On December 22, President Barack Obama signed legislation that repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the 17-year-old law that gave gay and lesbian soldiers the right to serve in the military if they kept their sexual orientation secret. While diversity training will help facilitate military-unit integration, this training is likely to fall short of creating the kind of from-the-gut acceptance that emerges from continuing, formative team experiences. Where better for that acceptance to develop -- in preparation for the military -- than in youth, high school, and college sports?
Based on Senate testimony from Marine Corps commandant General James F. Amos, creating an inclusive military culture is likely to meet resistance. In early December, as forces for repeal were growing on Capitol Hill, General Amos cited a Pentagon survey showing that "67 percent of those in Marine combat arms units predict working alongside a gay man or lesbian will have a negative effect" on morale. He quoted from a platoon commander's letter that stated: "My team's effectiveness is directly tied to its cohesiveness... If you were to add any element of sexual competition, inter-unit sexuality, or hesitance in trust, it would unquestionably prevent those bonds from forming or immediately destroy them if introduced."
These remarks reveal a devastating effect of DADT: since 1993, gay and lesbian soldiers have kept silent to avoid the fate of the 17,000 who were discharged under the law. While their forced silence kept political powers at bay, it also short-circuited the personal connections that create lasting attitude and behavioral shifts. The absence of platonic, same-sex friendships between straight and openly gay and lesbian soldiers derailed opportunities to build trust and understanding over time in the barracks and on the battlefield. So while DADT has been repealed, a cultural breach, based on a lack of team experience with openly gay and lesbian soldiers, remains.
With the high rates of athletes who enter military service, sports have the potential to prepare straight recruits with positive attitudes toward gay and lesbian teammates. They can be a training ground of inclusiveness for tomorrow's military leaders. Between 80 and 90 percent of the incoming classes at West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies include high school varsity athletes. Recognizing the transferability of small-squad sports experiences to military units, the website on West Point's Physical Program includes this quote from General Douglas MacArthur: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds, that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."
In sports, players spend hours with each other in practice, on bus trips, and at competitions. In 2010, for example, players in NCAA Division I Football spent approximately 43 hours per week in team-related activities during the season. These hours are pivotal socialization experiences that shape personal values and attitudes. Without even realizing it, athletes learn how they are expected to think and act as a member of a team. The Center for Sports Ethics at the Josephson Institute recognizes that an athlete's experiences affect his or her values later in life: "This places a significant social responsibility on those who influence sports to uplift and improve the nature and character of society," says the Center.
Unfortunately, too many teams discourage openly homosexual players. In a culture where there are no openly gay men playing professional football, baseball or basketball and where relatively few gay or lesbian athletes have come out to teammates, sports have a long way to go to create the kind of inclusive experiences that athletes can take with them into the military.
As a competitive college wrestler and coach, I can attest to the normalcy of homophobia. However, with fairness and respect at the core of sports, I am optimistic that straight athlete leaders will challenge the culture. It is already happening. When New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita came out as a gay rights ally, the culture listened. It also listened when Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Ernie Banks -- "Mr. Cubs" -- marched in Gay Pride parades and when Dan Mahar, the lacrosse coach at the State University of New York at Oneonta, gave a team captain the courage to come out. These athletes and coaches are redefining what it means to be sports heroes.
As sports evolve, allowing more gay and lesbian athletes to feel comfortable coming out to teammates, millions of heterosexual athletes headed toward military service will learn firsthand that integrity, courage and grit have nothing to do with sexual orientation. The need for this bottom-up change is paramount since no piece of legislation can dismantle ingrained attitudes and perceptions on its own -- not when it involves millions of soldiers who are expected to live the change day and night.
Hudson Taylor is a wrestling coach at Columbia University, a competitive athlete and founder of Athlete Ally, a sports resource to battle homophobia.