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Pro Athletes for Marriage Equality: Creating New Space

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"Of course he should--it's ******* 2011!"

That's what our 20-year-old son said when I told him Steve Nash had made a video supporting same-sex marriage.

True, our son comes from a socially liberal family, lives in an urban centre, and, most importantly, belongs to a generation that is North America's most tolerant ever. So his reaction perhaps isn't surprising.

However, professional sports should pay attention: As active, sophisticated consumers of information, games and gear, our son and his friends are already targeted by sports-related advertizing on television and the Internet. In a decade or so, they will become the mainstream core of the sports market. What they think, therefore, matters.

In making the video, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash was just doing what he always does: helping others to be better, to achieve their goals. His uncanny ability -- his genius, really -- to get the ball to his teammates to enable them to score is near-legend. Unlike the rest of us mortals, who see little more than the chaos of bodies, colour and speed on the basketball floor, Nash senses where the openings will emerge before they happen and, like a magician, in a flash, makes the ball appear in his teammates' hands as they speed toward the basket.

He also creates new space for others through his social activism. Well-known for assisting progressive causes, Nash was an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war with Iraq. He opposed Arizona's bill giving police the right to detain citizens of that state who 'look' like immigrants. His foundation supports community projects that employ basketball as a tool for strengthening the skills, character and optimism of Aboriginal youth and other kids on the margins of society.

And he supports the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens to the benefits, and enjoyment, of legal marriage. That's why he lent his name, very publicly, in support of the marriage equality project of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. He's in pretty good company, too. Other public figures featured in similar PSA videos for HRC include NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Joan Rivers, and actors Julianne Moore, Julianna Margulies and Mark Ruffalo.

The first pro athlete to join HRC's video lineup supporting marriage equality was Sean Avery, the New York Rangers hockey player. An aggressive competitor on the ice, Avery attracted critical comments from Uptown Sports Management, a player agency whose owners argued for the sanctity of marriage between a woman and a man. However, most sports media commentators took positions that were neutral or favourable toward the Avery video, an outcome which is interesting in itself.

Predictably, those who oppose gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular pointed to their all-purpose bogeyman of 'political correctness' in the media, as the factor responsible for tilting the public debate in a liberal direction. Other commentators interpreted this as a natural shift in attitudes in sports to reflect the greater tolerance for diversity in society at large.

For his part, Nash's use of his video to endorse same-sex marriage was timed to give additional support to Rick Welts, the chief executive of Nash's Phoenix Suns basketball team, who a week earlier had confirmed to the media that he is gay. Welts is now the highest-ranking openly gay executive in men's pro sports. And he works in a state whose legislature is populated by some of America's fiercest opponents of LGBT rights and which, in 2008, banned same-sex marriage.

The NBA is trying to address the homophobia that still infects their sport. In recent months, two prominent players -- Kobe Bryant and Joachim Noah -- have been fined in separate incidents for anti-gay slurs, and they have apologized quickly and publicly. And, in a public service announcement, two Phoenix Suns players -- Grant Hill and Jared Dudley -- talk about why the word "gay" shouldn't be used as an insult or epithet.

Have professional sports, in fact, entered a new, more tolerant era? Perhaps more owners and advertisers are beginning to see how changing demographics, politics and economics in the broader society are shaping the future of their industry. Perhaps more players are already there. Talking about, recognizing and defending gay rights seems to be becoming, although haltingly and unevenly, the new normal in pro sports.

And what is the net effect of sports-celebrity endorsement of social-justice campaigns? The New York State legislature will soon vote on a bill to repeal the state's current ban on same-sex marriage.

Animated by Human Rights Campaign, the energetic coalition supporting marriage equality could well succeed. After the dust settles, it would be useful to assess the extent to which the strategy of making and disseminating the PSA videos by Steve Nash and Sean Avery brought new public support to the campaign, or convinced politicians to vote for the repeal.

We might find that these videos have actually made a difference. After all, it's 2011.

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