By Ron Mix
(Note from the author: Much of what I say here was first written for ESPN.com in 2007. Now, with more and more discussion, particularly in the NFL, I feel compelled to address the subject again since it is more timely than ever.)
“We lost to a bunch of dykes,” my daughter, Darci, announced when she returned from a volleyball game when she was in the eighth grade. Both my wife, Patti, and I exclaimed at the same time: “Darci!”
I went on to tell her that she knows we do not talk that way about people in our house, that “dykes” was a derogatory way to describe gay women, and that I was disappointed and shocked that she would use such language. As I was to learn four years later, Darci was just probably testing the waters for support as a prelude to her coming out in her senior year in high school. But, that was later; at this time, I, like any good parent, was not letting the topic drop and was going to use this as an opportunity to teach a life lesson.
I explained to Darci the evil of hate. I told her that the Nazi’s concentrated on extermination of two groups of people, Jews and homosexuals; that she, as a Jew, should not and could not perpetuate bigotry towards another group. I told her about the 930 Jewish refugees in 1939 aboard the Hamburg-American Line ship, the St. Louis, which sailed from Germany to escape the Holocaust and were turned away by the United States even though the American government knew it was sending them to certain death in the concentration camps. America, the land of the free, turned them away because they were Jewish. That is what happens when people are dehumanized by prejudice: there is no limit to the consequences of hate.
Darci now tells me that I laid it on somewhat thick that day, something she would accuse me of when dealing with any topic. I remember one evening when she was in high school, my wife told me that Darci was doing a report on the birth of the American Football League and Darci asked her some questions. Patti told me she asked Darci why she just didn’t wait until I came home and ask me. “Because,” said Darci, “I don’t want to know that much about it.”
When Darci told her mother and me that she was gay, she knew she would not diminish a bit in our eyes; in fact, she elevated because I cannot think of a greater act of social courage than for a teenager to announce he or she is gay. Teenage years, the hunger for popularity, the drive to belong; all knowingly thrown away by the announcing teen.
I was reminded of this when I periodically read musings about whether or not professional athletic teams would accept having a gay teammate. It is an interesting question, particularly when, historically, athletics have been in the forefront of dissolving racial and religious barriers.
Athletics seem to perpetuate an anti-gay culture but it should not. Athletics have always been ahead of the general population when it came to judging people on their worth as individuals. In 1959, Willie Wood and I were the co-captains of the football team at the University of Southern California. We held that position at a time in our nation’s history when 99% of the fraternities at USC would bar us from membership because of our race and religion (Willie: Black; me: Jewish). The fact that society had not caught up meant nothing to our primarily White-Christian teammates. They felt we were made of the best stuff to lead them and so they elected us as their captains.
In the early '60’s, with the Civil Rights movement just in its infancy, Sid Gillman, the head coach of my team, the San Diego Chargers, started assigning training camp roommates by position, so that there would be a natural integration of the team.
Again, in the '60’s, an American Football League All-Star Game was scheduled in New Orleans. Upon arrival to that city, our Black players could not obtain taxi cabs, could not gain admittance to restaurants. We informed the coaches that we would not play in New Orleans and the game was moved to Houston. Shortly thereafter, New Orleans, fearful of being deprived of an NFL franchise, desegregated the city.
Athletics have always brought people together from diverse backgrounds and demonstrated the obvious: basically, people are more alike than they are different. And with that recognition, prejudice evaporated.
My daughter was elected captain of the varsity rowing team at San Diego State as a junior. Her teammates came to realize that she was no different than them: hard-working and fun-loving. A teammate of hers related an incident to me that I suspect won their hearts. She said that the team was at a major rowing competition and that Darci and some of them were looking at girls on the other teams and speculating whether they were gay or not (self-deprecating humor always being an ice-breaker). When one of her teammates wondered if this one particular girl was gay, Darci said “if that girl isn’t already, she’s first in line.” And everyone roared with laughter.
When gay athletes stay in the closet, their teammates do not have the opportunity to see gay people for what they are, as opposed to the silly stereotypes portrayed in movies and television. When I played with the Oakland Raiders, one of our players, Dave Kopay, was gay but did not so declare himself until he was out of football. Dave was everything one wanted in a teammate: serious about his sport, tough, and hard-working. Sexual orientation should be a matter of privacy but there is no denying that the more gays become openly recognized as a regular part of our society, the more prejudice against them will diminish.
It is generally thought that gays make up between 5% to 10% of the population. If that is true, then gays have been a part of most teams that every athlete has played upon.
Gays are the last minority that people feel it is acceptable to malign. It is always doubly incongruous when anti-gay sentiments come from Latino or Black athletes, persons who come from groups who have had their share of bigotry visited upon them. Imagine the social pain and job opportunity limitations of being both Black and gay or Latino and gay. African-American and Latinos comprise a significant percentage of professional athletes. By all logic, they should welcome the opportunity to support another maligned group.
Unfortunately, however, we have been brought up in an American culture that too often encourages such beliefs and such beliefs are constantly being reinforced by those members of the clergy who claim that it is God’s words they are following.
I recognize that those who proclaim their disapproval of the gay community often cite the Bible in support of their position; so, I decided to read both the Old and the New Testaments to find out if, indeed, a reasonable person could ascribe to God a condemnation of gays. First, let’s start with What Would Jesus Do? That is easy — Jesus does not utter a single condemnation of gays in the New Testament. And for you readers who are not familiar with the Bible, Jesus appears only in the New Testament.
Now, let’s look at the Old Testament. The preachers of hate can only cite two references to homosexuals in the Old Testament; it is in Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13: “Thou shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind.” So odd that the preachers of hate, and I include many scholars of religious studies, feel they can pick and choose what they believe to be God’s commands as stated in the Old Testament. Let’s look at some other of God’s commands that they choose to ignore.
Please note that God said nothing about women lying down with women. So is that OK? If you are a member of the clergy who demonizes gays because of this biblical reference than you must also conclude that God does not object to Lesbian relationships. To conclude otherwise would mean that you believe God made a mistake and forgot to exclude females from same-sex relationships. I am certain that these same clergy members believe that He cannot make mistakes, so they have some explaining to do. But, to proceed:
Command (Leviticus 12:3): get circumcised. I don’t see a long line forming for this procedure.
Command (Leviticus 12): do not eat rabbit, pig, lobster, crab, oysters, clams, or shrimp. Memo from anti-gays to the public: “Close down all barbecue and fish restaurants in the United States.”
Command (Leviticus 20:10): adulterers should be put to death. That’s right: DEATH. There goes more than half the world. Bonnie Weil, Phd., a known relationship expert, has opined that 70% of men and 50% of women engage in adultery. More conservative estimates put the percentage of cheaters (read: sinners) at 50% of men, and 35% of women. Still, a lot of people to put to death.
Command (Leviticus 23:3): you shall do no work on the Sabbath. Goodbye, professional football. Major rescheduling due all other sports.
Command (Leviticus 19:28): Ye shall not print or tattoo any marks upon you. We have just lost, perhaps, 75% of the players in the NBA and NFL.
I could go on, but there is no need to do so. The hypocrisy of those who pick and choose which of the alleged commands of the Lord to obey is galling. Each of the cited Commands have equal footing with the “thou shall not lie down with mankind” and, yet, most choose to ignore those other alleged Heavenly admonitions. The consensus of scholarly thought is that the Bible was written some 200 to 400 years after the death of Christ. Surely more than a little has been lost in the many translations. Surely more than a little of a writer’s personal preference has been thrown in.
I think it safe to say that no one truly knows the will of God; we are all just trying to figure it out and those who are closest to figuring some of it out are more likely those who perceive the Creator as an embodiment of kindness.
It is difficult for a gay athlete to come out. Too often coaches use derogatory terms against others to attempt to motivate their teams. At some point in an athlete’s career, the athlete has heard a coach tell his team not to play like faggots, not to play like girls. A number of years ago, I was contacted by the school psychologist on behalf of the athletic director of a major university and asked to speak at a retreat that was being held for the coaches. The purpose of the retreat was to sensitize them to the feelings of the gay athletes. As explained to me by the school psychologist, there were four gay athletes that had come to see him because of extreme depression. The athletes had not come out. It was common for the coaches on their teams to call players “faggots” when trying to motivate them to play better, harder. Coaches are parental figures to most players. For these athletes, it was the severest form of rejection and two were suicidal.
When I spoke at the retreat, I told the coaches that fostering prejudice against any group, for any reason, was unacceptable and that was particularly so in an educational environment. I told them that one of the most common ways that coaches use to deride their players is to compare them to girls, and that builds disrespect for girls at an early age. Some coaches responded with the same garbage argument that kept Blacks segregated from teams in our unenlightened past: that having gays on the team would make it more difficult to coach because not all players would get along with them. Tough! They’ll live through it.
When I speak to high school teams, part of what I tell them is that they enjoy the great benefit of being an admired athlete and that they did not get there by their own effort alone, that they had the support of others. I ask them to give something back, and do it now; that they occupy a position of influence in the school and that high school can be difficult for some because teenagers are so sensitive about fitting in, about being accepted. Help them out, I tell them. Take the time to talk to kids that you see are not part of the mainstream, talk to that gay kid, talk to the overweight girl, talk to that unattractive boy, talk to that non-athletic good student (might not be a bad idea because you may be working for that good student some day).
Those involved in athletics are quick to claim that participation in athletics is greatly beneficial because it fosters so many favorable traits such as teamwork, respect for teammates, respect for opponents, the value of hard work, of discipline, of not giving up, of experiencing defeat but not being defeated. Yet, for the gay athlete, it is a horror of deceit and humiliation as their secret eats at their soul with each anti-gay joke or slur coming from coaches and teammates.
Finally, a coach is a teacher. It is time for all coaches to continue to teach the inherent values of sports and add respect and fairness for all people to the curriculum. In this way, the coaches can create an environment that will allow gay athletes to be comfortable in being true to themselves. And athletes need to practice only one virtue: sportsmanship.
It is gut-wrenching to read about the number of teenagers who are disowned by their parents because they are gay. The highest rate of teen suicide is among gay youth. Yet, with all these scars from childhood, the group of gays I met through Darci were the most accomplished, caring group of persons I have ever come across: doctors, lawyers, pilots, police officers, artists, athletes, and every other occupation one can imagine; folks, they walk among us and contribute to the common good. Darci has a Masters in Education from Boston University and was a police officer for 11 years, including six years as a detective with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. While a detective, she attended law school at night for four years and has recently graduated and taken the California Bar Examination. She has resigned from the District Attorney’s Office and joined my law firm. Prior to becoming a police officer, she managed and designed a recreational program for inner city youth in Boston.
The deceased futurist, Buckminister Fuller, described our planet as “this Spaceship Earth.” Essentially, he meant that we are all in this together as we progress from birth to death and that our actions impact the planet and others. And, on the journey, we all experience elation and disappointment, joy and pain, and profound despair with the illness and death of loved ones. Do we really have time to consciously, without justification, hate others?
We have grander things on our plate as we attempt to fulfill the American Dream: justice for all.
Ron Mix is a former professional football player (10 years with the San Diego Chargers and two with the Oakland Raiders). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He attended law school at night while he played for the Chargers. His current law practice focuses on representing retired professional athletes in claims for workers’ compensation benefits. As a player, his nickname was “the Intellectual Assassin” because of his aggressive play and continuing of his education.