Sports have the power to captivate the fans and transform the athletes. As a former Division I basketball player and lifelong athlete, I can personally attest to how sports can build character, encourage discipline, foster community, and teach individuals to work together toward a common goal.
And as a civil rights advocate, I see the power of sports — and especially team sports — to transform both individuals and society by bringing communities together. Sports provide us with a platform to promote our equality message on a broader scale.
We’ve come a long way.
Historically, sports was an arena that hewed to rigid societal gender roles, fueling a legacy of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia on and off the field. Until recent years, being an openly LGBTQ athlete came with great risk: it often meant risking your job, your spot on the team, commercial endorsements, and even your safety.
I spent most of my life playing competitive sports in the South. Like many other athletes, I had to spend most of my life closeted for fear of losing my team (family) and my scholarship, which was my livelihood.
However, in recent years, progress toward inclusion in sport has mirrored advances in other areas of society. In particular, the coming out of Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, and Robbie Rogers in 2013 signaled a game change — pro leagues and fans could no longer deny that LGBTQ people could both participate and excel in sports.
Increasingly, sports leagues are adopting and promoting LGBTQ-inclusive policies. For example, the NCAA recently created an LGBTQ-inclusve anti-discrimination policy in its bidding process in an attempt to be more LGBTQ-inclusive at the venues hosting NCAA-controlled tournaments. Further, sports bodies including the U.S. Soccer Federation, the National Women’s Hockey League, and the NCAA have created pathways for transgender inclusion in competition.
We’ve also seen greater repercussions for athletes who make anti-LGBTQ comments in MLS, MLB, NFL, and the NBA, where anti-LGBTQ comments can lead to hefty fines and/or loss of lucrative sponsorships.
These wins not only bolster LGBTQ participation in athletics, but also help us secure LGBTQ equality victories under the law. Leagues and teams with inclusive policies and practices tend to have more visible LGBTQ participation by players, coaches, administration, and fans. Increased visibility makes these sports entities more likely to take public positions on LGBTQ equality — positions that educate voters and potentially influence lawmakers.
Indeed, voices in the sports community have proven to be essential to LGBTQ rights battles in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas in the last two legislative cycles. In Georgia, the NFL, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons all released statements opposing a bill that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And recently in Texas, women athletes took to social media to speak out against Texas’ most recent anti-transgender bill.
Voices in the sports community will continue to be essential allies in protecting and promoting LGBTQ equality as we continue to face an onslaught of attacks at the state and federal level. And if we want to fully harness the power of sports to positively impact LGBTQ equality under the law, we must make sure that our sports institutions are built on a solid foundation of LGBTQ nondiscrimination.
Unfortunately, that is not yet the case. Most leagues, teams, and governing bodies still lack basic LGBTQ protections for players, coaches, and fans. For example, NCAA athletes can still lose their scholarships because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And currently only some states have laws that protect transgender athletes from discrimination in high school athletics. The NWHL is the only professional U.S. league with a pathway for transgender athletes to compete. Increasing the inclusive policies in sports, and addressing the disparities they create, will help our ability to leverage our sports communities in our efforts to win equal rights.
So, as we look to make further inroads to change hearts and minds in parts of the country that are still reticent to accept LGBTQ people, sport can be as crucial and effective an avenue as our partnerships with businesses and faith communities. When we work to make sport more inclusive, we’re not just supporting individual players, we’re fortifying an invaluable avenue for equality.
Ashland Johnson is a civil rights lawyer and sports inclusion advocate. She serves as director of public education and research for the Human Rights Campaign.