Symbols are powerful forces in our lives. The gold bands on our left ring finger show the world our commitment. The stars and stripes breed images of freedom. The five Olympic rings conjure visions of excellence and strength.
When Chick-fil-A’s COO Dan Cathy said his company opposes the very relationships that define a growing population of our society, and admitted spending millions of dollars to fight the legalization of said relationships, the symbolism of Chick-fil-A shifted dramatically for some to one of oppression, inequality and legalized discrimination.
This was no accident. It never is.
Companies spend untold resources crafting what values their logo and name symbolize. Nike’s swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, Apple’s apple…the message these symbols inspire are well-researched, well-crafted, and well-conceived. The feelings they elicit are nearly scripted.
This Labor Day Weekend, college football players from Tennessee, NC State, Auburn and Clemson will put on their jerseys and kick off their 2012 season. They’ll be filled with excitement, ready to hit the gridiron. Of the 300 or so athletes, at least one of them will be gay. Most likely, he’ll be closeted. Maybe a few teammates know about him, a couple close friends. But if he has NFL-caliber dreams like so many of them, he’ll be struggling deep in the closet with his sexuality. His life will in part be defined by this secret he feels forced to keep.
When he puts on his jersey for the first time this season, Chick-fil-A’s logo will be staring back at him. The company is the name sponsor for the two ACC-SEC kickoff games that weekend in Atlanta. The two conferences have a relationship with Chick-fil-A that extends to the Chick-fil-A Bowl this winter.
It is time to end that relationship.
Cathy said his company stands for “the biblical definition of the family unit,” which would leave same-sex relationships on the trash heap of history.
“I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’" Cathy said.
For the gay football player in Atlanta that weekend, the words of Cathy, diminishing him to second-class citizenship, will be ringing in his ear.
On that day, he will become a walking billboard for a symbol of his own oppression. As ESPN broadcasts the game, the nation will watch this player glorify the very words of a man who blames him for “inviting God’s judgment.” With suicide rates among gay teens desperately high, it’s an image that will live branded in his head for years to come.
It’s not just the gay player who will feel the impact. Some of his straight teammates will have gay siblings. Some of them will have gay friends. Some will be black and will equate the LGBT civil rights struggle with those of his parents and grandparents 50 years ago.
Fans will stream into the stadium, surrounded by the Chick-fil-A logo. Clothing will feature their school’s logo side-by-side with that of Cathy’s company. The schools’ athletic directors and presidents will hobnob with company executives in posh suites overlooking the field, eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches no doubt. The Chick-fil-A name and logo will be plastered across the media from newspapers to television broadcasts.
All of them – the gay athlete and the straight allies, the fans, the media and the schools themselves – will unwittingly strengthen the symbol of inequality that Chick-fil-A has chosen to become.
This is not how sports in America were meant to be.
A month ago Neil Giuliano, head of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and former Mayor of Tempe, asked me what I thought about Chick-Fil-A’s name being on one of college football’s major bowl games. At the time, the company was at most guilty of quietly donating some money to anti-same-sex-marriage organizations. I don’t like it, but I also try to give people a little leeway with their political beliefs. We both felt that the time wasn’t quite right to cause a stir about it.
The gay community essentially had the same reaction. There were whispers about avoiding Chick-Fil-A, but many people had no idea the company seemed to be against marriage equality. When I was in Houston for the Gay Bowl last October, a teammate demanded we go to Chick-Fil-A for “the best chicken sandwich ever.” I told him about the company’s recent past; I ended up going elsewhere while he got his chicken sandwich.
Until this summer, the company was not a symbol of discrimination. It is now.
Some people will say that being anti-same-sex marriage isn’t discriminatory, it is simply a difference of opinion. It’s a faulty argument. What makes gay people different, what sets us apart from the majority of Americans, is their relationships. It is inherent to what puts us in a minority. It’s like saying, “I don’t mind Hispanics, I just don’t like people who speak Spanish.” Or, “I don’t mind black people, I just have a problem with dark skin.” Our relationships are what make us different. When you oppose same-sex marriage, you oppose who I am.
But Chick-fil-A’s position goes beyond marriage. From GLAAD:
They have given millions of dollars to anti-LGBT organizations, including those that have been designated "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and those that push so-called "ex-gay" therapy, which has been denounced by the mainstream medical and mental health community. They have supported organizations that are on record saying that being gay should be recriminalized in America.
On an individual level, the standard is impossible to force. We cannot expect every coach and every athlete in sports to embrace same-sex marriage. What we expect from these people is equal treatment on the field. We can expect athletes and fans to be treated the same, regardless of sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
The standard is different for the company whose name embodies the bowl game. The company name is on the stadium during the game. It’s in the newspaper headlines. It’s on the players’ jerseys. It’s on hats and TV broadcasts and game tickets.
They are the “Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games.” It is the “Chick-Fil-A Bowl.”
This goes beyond simply opening a store and selling chicken. Everyone can avoid that store if they so choose. No one has to work there. No one has to eat there. Anyone can opt out.
The college football players of the ACC and SEC cannot.
The appropriate steps are simple. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce should remove the Chick-fil-A name from the Bowl and the Kickoff Games. Atlanta is a diverse community with a history marred by discrimination and highlighted by fighting against it. This Bowl is an inappropriate symbol for a community as diverse as Atlanta’s.
If they will not do that:
1) The ACC and the SEC should end their relationship with the Bowl game, and the schools involved should withdraw from this year's Kickoff Games. How can any institution of higher learning force an athlete to wear the name of a company that says he is a second-class citizen? It is outrageous. The schools that are affected:
Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Maryland, Miami, Mississippi State, Missouri, UNC, NC State, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Syracuse, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest.
2) ESPN should not broadcast the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Kickoff Games. The network is a powerful tool in strengthening the message and impact of the athletes, companies and symbols it broadcasts to the world. It also has a long history of fighting discrimination, the latest of which is the launching of an employee ally network. Broadcasting these games, and glorifying the Chick-fil-A symbol, flies in the face of that.
3) The NCAA should stop all monetary support of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Did you know that the bowl is one of only three that receives money from the NCAA? This should stop immediately.
4) The BCS commissioners and presidents should not even accept a bid from the Chick-fil-A Bowl to host the impending college football playoff games starting in 2014. Gary Stokan, Chick-fil-A Bowl president and CEO, said they will bid to host these games. That cannot happen.
The sports world has come to a crossroads. On the one hand, sports has long stood for equality and freedom, from Jesse Owens’ victorious races in Berlin to Oscar Pistorius’ ground-breaking races in London. On the other hand is the road sports had been speeding down until recently: Turning a blind eye to homophobia.
It is now time for the ACC, SEC, ESPN and BCS to make that decision. Which road will they go down? Let’s hope they don’t make a U-turn.
To reach the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, call (404) 880-9000. Their president is Sam Williams.
To reach ACC Commissioner John Swofford, call (336) 854-8787 or contact them here.
To reach SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, call (205) 458-3000.
You can send an email to ESPN about their TV coverage here.
Calls this week to the Chick-fil-A Bowl were not returned.
PHOTO: Dec 31, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers wide receiver Emory Blake (80) holds onto a pass while getting tackled by Virginia Cavaliers cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (1) during the second quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE