2016 has been a really intriguing and exciting year in sports. LeBron James finally won the NBA Title for the “land,” ending a 52-year pro sports championship drought for the city of Cleveland. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series and overcame a 108-year baseball championship drought and broke a 71-year “Billy Goat Curse.”
2016 also saw record-breaking accomplishments at the Rio Olympics from Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Simon Biles. But in this writer’s opinion, one of the most important records broken concerned the 56 openly LGBT Olympians who competed. Collectively it was an all-time high, and they more than doubled the number (23) of such individuals at the 2012 London Olympics. This is of great importance, signaling cracks at the apex of the proverbial homophobic massive wall of sports, the Olympics.
Unfortunately, out of the 56 openly gay athletes, there were no transgender competitors and only 12 men. Additionally, none of the out male Olympians were American, suggesting that we still have a lot of work to do to breakdown “locker room” stereotypes and to create a safe and non-judgmental environment for LGBT athletes. Currently, elite athletes don’t have access to the same support system such as the everyday, average sports hacks like me. Over the course of 2016, I’ve discovered numerous local LGBT sports organizations that provide support networks, safe havens and family-like environment. I guess it’s lonely at the top, and a price LGBT athletes pay for dedicating their lives to the sport they love. But it shouldn’t be that way.
2016 saw North Carolina pass House Bill 2 (HB2) that enforces the usage of bathrooms based on the sex appearing on birth certificates, a bill that blatantly discriminates against the transgender community. North Carolina quickly discovered sports can be a powerful gorilla in the room with tremendous social and economic pull.
In a matter of months, the National Collegiate Athletic Association pulled seven of its championship venues out of North Carolina. The National Basketball Association moved its annual All Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans. The Atlantic Coast Conference moved all neutral site championship games out of North Carolina. In a part of our country where sports is a way of life, the gorilla can throw its weight around. And the pressure is mounting for North Carolina to repeal HB2. 2017 may be that time.
Although some of the most recognizable sports conglomerates support equality and rights, its athletes compete in a culture that’s far less understanding and supportive, especially in the locker room. For this reason, we consistently see the National Football League, NBA and Major League Baseball—three of the most powerful professional sports leagues in the world—publish statements supporting and enforcing policies centering on equal rights and condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet, there are zero currently active, openly gay athletes in the three associations combined. Why?
Nevertheless, there have been a lot of positives in 2016. Moving forward to 2017 and beyond, I feel cautiously optimistic (despite the election results) that out athletes will be more commonplace, and that sports will be one of the many gorillas in the room pushing for equality and human rights.
John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.