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The Moment Is NOW for Professional Sports to Ban LGBT Discrimination

06/18/2014 10:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014
Dilip Vishwanat via Getty Images

President Obama's executive order banning discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Americans in federal contracting should be a lightning rod for professional sports to do the same. Yet, notwithstanding the "coming out" of players in the NBA and NFL, the evolving views of the American public, and state courts' interpretation of the 14th Amendment to provide equal protection to LGBT persons, professional sports commissioners and team owners largely have been silent on their commitment to LGBT equality.

As significant as the president's executive order has been, it is merely a step in the right direction on a much longer road. Americans may be surprised that in 2014 there are no federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBT persons. And while twenty-nine states explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, none has enacted laws to protect LGBT workers. Eradicating LGBT workplace discrimination is the most significant civil rights issue of our time -- equal in weight to breaking color barriers, suffrage, and integration -- but it is an issue on which professional sports lag behind.

Commissioners like the NBA's Adam Silver, who have been stalwarts in the advancement of racial equality, particularly in light of racist remarks by L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, have been silent on LGBT equality. While granting that the league has been less proactive in engaging the LGBT community than is preferable, Silver has offered no change in policy. In preparing for Michael Sam to join the National Football League, Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a memo to teams reiterating the NFL's code of conduct and banned use of the "n-word" by players and management, but left unattended discrimination against gays. He did nothing to assure that Sam would be treated with the respect and fairness accorded other players, or to protect him against being fired because he is gay. According to Goodell, in the NFL: "we do things the right way. We will give them that education and training. I hope that will solve the problem." But Goodell's deduction is flawed, for if education and training solved discrimination we surely would have educated and trained our way beyond it by now. As with racial and gender bias, laws must be constructed and enforced to ensure equal protection to LGBT professional athletes. Goodell welcomed Sam onto the field of play without providing him the protection from discrimination that other players have, thereby leaving him uniquely and unfairly vulnerable. Goodell codified the NFL's right to discriminate when he should have had the courage, like President Obama, to ban it.

Both Silver and Goodell missed their "Branch Rickey moment" by not ushering in a culture change in the NBA and NFL, respectively. Branch Rickey was the Major League Baseball executive who hired Jackie Robinson to join the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey wanted the best players, and to make a difference in the game and country he loved. Knowing Robinson would be targeted for racial harassment as the first player to break professional sports' color barrier, Rickey set in motion a chain of events that would fundamentally reshape the MLB and the nation. He declared an end to racial discrimination in the MLB. He went on to hire the league's first Afro-Hispanic player, Roberto Clemente, and to develop the minor league farm system, which helped other minority players enter the game. Rickey, a white man and champion of civil rights, was to the integration of professional sports what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to the integration of lunch counters, stores, schools, and government. Professional sports commissioners and team owners have an opportunity now to continue this inspiring legacy by declaring an end to LGBT discrimination in professional sports.

Our nation is undergoing tremendous, structural progress on a number of social fronts. The commissioners and owners should recognize the positive shift in public opinion on LGBT issues, particularly same-sex marriage, and the likelihood that the Supreme Court will strike down laws denying people equal protection on the basis of their sexual identities. They should understand the implications for professional sports that in 2004 same-sex marriage was supported by 38 percent of the American people; today that number is 59 percent, and 77 percent among 18-29 year olds; 19 states have approved marriage equality; state courts across the land have consistently struck down statutes advancing LGBT discrimination; and 50 percent of Americans now believe the U.S. Constitution guarantees LGBT Americans equal protection in the law.

Why should the commissioners and team owners be trailblazers for LGBT inclusion and protection? First, it's good business. There are 8 million LGBT Americans, many of whom support professional sports, with an estimated economic value of $800 billion, enough to grow the fan base of our national sports franchises for generations to come. Second, it is a vital moral issue. With LGBT youths four times more likely than "straight" youths to attempt suicide, often stemming from a sense of being shut out of the game of life, our national sports leaders can help reverse the scourge of lost hope and lives by embracing all youths, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Third, it is a unique opportunity to lead on social progress. Where religion and politics have failed, professional sports have historically succeeded in unifying disconnected people to an idea of excellence based on shared values that enriches our national culture. Fourth, it is a practical decision. There is little risk in banning LGBT discrimination, far less risk than Branch Rickey took on when he signed Jackie Robinson. The transition to acceptance of the gay community is well underway, the president has provided a roadmap, the American public is marching toward full inclusion, and the courts have hinted to the inevitability of LGBT equality.

Given these factors, professional sports commissioners and team owners should follow President Obama's lead and ban LGBT discrimination on the field and in the locker room, in boardrooms and contracting, among fans and employees -- and they should do it now, in this national month of Gay Pride.