When Athlete Ally was founded in late 2011, one of its missions was to open a dialogue in the sports community to address the rampant homophobia, transphobia and gender inequalities that are pervasive in sports culture.
One of its members first marks on the sports community came from the creation of Athlete Ally ambassadors which consists of a stable of straight and LGBT athletes standing in unity to support the LGBT sports movement.
The ambassadors range from professional, Olympic, collegiate and amateur athletes and represent a multitude of sports. They have become the ‘watchdogs’ of the sports community.
In July at Wimbledon, Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky came under fire from the Women’s Tennis Association for anti-gay comments he reportedly made during an interview.
According to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Stakhovsky is quoted by Ukrainian sports website XSport.ua as saying: “On the WTA tour, almost every other player is a lesbian. Can you imagine — half of them. So I for sure won’t send my daughter to play tennis.”
During the interview, he also stated that he is certain there are no closeted gay men in the top 100. After he arrived in New York for the U.S. Open last month, he was confronted by multiple media outlets in regards to his comments.
“If there are 100 guys, or 128 guys, I mean, if somebody’s different, he falls out, doesn’t he?” said Stakhovsky, 29 and ranked No. 60 in the world. “In a locker room, where half the guys walking in towels are naked, yeah, you definitely would see something different, no?”
One of the things that were disturbing about Stakhovsky’s comments is that he serves on the Association of Tennis Professionals Player Council.
“None of us were happy with what he said,” Council President Eric Butorac said during the U.S. Open. “After a lot of deliberations we decided to keep him on the council. We didn’t release a statement, but I think in the future we would.”
Four of the tennis ambassadors from Athlete Ally stepped forward with comments of their own about Stakhovsky’s remarks.
Former men’s tour star and Athlete Ally, James Blake, said, “As a former ATP player and father of two amazing daughters, I would be thrilled if they followed in the footsteps of inspirational greats like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Stakhovsky’s comments are out of line, out of touch, and stand in opposition to the values that tennis taught me. And Stakhovsky is kidding himself if he believes there are no gay tennis players in the (men’s) top 100. I hope that if any players inside or outside the top 100 decide to come out, they will be welcomed and supported.”
In an interview last month with USA Today Sports, former world No. 1 and Athlete Ally Andy Roddick dismissed the comments, saying Stakhovsky did not speak for the tour as a whole.
“I’m not going to let one player’s comments define my sport as a whole. I think that’s a little naïve,” Roddick said. “I’m certainly not going to let someone express their views and let it delete the history of our sport and what we’re proud of. We accept and celebrate our champions regardless of who they are as people.”
Rennae Stubbs, a former doubles standout, current ESPN commentator and Athlete Ally, said Stakhovsky’s comments didn’t “deserve a wide audience.”
“We’ve had a lot more women come out, so we have an environment of respect,” Stubbs told USA Today Sports in a phone interview. “The ATP hasn’t had that. It would take a Jason Collins, a brave person to come out and be who they are comfortably. I would guarantee you that 85 percent of the guys in that locker room would treat that person with total respect.”
“As someone who was out for half of their career, there was never a time in the locker room where I thought about the person who was next to me,” Stubbs said. “It’s an ignorant statement. It’s completely incorrect to say half of the women’s tour is gay. That’s completely wrong. To me, it’s crazy that he’s still on the ATP council. Those are inflammatory and outrageous comments.”
Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion and Athlete Ally, Martina Navratilova, who has been out for years, confronted Stakhovsky about his remarks via Twitter.
She wrote: “Did you really say this Sergiy? That you don’t want your daughter to play tennis because she might turn into a lesbian? That is how it was translated. What you said was homophobic — perhaps we can speak sometime in the future.”
The pair agreed they would meet to discuss the issue.
Athlete Ally co-founder Hudson Taylor summed up the incident by adding, “Stakhovsky’s comments were offensive and inappropriate, and our Athlete Ally Ambassadors were quick to act, both in July when Stakhovsky first began making his comments, and at the U.S. Open when he continued them. Athlete Ally’s Ambassadors are always quick to use their platforms to champion LGBT equality. We are glad to have so many Athlete Allies in the tennis world who take a stand for their LGBT fans, on and off the court.”