The National Basketball Association has had its share of notable anti-gay scandals.
In April 2011, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant caused a stir and was fined $100,000 when he was caught on camera calling a referee a “fucking faggot.” The incident forced Bryant and the league to take a serious look at homophobia in professional basketball.
Enter college wrestling three-time All American, Hudson Taylor. Taylor holds the records for most pins and wins in the history of the University of Maryland, and is ranked in the top five pinners in NCAA wrestling history. He is also the founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, an organization that seeks to use straight allies to foster a culture of inclusion in sports for LGBT athletes.
Bryant has since begun speaking out against using homophobic language, and took to Twitter to support NBA player Jason Collins when the former Washington Wizard came out in the pages of Sports Illustrated. But Taylor’s organization sees opportunity for a greater impact in the major leagues than merely supportive tweets from superstars.
“There’s a definite recognition in the sports world, beginning with the NBA, that [athletics] shouldn’t be the last closet in America,” baseball commentator and Athlete Ally board member, Sam Marchiano, told the Blade.
In 2012, Athlete Ally announced it was taking its college ally training program to the NBA. The organization not only seeks to train allies in how to become more outspoken and challenge anti-gay words in the locker room, but to train allies to recruit and train more allies.
An alumnus of the 2012 NBA training — which Taylor himself leads with groups of various sizes for NBA players, personnel and coaches — starting power forward of the Denver Nuggets and child of two moms, Kenneth Faried became the first Athlete Ally ambassador in the league, and when the standout rookie participated in ESPN Magazine’s 2013 body issue, he specifically cited Jason Collins’ coming out, and the courage of LGBT athletes as his inspiration for posing nude.
Marchiano said that the trainings have an impact on the organizational culture, because many of the participants are discussing LGBT inclusion in the context of sports for the first time.
“You want everyone on your team being true to themselves and being who they are and you want to have everybody on your team, anyone who can help,” Marchiano said.
Marchiano said that for some players, there is already a great deal of comfort with LGBT players, but for others these discussions help them see LGBT athletes and fans as integral to the team.
“Once people start to talk about the issue, and get comfortable, the acceptance grows from there,” Marchiano says. “You don’t go backward.”
For many LGBT sports fans, the ultimate goal is to create a culture of sports where every locker room welcomes openly gay, bi and trans athletes.
“Athlete Ally has done a great job building awareness around the importance of being a straight ally on the field, which is tremendously valuable for equality and inclusion in sports,” says Connor Gaughan, a sports enthusiast and managing partner at Collective Conscience. “The next stage is for organizations that focus on gay and lesbian athletes to leverage the work of [Athlete Ally] and collaborate for more out players at every level of sports.”
NCAA wrestler Dylan Ryan is about to start his junior year at Duke University, and he’s already built an Athlete Ally program at his school. As one of seven official campus ambassadors in a program covering 33 campuses throughout the nation, he has begun conducting trainings based on Hudson Taylor’s approach. He said Duke’s wrestling team is already prepared to welcome an openly gay member.
“I can see the changes already,” Ryan told the Blade. “I think we’ve made positive steps.”
Ryan — who hopes Athlete Ally expands to more campuses — is growing the program this year with trainings for more teams, and recruiting more freshmen athletes from the very beginning of the year. Though he says some men’s teams still have some work to do, the women’s teams have been enthusiastically supportive.
“Women’s teams have all already openly come out to support us and have come to different meetings and contacted our development coordinator,” Ryan said.
Ryan — who became an outspoken LGBT ally after both a high school teammate and a former training partner came out — says the goals of the training are to teach allies to rely on one another across the organization for support, to work with coaches and athletic staff to build inclusion for LGBT athletes and fans, and to have the courage to step up in the heat of the moment when anti-gay slurs are used.
“We want to build the confidence to not be afraid to call someone out if you hear someone in the background use a slur, or put someone down for their sexual orientation,” Ryan says. “We train them not to be afraid to step up and say ‘Hey, that’s wrong.’”