Monday, January 5, 2009

Athletes As Activists: Dave Zirin’s Clarion Call

Dave Zirin has raised some important questions and provided a timely history lesson in his blog, The Edge of Sports. His thoughtful (as always) commentary makes some interesting connections between past racism in the Mormon Church and the current day Mormon backing of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 which was passed by the citizens of California on November 5.

The history lesson in Dave’s commentary is about how some prominent Black athletes, including Olympic long jump gold medalist Bob Beamon, refused to compete against Brigham Young University because of the Mormon Church’s then belief that Blacks, tainted by the curse of Ham, were inferior and unworthy to be priests in the church. These athletes paid a price for standing up for their principles when their coaches kicked them off the team or revoked their scholarships. Some athletes from the University of Wyoming challenged these action in court and their teammates all wore black arm bands in a game in support of them.

According to Zirin, in 1969 Stanford University suspended relationships with Brigham Young and supported athletes’ “right to conscience” which allowed athletes to refuse to participate in an event they found “personally repugnant.” This movement among athletes and schools gained momentum as more and more teams refused road trips to Utah. In 1978 the IRS announced it was looking into the Mormon’s tax exempt status. Amazingly, the Mormon leadership soon after announced that a revelation from God indicated that Blacks were no longer inferior. The IRS inquiry went away and athletic competition with BYU resumed.

Ok, so this all happened in the late 60’s and 70’s, an era of much student participation in the anti-war movement, anti-racism movement, disability rights movement, feminist movement, and the gay rights movement. Black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists on the Olympic medal podium in Mexico to protest racism. Jack Scott was writing about athletes’ rights and social activism. It was a different time and social context.

Nonetheless, Zirin draws a parallel between the activism of Black athletes then (and their teammates support of them) and the potential for student-athlete activism today in response to the Mormon Church’s institutional support for Proposition 8 and for their institutional encouragement from the pulpit for Mormons to support Prop 8 with financial donations and volunteer activity.
Zirin believes that homophobia in men’s sport makes it unlikely that male student-athletes will be leading boycott efforts, but raises the possibility that, because homophobia in women’s sport is less toxic, perhaps women athletes will rise up in protest. I know it is a common sense assumption that homophobia in women’s sports is less a problem, but I don’t buy it entirely. True, more lesbian athletes and coaches are out and their teammates and coaches are more accepting in general. But anyone who thinks homophobia in women’s sports is a thing of the past is seriously misinformed (This is a topic for another blog).

I love the idea of student-athletes, men and women, becoming more socially active. I love even more the thought that school administrations and coaches would, like Stanford in 1969, support athletes’ right to conscience, rather than punish them. I would love to see schools refuse to play religious schools whose leadership advocates an anti-civil rights stance toward lesbian and gay people and backs their position with financial and person power by engaging in political activity while simultaneously enjoying tax exempt status as a religious institution.

If I were a gay student-athlete or a straight student-athlete who believes in civil rights for gay people, it would gall me to participate in an athletic contest against a school that views me or some of my teammates as an inferior beings, undeserving of civil rights protections and would mobilize its members and raise unprecedented amounts of money to make sure my rights were denied or taken away.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if a few student-athletes and a few schools took the lead and made a principled stand for social justice for LGBT people just as Stanford, Bob Beamon, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Black 14 from the University of Wyoming did forty years ago against racism? Of course, the closet is a serious obstacle as well as the relative apolitical perspective many athletes take as they single-mindedly focus on athletic goals. Student political activism in general is less frequent. Still, it gives me chills to think of the possibilities.


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