CFL, other sports leagues still working on LGBT inclusion

If you’re looking for signs the mainstream sports world had made progress on LGBT inclusion, the You Can Play contingent at last Sunday’s Pride parade displayed it.

The sport advocacy group brought together reps from the CFL, MLSE and 170 members of the Canadian Olympic committee, which fielded roughly 30 marchers in its first Pride Parade in 2014.

On the field in male-dominated major league pro sports, change is a little tougher to spot. No CFL team has fielded an openly gay player since Michael Sam’s brief stint three years ago, and there currently are no openly gay active players in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB.

But experts say macho mainstream sports culture is slowly changing in ways fans can’t always see.

NFL veteran Wade Davis didn’t reveal his sexual orientation until after retirement, but says his work as an inclusion consultant exposes him to a growing number of gay athletes who have come out to their teammates but not to the public. For Davis, the shift is subtle but meaningful, signalling many straight athletes are less likely to allow homophobia to estrange them from gay teammates, and showing gay athletes in male-dominated sports are taking control of how their sexuality is portrayed in public.

“We’re making this our own issue,” said Davis, who serves as the NFL’s LGBT inclusion consultant.

“I’m not saying it’s not important to have models for young kids, but we have to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. I shouldn’t be asking for you as an athlete to come out (publicly) to prove anything to anybody.”

Last July, Canadian pole vaulter Shawn Barber, a 2015 world champ and 2016 Olympian, came out as gay. And in December of 2014, Canadian pairs figure skater Eric Radford made his homosexuality public.

Radford said the revelation was welcomed in the figure skating community — where high-profile, openly gay men like Adam Rippon and Johnny Weir have competed as solo skaters without controversy. But Radford points out that much of pairs skating’s appeal hinges on the idea of romantic attraction between partners, and before he came out the 2018 Olympic gold medallist worried judges might score him and partner Meaghan Duhamel differently knowing one of them was homosexual.

“It’s something you’d probably think would be more coming in a sport like figure skating, but it’s not,” said Radford, at the opening of the COC’s Pride Parade pop-up shop at the Eaton Centre last week. “It’s a judged sport, and the athletes have a fear that the way you’re perceived would affect the outcome of a competition.”

Six years ago, featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz grappled with the issues Davis and Redford laid out this week. He couldn’t be sure the sport’s judges would grade him fairly, and also wondered whether a private issue like his sexual orientation should dominate the public conversation about him.

“I don’t want to hide any of my identities,” Cruz told ESPN in 2012 after coming out as gay. “I want people to look at me for the human being that I am … but I also want kids who suffer from bullying to know that you can be anything you want in life, including a professional boxer.”

The mainstream, male-centric sports world’s progress on LGBT inclusion hasn’t always been smooth.

A month before Cruz revealed his sexual orientation publicly, Blue Jay Yunel Escobar earned a suspension for taking the field wearing eye-black bearing a Spanish-language homophobic slur. And last year, Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar was suspended two games after shouting a homophobic insult at an opposing pitcher.

Afterward, Pillar consulted with Billy Bean, MLB’s vice-president for social responsibility and inclusion, on how to atone for the slur. Pillar donated his forfeited salary to You Can Play.

That Bean’s job exists suggests major pro sports leagues have grown more serious about uprooting homophobia. Gay pride-themed apparel helps engage LGBT audiences, but leagues and teams spending money to confront homophobia on the job sends a stronger message.

“Progress is when institutions are being much more intentional to educate players,” Davis said. ‘Creating a culture and conditions for their athletes that if they choose to come out, they’re confident that their coaches and teammates will embrace it.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee says their Pride Week initiative aimed to lend both financial and symbolic support to LGBT inclusion in sport. CEO Chris Overholt said the COC’s Eaton Centre pop-up shop sold roughly 1,200 T-shirts, raising more than $15,000 for You Can Play.

“It was an important stake in the ground for us,” Overholt said. “It’s not (only) about it being important to is. It’s the right thing to do, to provide leadership to the conversation so we can inspire others to be brave as well.”

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