DeSean Jackson, James Harrison, Kobe Bryant, and Joakim Noah—these names are certainly first synonymous with their sports prowess. Unfortunately, each of these names can be associated with homophobic remarks as well. Were their remarks ways of asserting their masculinity? Some people may say so, but that’s a topic for another time. Were they offensive? Misguided? Absolutely.
The sad part is that in 2011, Black professional athletes feel they still have to use derogatory comments to get under other players’ skin or draw a reaction as if they are playing a game of the dozens to gain credibility on their street. They fail to realize that they are no longer young kids who are still wet behind the ears and don’t really understand that the words they utter carry profound meaning. This is not to say, however, that we should place professional athletes on a pedestal and think they will never make a mistake. Professional athletes are human after all and all humans make mistakes.
As clichéd as it may sound, with fame comes some form of responsibility to be a positive role model, no matter if one wants to be one or not. That is not to say that the person needs to change ultimately what makes them the unique person they are, but they need to be more aware of the impact their words and actions can have. This is particularly true in the Black community, where many youth idolize professional athletes and strive to be the next big star. It is not uncommon to see many Black youth wearing the sneakers their favorite athlete wears, partaking in products they endorse, or modeling their potential sports career after their favorite player. In this day and age, being a professional athlete means being a brand, a person who can appeal across racial and economic boundaries to sell products or be the spokesperson for an organization or charity. Thus it is crazy for an athlete to think they do not have any gay or transgender followers who would be offended by comments that were not meant to be “disrespectful” to the gay and transgender community.
More importantly, Black professional athletes like DeSean Jackson are sending mixed signals when they stand up for a bullied individual in one breath and then make derogatory and offensive comments about a community that suffers from high rates of bullying in another. Fortunately, not all Black professional athletes send mixed messages. Figures like Michael Irving and Grant Hill understand the importance of their words and the weight they carry, and have come out in support of gay and transgender rights. If nothing else, Black professional athletes need to understand that when they use “gay” or “faggot” in an unsavory manner, they will be viewed as homophobic, especially in the gay and transgender community.
These words are particularly harmful for Black gay and transgender youth who are struggling to fight homophobia within the Black community and create a self-identity. That is why Black professional athletes need to think of just how powerful a message they can send by speaking up to protect gay and transgender individuals from homophobia, discrimination, and violence by leading the way to a more inclusive society. Being bold and asserting their voice in a positive manner will be more appreciated than obligatory statements of saying their comments were “not meant to disrespect the gay and transgender community.”
Jerome Hunt is a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University and a research associate with the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed in this article are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org