Chris Culliver and Homophobia in Sports: A Discussion
The dreams of a sixth 49ers’ Super Bowl victory came up short last night — three points short to be exact. Images from that final San Francisco drive are likely stuck on instant replay in the minds of many Niner fans. But for LGBT advocates, it might be the anti-gay comments of San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver, made just days before the big game that still rankle. Also deflating some of the goodwill among the LGBT community that had been built up by the 49ers’ It Gets Better video: columnist and LGBT advocate Dan Savage, the creator of that project, pulled the video after Ahmad Brooks and Isaac Sopoaga made comments indicating they were unaware they were participating in an LGBT-related project.
Before the Super Bowl, KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny used Culliver’s comments as a launching off point to discuss homophobia in sports. Here are some things that came out of that discussion:
1) There Are Gay Athletes…Even if They Aren’t Out
There are currently no openly gay active athletes in any of America’s four major professional sports leagues: the NFL, MLB, the NHL and the NBA. But that doesn’t mean that there are no gay players in those leagues.
“There is obviously hiding because we don’t have any openly gay athletes in any of four major sports,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play, an LGBT sports advocacy non profit organization. “In the realm of men’s sports we’re fighting two stereotypes: that there are are no gay athletes and that all straight athletes are these idiot jocks who want to throw kids into lockers.”
Rather than coming out while active, the pattern has been for players to announce their orientation after they retire, as was the case with David Kopay, a former 49ers running back who was the first NFL player to come out, in 1975.
“I’m really saddened by [Culliver's comments],” Kopay said on Forum. “But I’m also really encouraged by what’s going on with the teams themselves, and people covering this story.”
2) There Are LGBT Allies in Sports
Both Burke and guest Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of OutSports.com, said that the professional leagues and the media need to highlight the good news about gays in sports.
“We need to do a better job of giving straight athletes a way to speak up and voice their opinions that they are an ally and that they are willing to support a gay teammate,” said Burke. “I don’t believe the NFL has spoken to Wayde Davis. They have a young, African-American, gay former NFL-er who is happy and willing and eager to go in and work with athletes — why isn’t he on the first phone call?”
“On OutSports we’ve written on almost three dozen current and former NFL players who in the last year have come out in support of same-sex marriage,” said Zeigler. “They’ve said they wouldn’t care if they had a gay teammate. Some of these [players] are black and some are white, some are Christians, non-Christians… and those stories don’t get any coverage at the national level from ESPN or Sports Illustrated. [KQED] doesn’t have me on to talk about those stories.”
“I don’t think what Chris [Culliver] said is completely out there,” said Burke. “I think there are a lot of professional athletes who unfortunately still hold on to that belief, but I do think he’s in the minority. Back in 2006, Sport Illustrated did a survey of NFL players and asked them if they would support an openly gay teammate and about 60 percent said they would. And that was seven years ago. My guess is its’ probably in the 70 to 75 percent of NFL-ers would support an openly gay teammate.”
3) Words Matter
During the show a caller shared his opinion that it’s okay to use derogatory slurs for humorous effect and in other situations, if the openly gay people in one’s life know that they have one’s support. The Forum panel strongly disagreed:
“People have this notion that homophobic slurs are supposed to have two meanings,” responded Burke. “We call it ‘casual homophobia.’ People say, ‘I say the word ‘fag’ but I don’t mean that. I mean it as in ‘Oh, you’re being uncool.’ or [when I say] ‘That’s so gay’ I mean ‘That’s so uncool.’”
“I could never do that with a racial slur,” said Burke. ” I could never use the ‘n-word’ and say, ‘Oh, I only use that for people who wear Crocs in public. And yet I’m supposed to accept that homophobic slurs have two senses, or two ways that they can be used — it’s crap.”
“For athletes, I don’t think we’re asking a lot here,” said Burke. “I think if you eliminate five or 10 words from your vocabulary, you’re 90 percent of the way there and where we need to be. I think athletes need to do a better job of that. What I try and teach from my own experience is that it’s easy to eliminate homophobic slurs from your vocabulary, it’s easy to be an ally to the gay community, and it’s a lot easier than sitting your brother down and apologizing when he’s come out later.”
4) Discussion is a Good Thing
As upsetting as Chris Culliver’s comments were to some, the LGBT advocates on Forum were glad he said them.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how homophobic you are until you are put on the spot, “said Kopay. “This is a learning experience for [Culliver].”
“I want to know where athletes stand because that way we know what we need to do to fix the problem,” said Zeigler. ” Brendon Ayanbadejo is an LBGT supporter, he’s with the Baltimore Ravens and he had said that he would make the Superbowl a platform to talk about gay issues. He did not do that. With one interview, this guy, Chris Culliver” made gay issues one of the top five stories for this Super Bowl. “A supporter could never have done what this guy did.”
And as to the question of whether too much is being made of Hi Tops, a San Francisco gay sports bar that was featured in Sports Illustrated: “Anytime the word ‘gay’ gets into Sports Illustrated or ESPN, I’m all for it,” Zeigler said.
You can listen to the complete Forum discussion here: