Sports should be looking at Pride events as chances to learn

The controversies surrounding Pride celebrations in professional sports should serve as an opportunity for teams and players to get educated about LGBTQ rights, experts say.

Blue Jays relief pitcher Anthony Bass became the latest athlete to draw backlash from fans following a contentious post he shared on his Instagram account last week that promoted anti-LGBTQ campaigns. Bass drew boos from fans the next time he pitched at Rogers Centre, and he was designated for assignment by the Jays on Friday.

The NHL was in the spotlight on several occasions during its regular season when some players refused to wear Pride warm-up jerseys. Brothers Eric and Marc Staal, of the Florida Panthers, and San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer cited Christian beliefs as their reason not to participate. Some players from Russia mention the country’s strict anti-LGBTQ laws and the fear of repercussions for taking part.

Not all teams wear special jerseys for their Pride night; the Maple Leafs had decals on their helmets instead.

Sports management scholar Ann Pegoraro called the religious stance taken by some players a weaponization of Christianity, and said it stands in contrast of what a true believer ought to do.

“They will say, ‘I have no hate in my heart for anyone but I can’t wear a jersey that has a rainbow on it.’ To me, that’s just contradicting themselves,” said Pegoraro, director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership at the University of Guelph.

Professional athletes have demonstrated over the past several years how powerful their voices can be on social justice issues, whether it’s NBA players advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts or soccer players across Europe taking a knee before kickoff.

Pegoraro believes the message of Pride events is getting misinterpreted, particularly in male leagues. “A Pride night isn’t an endorsement of gay lifestyle, it’s an endorsement that all people are eligible to come to a sporting game and watch them and be safe.”

Pegoraro believes organizations need to provide better education on the matter and work with player unions on how to make their collective agreements and code of conduct align with their values.

Joseph Recupero, a sports media associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, feels athletes like Bass face a backlash because their statements look scripted and not authentic to members of the LGBTQ community.

“People make mistakes but when you don’t even look authentic about (the apology), then the community that you were vilifying or marginalizing gets even more upset.”

But the larger issue, Recupero said, is that male pro sports teams still have very few athletes who feel safe enough to come out as being part of the LGBTQ community. “If they aren’t comfortable with being out, that’s even a bigger question.”

Teams are well within their rights to ask players to wear warm-up jerseys with Pride signs on them, said Simon Darnell, an associate professor of sports for development and peace at the University of Toronto. There’s no violation of a player’s rights as long as there’s no penalty for those who choose not to participate. But those refusals of Pride celebrations are illustrative of the fact that homophobia could still be an issue in pro sports today, he said.

“That’s something that we need to talk more openly about. I do think it would be more honest for players like the Staals and Reimer to just come out and be a little more clear and up front about what their reservations are about wearing the jersey,” Darnell said.

Players who want to claim their right of not supporting Pride nights have to be ready to deal with the implications of it, which includes being booed at games and online vitriol, Darnell said, and teams should be working with those players to understand their hesitancy.

“I think these players are ending up on the wrong side of history, unfortunately,” he said. “Athletes can do what they want, they have the right not to participate. But it seems like there’s an educational moment there that could be embraced.”


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