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Sports are embracing suspensions, not cancellations, as the path to inclusion

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The cancel crowd has tried to influence sport’s response to homophobia. Sports have instead chosen redemption.

Hearts of Midlothian Media Access
Yann Songo’o has been suspended by The FA for six matches after admitting to using a gay slur during a competition in January.
Photo by Mark Scates/SNS Group via Getty Images

Every time an athlete uses a gay slur, or someone in sports gets caught having tweeted something homophobic when they were a teenager, I see and hear some comments about the need to cancel them.

Boot them off the team. Kick them out of the league. Bye gurl bye.

Despite the cries of some, the sports world has collectively become a leader in demonstrating the power of pauses, forgiveness and second chances.

The latest case study is Yann Songo’o, a former Major League Soccer player now taking the pitch for Morecambe F.C., a higher-level soccer club in England (though not the English Premier League).

Songo’o has been suspended by the Football Association for six matches for using a homophobic slur during a match in January.

Songo’o, to his credit, admitted what he did.

“I’d like to offer a sincere apology for any offense I’ve caused,” the player from Cameroon said last week, according to SkySports. “I’m really disappointed in myself for using that term, because it does not reflect the type of person I am but it was under provocation.”

OK, the whole “this isn’t who I am” apology has gotten pretty tired. No doubt.

Still, offering education (mandatory as part of The FA’s decision) and a second chance (after a suspension) has become a beautiful element of how sports are handling homophobic language and attitudes.

The suspension has become a cornerstone of the professional sports world’s response to actions deemed homophobic, as well it should be.

While not every pro athlete makes millions of dollars a year — the average player at Songo’o’s level of English soccer earns about $3,000 per week — hitting them in the pocketbook doesn’t carry the weight of missing games. Fines aren’t enough.

Athletes want to play, and pro athletes want to get paid to play.

Forcing them to miss taking the pitch with their teammates — and missing a paycheck on top of it — is a tough pill to swallow and a powerful tool to encourage athletes to mind their actions and improve their attitudes toward LGBTQ people.

Various sports leagues have taken this tact in recent years, including the NHL (only sometimes), USA Hockey, United Soccer League, Major League Baseball and others.

The suspension route is in stark contrast to how some in corporate America — and particularly the media — choose to handle issues like this.

Most recently, Teen Vogue showed editor-to-be Alexi McCammond the door because of homophobic and racist tweets she sent in 2011 when she was 17. She’d apologized repeatedly for them (as well she should — some of the tweets were disturbingly offensive) and demonstrated an understanding that she truly knew that what she did was wrong.

Still, she’s canceled.

The cancel-culture disciples in the media and beyond go too far.

It should be no surprise that when we have seen full-blown canceling in sports in the last year it’s been in the media. I’m thinking of the case of former Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman, who also lost his job calling NFL games for Fox (Brennaman was able to call some baseball games out of Puerto Rico this winter).

I’ve said many times before that it’s painful to watch athletes who seem genuinely remorseful be the targets of the cancel crowd, particularly because of things they tweeted as a teenager. I’m glad most of the sports world has chosen to focus on education, suspension and redemption.

This approach should be a source of pride for those of us LGBTQ people in sports who have worked hard to build bridges instead of walls.

To be sure, there have been moments when it was hard to avoid an athlete’s cancellation. When Tim Hardaway in 2007 told Dan Le Betard, “I hate gay people” — and then followed it up not by saying he regretted his feelings but simply that he said his feelings out loud — we witnessed one of the most devastating sports cancellations of all time.

It’s hard to say it was undeserved at the time.

It’s also been good to see Hardaway become a champion for the LGBTQ community. While I haven’t met or talked with him, I’ve been both impressed and inspired by his response since those dark days in 2007.

Recently we saw golfer Justin Thomas justifiably take a beating from the media and social media for uttering a gay slur on television during a match. Yet he wasn’t suspended from any tournaments, didn’t miss any playing time.

Thomas has lost a couple of sponsors — namely Ralph Lauren and Woodford Reserve whiskey — so we’ll see if a hit to his image and his wallet can have an impact. While I’m skeptical, he’s promised to help the LGBTQ community and make amends for his hot-mic moment, but we haven’t been given any glimpse into what that will look like.

The clock to make good on his promise is ticking for Thomas.

As for Songo’o, only time will tell if this approach works with him. Growing up in Cameroon, he was raised in a society that could not be more hostile — on both cultural and legal-protection levels — to LGBTQ people.

Frankly, any anti-LGBTQ beliefs Songo’o holds are likely not his fault. To be raised in a culture where gay people are put to death is hard to ignore.

In 2010, the United States State Department issued this report on the living conditions of LGBTQ people in Cameroon:

[LGBTQ people] generally kept a low profile because of the pervasive societal stigma, discrimination, and harassment as well as the possibility of imprisonment. Gays and lesbians suffered from harassment and extortion by law enforcement officials. False allegations of homosexuality were used to harass enemies or to extort money.

This opportunity with Songo’o sure seems like an open door to work with an athlete and bring him to a place of more acceptance. Shifting his perspective, and hoping he becomes a beacon of acceptance for people in Cameroon, is an opportunity we simply cannot miss.

It’s a place to which full-fledged cancellation would never deliver him.