Several weeks ago, NFL player Larry Johnson ignited controversy when he used anti-gay slurs to address reporters and on the social-networking Web site, Twitter. As a professional athlete, Johnson's role is not only to gain yards, but also to serve as a role model to millions of young people. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) immediately placed calls to the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs to assist in educating fans about why these words are hurtful and should not be used. GLAAD also called on the NFL to both condemn and take disciplinary action on this and future uses of anti-gay epithets. I believe the huge media attention around this call led to the subsequent apology and disciplinary action.
Johnson publically apologized and sent an important message: that there is no excuse for using anti-gay epithets. The Chiefs chose to suspend Johnson, and this weekend he will begin play as a Cincinnati Bengal. We will see if he takes this opportunity to educate fans in his new city that words matter and anti-gay words have no place in the game.
The NFL, however, has not responded to our concerns about this unacceptable trend, though GLAAD continues to request meetings with them and will continue to demand action after anti-gay defamation. I hope the league moves beyond individual suspensions and instead enacts zero-tolerance policies that start to address the danger of homophobia in sports. When these slurs are used by professional athletes, it trickles down to local and amateur sports teams and even children's teams. It gives license to youths to bully their peers and for feeding a climate of intolerance toward our community. Despite experiencing full legal equality with my husband in Massachusetts, our son was still bullied and called anti-gay taunts on the baseball diamond after two teammates learned he had two dads.
GLAAD has done a lot of work through ESPN, and other media outlets, to recognize and call out homophobia in sports. If an announcer makes a homophobic comment in the broadcast booth, or an athlete or coach says something defamatory in a press conference, GLAAD works to get an apology. Because when anti-gay epithets go uncorrected, it sends a message that it's OK to denigrate gay people and their families. That perception, in turn, makes it harder for lesbian and gay athletes, coaches, trainers -- all of us -- because it sends the message that it's not OK to make jokes and treat some people in a discriminatory fashion, but it is OK to make jokes and treat gay people in a discriminatory fashion. An anti-gay slur that's uttered by a person of power, like a coach, manager or professional athlete, can have a silencing effect on both LGBT athletes and straight athletes who have LGBT friends and family. That's why we work for language corrections and apologies in those instances.
GLAAD's program dedicated solely to sports provides a unique platform where important issues play out and barriers are often broken down. You need only mention the name Jackie Robinson to make the case for the important role sports has played in race relations in America. We began to understand ourselves differently as Americans when Major League Baseball allowed Robinson onto the diamond. The same is true for LGBT athletes, and society's ability to allow them to play openly as themselves without the threat of violence or harassment.
There are certain racial epithets you never hear a fan yell anymore. You might have heard those epithets 50 years ago, but today a fan or a player would never get away with them. However, it's still OK for a lot of anti-gay epithets to be uttered or even shouted. So, one of the things that we advocate for is a zero-tolerance policy for sports teams on the court or field, in the press conference room and in the stands, where those words should be simply impermissible. It is possible to create an environment in which it is absolutely unacceptable to say certain things about players or coaches on your team or the opposing team. Homophobic words or chants are becoming socially unacceptable. Making sure they stay out of school gymnasiums and stadiums is something teams can do to create a culture of inclusion. Once we create this new environment, openly gay athletes will be cheered, booed and treated just the same as their teammates.
Clearly, there are gay professional athletes out there. But openly gay athletes are hard to find, because there are still challenges for women and men who play professional sports. Sometimes, though, I think too much of the focus is placed on professional sports and searching for those high-profile athletes. Another arena we work with at GLAAD is amateur sports, the kind that we all like to participate in for fun -- adult leagues and whatnot. People forget that there is a struggle in situations like that -- a struggle to live life comfortably, because you feel like you can't bring your partner to a game, or you can't bring your partner to the team banquet at the end of the season. These are the kinds of things that make you feel like your life isn't respected or valued. It's those kinds of struggles that GLAAD's sports media program is trying to overcome.
For us, it's not just about the professional gay athlete, and his or her ability to play safely in the workplace. Just as important to us is the gay couple's basic right to safely go to a sporting event and enjoy it like everybody else. Because of rampant homophobia in the sports environment, we need to challenge incidents that keep gay people from safely experiencing the games that every American deserves to enjoy.
I think most people are fair-minded. I think that in sports, what matters most is someone's talent and his or her ability to help a team win. Sports are about people competing together on a team. It's not about what divides us or what makes us different. It's about what we all share in common, and what an athlete brings to a team. What's exciting to me about the potential of team sports is realizing that you've got a good player on your favorite team, who happens to be gay or lesbian, and who has the very same passion for the game. In the world we want to see, it won't matter if an athlete is gay or lesbian. What will matter is if he or she is a good athlete, and if he or she works hard and helps the team succeed.
That's what gay people want when they play sports, too. We want to win. We want to compete as part of a winning team, and not have to worry about being singled out because of who we are. That is just bad sportsmanship, and frankly, it's un-American.
Jarrett T. Barrios is the President of GLAAD, and a former state senator and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was the first openly gay person and the first Latino elected to the Massachusetts State Senate. ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit contributed to the editing of this column.