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Jackie Gardina Headshot

To Professional Athletes: Get Over It

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Professional athletes need to get some perspective. The rest of society has been working with openly gay and lesbian colleagues for a while now. Even the military has managed to transition to open service without significant issues. Yet some professional athletes continue to believe that their team will crumble with the addition of an openly gay teammate. Whatever arguments can be raised in defense of such a position were raised and debunked during the efforts to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). And quite honestly, they sound ridiculous coming from a group of people paid an enormous amount of money to play a game for entertainment purposes.

The same tired arguments that were made to keep DADT in place have also been used to explain why professional sports teams cannot manage an openly gay teammate. Opponents of DADT repeal cited the differences between the civilian and military setting, the intimate conditions and inevitable sexual tensions as well as that possibility that unit cohesion might be disrupted by the presence of an openly gay or lesbian servicemember. In the sports world, Mark Knudson's recent op-ed in Mile High Sports provides the most recent example of a sports figure recycling these fallacies. In explaining why the professional sports team environment is different from an accounting office, he stated:

They aren't spending 24/7 living under a microscope, with every move they make being scrutinized. They aren't traveling across North America and going into intense competition in hostile environments and then being expected to perform flawlessly as a unit. And they aren't showering together afterwards. Important distinctions.

Knudson's argument is laughable. I know someone serving in Afghanistan right now. He is based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he works with the nascent Afghan security forces. The men and women he works with are called on to dismantle IEDs, help manage the border crossing and build relationships with the local population. He eats, sleeps, showers and trains with openly gay and lesbian service members. He is part of a professional organization whose leaders require its members to put aside their personal biases to achieve a larger goal. If the unit fails to perform "flawlessly," people die; the team doesn't simply fall in the ESPN power rankings.

Knudson also offered the "sexual tension" and "unit cohesion" excuse as a basis for requiring gay and lesbian athletes to remain closeted. Knudson suggests that it is completely normal for a gay athlete to be attracted to a teammate: "Of course he's going to have feelings of attraction toward a teammate or two. It's human nature. These are some of the most physically fit and desirable human beings on the planet. The gay athlete isn't going to notice that?" And according to Knudson, a straight teammate would know when he is being checked out, and then that would lead to tension in the locker room. However, he graciously acknowledges, "It's human nature for people to be attracted to other people and it's not going to stop happening because the workplace environment is a locker room rather than a typical office setting."

But Knudson's argument is flawed (in so many ways, but let's just focus on one). Let's state the obvious, and something that Knudson acknowledges: Gay athletes have played on professional sports teams. Indeed, Knudson "salute[s] Esera Tuaolo and other gay athletes" who remained closeted during their playing days. Gay athletes have been in the locker room, showered with their teammates and apparently did so without incident. Even though it is "human nature" to feel attracted to your Adonis-like teammate, and even though it would be impossible for the straight teammate not to notice the attraction, it apparently happened. Again and again. Several professional athletes have emerged from the closet upon retirement, to the suprise of their straight teammates. So it isn't really that gay athletes would be unable to control themselves; they have been doing it for years. It is that the straight athletes would feel uncomfortable if they knew that they had a gay teammate. To that I respond: Get over it. If the Marines can manage it, then the NFL, the NBA and the MLB can as well.

I don't want to paint the sports world with too broad a brush. Professional athletes and teams have become increasingly supportive of LGBT issues. Scott Fujita, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, recently stated that he believes that an overwhelming number of NFL players would be fine with an openly gay teammate. Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to declare Prop 8, the California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage, unconstitutional. Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor have dedicated their lives to combating homophobia and bullying in sports. With the help of Hudson, the NCAA just released an 82-page guide called "Champions of Respect" to help its constituents navigate LGBT issues in college sports. And this is how change happens, albeit slowly. Leaders emerge, courage is shown, risks are taken, and eventually the voices of people like Mark Knudson, Chris Culliver and Brandon Spikes are drowned out by a new generation of athletes.