The sports world is waging a multi-front war for social justice, which could change how society views LGBT rights in a way that LGBT athletes have been unable to. With due respect to Jason Collins, Michael Sam and Caitlyn Jenner, we might finally be approaching our long-awaited ‘Jackie Robinson moment.’
The cultural revolution taking place in American athletics spans everything from football and basketball, to soccer and lacrosse; it is being fought by players, owners and even entire leagues; black and white, men and women, queer and straight; for transgender rights, black lives and the unifying yearning for equality and dignity.
The hottest front is the one opened by Colin Kaepernick, backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, as he refuses to stand for the Star Spangled Banner due to this country’s historic and current state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. His actions have enraged those who believe they have a monopoly on U.S. patriotism and constitutional rights, and emboldened other athletes to join Kaepernick’s protest.
After generations of relative silence on social issues from America’s top sports figures, the NFL season opened with player protests in Miami, Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco, whose owner also pledged $1 million to organizations fighting racial inequality. College and high school football players have made similar demonstrations, and earlier this month lesbian professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe took a knee during a pregame national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick and the larger Black Lives Matter movement.
The fighting has been quieter on the LGBT front of the current sports revolution, but the progressive victories have been monumental. This week, the NCAA announced that it was withdrawing seven collegiate sports championships that were scheduled to take place in North Carolina, due to the state’s ban on transgender individuals using the restroom that matches their gender identities.
The NCAA action mirrors this summer’s announcement from the NBA that it was moving the 2017 All-Star Game from North Carolina because of its lawmakers’ stubborn bigotry. The Tar Heel State is now flanked by two sports leagues, representing the most powerful reassurance we have received from corporate and organizational allies who threatened to boycott states that enact laws restricting transgender access to restrooms or sanctioning anti-LGBT bigotry under the facade of “religious liberty.”
The NCAA reiterated that our side is not hurling empty threats, and the NBA has proven that the other side’s anger doesn’t amount to power, as there have been no substantial protests in the months since the league’s pro-transgender decision to relocate All-Star Weekend.
Many people regret the outsized influence sports play in American life, but their impact on our history and culture is inarguable. And we seem to have reached the point where American Sport, long a source of masculine hostility toward our movement, has joined the consensus on LGBT rights.
Just as Branch Rickey had haters after recruiting Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, there will be those who feel antagonized by the bold moves of NBA and NCAA executives. However, the moves are made, and it’s hard to imagine how the NBA, NCAA or any other sports league can reverse course.
LGBT rights are on the way to being as American as baseball, but history suggests there will always be a need for the Kaepernicks of the sports world.