THE MOMENTUM OF CHANGE
By Sean L. James
The Golden State Warriors Are Champions—that was the headline on Monday night as the Warriors succeeded in defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers. Millions of fans were ecstatic watching their team end the night victorious, but how many of them ever stopped to wonder if the organization is run by Republicans or Democrats, heterosexuals, homosexuals or transsexuals, Christians, Jews or Muslims? It is ironic that despite how polarizing these labels can be in our society, when we talk sports none of these things matter in the end if our team wins. By the time we woke up on Tuesday morning, the narrative of their victory had already shifted to reports of the Warriors unanimously declining a celebratory invitation to the White House—following the example of the New England Patriots after their 2016 Super Bowl victory. Granted, these reports have yet to be confirmed, but the very existence of such reports speak volumes of a movement of people who are embracing all forms of diversity, and are willing to speak out and take action to ensure equal rights for all of the marginalized groups in our society.
I am a former college and professional athlete who has been Black in America for 48 years. I grew up in a conservative red state where sports are a big part of the culture and bring people together to celebrate teams and discipline and perseverance. This upbringing has allowed me to meet and interact with people that I might not ever have had the opportunity to otherwise. It has also given me insight into the thinking of others and how important it is for their home team to win, and how being a part of that team means that you will be accepted to circles you might not ever have access to if you were not a player. I have used my education to empower me but my mission has always been to understand human behavior and why sports plays such a huge role in how we interact with each other.
It is important that the African-American community in particular stands up for other marginalized groups. Historically, no minority group has ever gained the equal rights they sought without the support of the majority, and while the support and activism of the majority is still essential, think of the impact the Black community could have if we stand together, led by our influencers and game changers, against injustice. I would love to see the momentum of activism in our community continue to build and have more professional Black athletes stand up publicly for the larger Black community. But I would also love to see that activism stretch beyond the reach of our own people and begin to try to help yet another marginalized group, the LGBTQ community.
Professional athletes possess a great deal of power in our society—power to bring attention to social issues, power to influence the actions of others. That power is what gave Colin Kaepernick the opportunity to stand up for his beliefs in a way that a lot of other Black men could not have done when he took a knee to take a stand against injustice. It is also the power that allowed the entire football team and the entire student body at University of Missouri to stand up for Michael Sam, and allow him to live his life openly as a gay man (which, by the way allowed him to play the best season of his entire collegiate career). And, two years later allowed the Missouri football team to stand together as a team against the racial discrimination that was occurring on their campus and boycott playing a single game until they got a public apology from the president of the university. Regardless of our race, as athletes, we wield power, and I believe that with that power comes the responsibility of how we use it. We hold the power to raise our voices for change, and despite a growing number of voices like Kaepernick’s, like the Warriors’, like the Patriots’, I still see so much silence.
The LGBTQ community is a minority community in our country that is still fighting to be truly equal under the laws of our nation. And while I am by no means saying that the Black fight for equality is over, what I am saying is that there are many Black people in this country, such as professional athletes, that do in fact have a tremendous platform with which they can show support for the LBGTQ community. We have power to not only help ourselves, but to help another group who seeks fairness and equality.
If more professional athletes stood up for the LGBTQ community, think of the impact and the power that it would have on the LGBTQ community and their fight for equality. In an article I wrote earlier this year, I asked people to consider what would happen if two of my favorite athletes, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, went to Nike and said they wanted to film a PSA for LGBTQ rights. I asked why we don’t realize that we have just as much, if not more power than the students at University of Missouri? That being said, I see more and more the ways in which people are beginning to realize their power. The movement is coming fast- like a train picking up speed. And if we stand together on the right side of history—get on that train—then the power is ours to take, and ours to use.
The Warriors have gotten on that train. Whether or not they, as a team, choose to boycott the White House, let’s take a closer look at some facts about their organization that we can confirm: On May 15, 2011 Rick Welts—the President and Chief of Operations for the Warriors franchise— publicly came out as being gay in an interview with the New York Times. Welts is also a member of the advisory board for You Can Play, a campaign dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. This is a franchise that has chosen to stand on the right side of history- to acknowledge that ALL groups deserve equal rights and justice in our society.
In our community there is still a widespread fear that being an advocate for, or even just an ally of the LGBTQ community will call into question our own sexuality or masculinity as straight Black men. The base level of this fear is straight forward (albeit based on a false assumption) that supporting the LGBTQ community will lead people to think that we are gay or less of a man. As a result, many of us would rather say nothing than do something that would lead others to have that perception of us. There is also a financial fear associated with being a straight ally. That fear being that if people think that we are homosexual or an ally to the LGBTQ community, it will have a detrimental effect to our brand, and in turn, our wallet.
We must begin to dispel the ideas held by so many straight Black men that being an ally to the LGBTQ community will hurt them in some way. In order to do this, we must be able to truly accept that the stereotypes we grew up hearing are antiquated and untrue. For one, the idea that people choose to be gay, a notion which must be dispelled, since people choose to be gay as much as they choose to be Black. This stereotype needs to be erased throughout society, but especially within our community. As Black men we already have two strikes against us at birth, so why are we allowing sexuality to be used as strike three? We must all be a part of eliminating these stereotypes, and we can do that simply by letting our words and our actions defy them.
It is time Black athletes realize our power and responsibility to effect change in America—and it is time for America to stop fearing what the change will look like. Let’s not forget there was a time when we couldn’t be a part of the party. Not too long ago Black people were not allowed to be included in professional sports. In the 1940’s and 50’s we finally began to see Black athletes break into professional sports. In 1946, Kenny Washington joined the NFL, Jackie Robinson joined the MLB in 1947, and 1950 marked the year Earl Lloyd broke the color-line in the NBA.
We must say and do the things that will spark conversation about important issues that we face because conversation is the first step toward resolution. More specifically, we, as heterosexual Black men with a voice need to get on the right side of history in the fight for LGBTQ equality. It is our responsibility to stand up for the underdog, the discriminated against- because we have been and still are discriminated against. We must stand up for community’s other than our own just as we want others to stand up for us. We must set the example in embracing and supporting diversity in all forms, and stop holding so tightly to the labels we have assigned to people and to ourselves, as they can be used as a means of division. Instead, we must simply start treating all people with the respect and dignity we want for ourselves. That is when we will take our place on the right side of history, and on the way to truly achieving equality for all.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sean L. James is a former professional football player in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2012, he created Be In The Know About Bullying to combat homophobia and bullying.