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It's Time for All Jocks to Embrace Diversity

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I sat down this month planning to write a post using Dr. Martin Luther King's speech about the dignity of labor to remind people of the value of unity and importance of every individual's contribution to the collective good. You know, a nice Black History Month piece no one can disagree with. I probably will share my reflections about that speech in a post later this year. But today, sitting in my office surrounded my collection of civil rights artifacts from the 1960s, I'm compelled to write about a modern-day civil rights movement.

In my last blog I defended the character of my NFL brothers; this time I am not sure that I can do the same. I spent much of the first week of February emailing congratulations to my friends, the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, I spent most of the week prior to the big game sending emails of apology following the homophobic remarks by a 49ers player. This is not the attitude or behavior that I expect from one of my brothers. His comments both saddened and surprised me. And I'm not the only member of the union that feels this way.

I wasn't always this enlightened. While I have always felt comfortable with people living their lives in any way they see fit, and have consistently been in favor of equal rights for all, I can't say that I have never used the word gay in a derogatory manner. So this is not meant to be a judgmental lecture from an infallible man, but rather an invitation to my peers, inside and outside of sports, to reassess their opinions from an unbiased place. Or maybe from a biased place.

What crystallized my more enlightened perspective on many issues concerning the LGBT community was remembering how I felt when I heard classmates in my all-black high school say, "Domonique think he white," because I wanted to do well in school. We all belong to groups that carry stereotypes, and if we are being honest, maybe we can admit to perpetuating a few of them ourselves.

The implication that gays are somehow too soft for a football team is an absurd fallacy. You may think that doing 50 sets of squats at the gym, playing through a sprained ankle, or being that last man standing after a grueling two-a-day workout is "tough." Surviving and thriving while enduring those physical challenges requires toughness, but truly being tough and strong is when you persevere while being ridiculed, ostracized or rejected -- just for being yourself. Any person that flourishes in those conditions would be a great asset to an NFL locker room. Actually, those people probably are already assets to high school, college and NFL locker rooms. And hopefully one day soon they will feel enough support to be openly gay while playing.

We're not there yet, but we're making progress -- just take the flurry of supportive responses that professional soccer player Robbie Roberts received following his recent revelation or the overwhelming negative reaction the homophobic comments incited from writers and athletes. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher, said, "On this team, with so many different personalities, we just accept people for who they are and we don't really care too much about a player's sexuality." I believe this to be the more pervasive sentiment in NFL locker rooms. We still have some work to do in professional sports, and I'm confident we'll get there. It is my hope that the next generation of athletes will not support a culture of ignorance and discrimination and that gay athletes will feel comfortable being open about their sexuality. As we saw in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, progress comes with education and dialogue. And, at least in football, I want to make sure we are creating a forum where both can occur and people embrace diversity.

During my participation in the recent Harvard Business School (HBS) Admitted Student Welcome events, the level of diversity stunned me. At Harvard, diversity doesn't simply mean categorizing people by race, age or sexual preference. It is the opinion of the HBS admission staff that true diversity fosters greatness, so they build a student body comprised of people with different life experiences who bring unique perspectives.

Whether you're seeking greatness on the football field or in the boardroom, diversity is a key ingredient, as my seatmate pointed out to me on a recent train ride from New York to Baltimore. Following some NFL meetings, I was heading home and struck up a conversation with the man next to me -- an openly gay pharmaceutical executive and father of young twins.

Me: Where do you work?
Him: A pharmaceutical company based in San Diego, but I live in Bethesda now.
Me: Do you miss the great weather and beautiful women?
Him: I miss the weather. My partner and I have been together for a long time.

Somehow, I managed to continue the conversation with my foot in my mouth. And I am glad that I did. My new friend said his partner loves sports, but he himself could never enjoy them because it was made clear from a young age that he was not welcome. He went on to say he wasn't a great athlete, but he imagined there were many talented sexual minorities (a term he taught me is favored by the LGBT community), who never even step on to a field.

Since this conversation, I have been thinking a lot about being denied the path that best suits you because of the ignorance of others. There are so many great stories of pioneers in sports challenging convention and making the uncomfortable routine.

While we are still waiting for the gay pioneer in professional football, I can tell you that I already admire his bravery and selflessness -- he will be trading peace and the ability to "fit in" for added pressure and intense scrutiny. All I can offer is my support, and hopefully he will feel emboldened knowing that he will have earned a permanent place in American sports and civil rights history.

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