chick-fil-A Bowl president and CEO, said they will bid to host these games. That cannot happen.
Again, no athlete or coach should be forced to wear a symbol of their own oppression.
The sports world has come to a crossroads. On the one hand, sports have long stood for equality and freedom, from Jesse Owens' victorious races in Berlin to Oscar Pistorius' groundbreaking races in London. On the other hand is the road sports have been speeding down until recently: turning a blind eye to homophobia.
It is now time for the Chick-fil-A college football games, the ACC, SEC, ESPN and BCS to make that decision. Which road will they go down? Let's hope they don't make a U-turn.
To learn more about the push against Chick-fil-A on college campuses, visit Campus Pride.
To reach the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, call (404) 880-9000. Their president is Sam Williams.
To reach ACC Commissioner John Swofford, call (336) 854-8787 or contact them here.
To reach SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, call (205) 458-3000.
You can send an email to ESPN about their TV coverage here.