Two of sports’ most outspoken advocates for marriage equality filed a brief with the Supreme Court Thursday, asking it to reaffirm a lower court’s decision that overturned California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage by ballot referendum in 2008.
“When we advance the idea that some people should be treated differently because of who they are, demeaned in public as lesser beings, not worthy of the same rights and benefits as others despite their actions as good citizens and neighbors, then we deny them equal protection under the laws,” Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo wrote in the brief. “America has walked this path before, and courageous people and the Court brought us to the right result. We urge the Court to repeat those actions here.”
Kluwe and Ayanbadejo, who have both argued for LGBT equality in both sports and America as a whole, also argued in the brief that their roles as prominent athletes matters in setting an example for all Americans, and that the Supreme Court should relish the similar role it has:
These athletes understand that, because of their public stature, the consequences flow naturally from their actions even if they cannot see the consequences. Consequences of being a role model and leader. Consequences for young children and adults who mimic our behavior when they interact with other children and adults. Those consequences flow because children and adults want to “Be Like [insert athlete name here].” Athletes are learning that they can no longer say “I am not a role model”— that they are forced to be a role model and privileged to be a role model, and that their words and actions, no matter how innocently intended, are magnified for both good and bad. If a professional basketball or football player says something is “gay,” young boys on the playground will copy and magnify the statement. If a hockey player says homosexuals are not welcome in the locker room, a young girl will shun a teammate who she thinks may be gay—where that teammate was until then a bright, happy, smart, and promising kid. After, she will be afraid of being who she is, and will takes steps, even dire steps, to avoid it.
But if a Pro Bowler treats a teammate as being an equal who is worthy of his friendship and respect because that other person is a good friend who places the team before himself, then high schoolers in Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota will not—cannot—miss that example. If that Pro Bowler speaks out publicly and kindly, kids will hear it and feel it. Kids who are already dealing with everything youth throws at them will know they can treat others as friends and equals, and those others will know they are equal and that, without question, it is better to be themselves than to be hurt. They will follow the credo, “Live on, and be yourself.”
The argument that sports matter as a driver in social change is not novel, but it is a new feature in the debate for marriage equality. Sports have led civil rights fights in the past, but when it comes to equality for LGBT Americans, sports have largely been absent from the fight.
That is beginning to change, thanks in large part to athletes like Kluwe and Ayanbadejo. There still isn’t an out man in American professional sports, but three of the four major leagues have added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination clauses in labor negotiations, and as this week demonstrated, the prospect of violating those agreements is not taken lightly by players’ unions or leagues. Teams across leagues have participated in the “It Gets Better” campaign and leagues have set up organizations to push for equality. And players’ attitudes are slowly beginning to change, even if they are sometimes forced to. When San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said he wouldn’t welcome a gay teammate the week before the Super Bowl, he was swiftly rebuked by his teammates and former players, and he attempted to make up for it by volunteering at an LGBT charity. Two years after Kobe Bryant called an NBA official a “fucking fag,” he has taken to rebuking Twitter users who use similar slurs.
Those attitude changes matter because sports, as leisurely and casual as we sometimes view them, often act as a powerful driver of social change. American professional sports integrated at least a decade before the Civil Rights Movement took off, and even after the movement began, athletes marched with civil rights leaders and exposed racial injustices on podiums at the Olympics. Athletes like Muhammad Ali fought both racial inequality and the plagues of war; athletes like Billie Jean King were central in the fight for equal rights for women. The sports world, if not Kluwe and Ayanbadejo themselves, may be late to the fight for LGBT equality. But that doesn’t mean they can’t, and won’t, still have a similar impact.