Homophobia might be widely recognized in professional sports, but it is no less of an issue at the college level.
When Toronto Blue Jays shortstop, Yunel Escobar, stepped out onto the field donning a homophobic slur in his eye black on Sept. 15, sports fans everywhere were reminded of the often-disregarded problem of homophobic bullying amongst athletes.
According to Brian Kitts, co-founder of You Can Play, which is a program designed to change behaviour in locker rooms and in fan seating areas by “shifting focus away from sexuality and on to talent, skill and sport,” homophobic slurs are uttered with unfortunate frequency in every level of athletics.
“Kids are taught at a very young age that you shouldn’t discriminate based on religion or race, but it’s still the norm to use homophobic language as a joke or as a slur,” he said.
You Can Play, which has collaborated with a number of professional and college athletes, encourages the notion that “it really doesn’t matter if you are straight or gay or transgender. What matters is your ability to score or be a great athlete or help your team win,” Kitts said.
But the misery homophobia bears has been felt close to home.
Laura Bye, a 23-year-old sports management student and varsity volleyball player at Humber College, who is in a same-sex relationship, recalled a painful encounter with homophobic bullying.
Last year, during an away game up north, the opposing team’s fans started a “Humber homo” chant.
“I didn’t think it would get to me as much as it did,” Bye said. “I dealt with it on the court and I was fine, but I was so angry that nobody had done anything to stop them. No one took it seriously.”
Bye said Humber is supportive of gay athletes, but homophobic remarks meant as jokes can be tossed around lightly in the world of varsity athletics.
According to Kitts, it is the casualness of such words that hinder progress in the battle against homophobia.
“Calling a kid a ‘fag’ in the locker room is what boys do. I think, just now, it is becoming unacceptable to do that,” he said, adding “people need to be aware that what they’re saying or projecting as an attitude is hurtful.”
Escobar was disciplined with a three-game suspension, in which his lost salary was donated to You Can Play and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
When Escobar faced the media during a Blue Jays press conference in New York on September 18, he said, “it’s just a word.” But small words carry big problems, some say.
“By using these words as a negative, you’re telling somebody ‘I think it’s bad to be like you,’” said Aaron McQuade, director of news and field media at GLAAD, an anti-defamation group. ”However, by apologizing and by undertaking the education effort, you’re now telling those same people, ‘I made a mistake. I apologize. I stand with you.’”
Although homophobia among athletes remains a prevalent issue, McQuade said the public outrage sparked by the Escobar controversy is proof that it’s becoming less tolerated.
“The fact that we are hearing about the issue more is evidence that it’s getting better,” he said. “A decade ago, nobody would have batted an eye if this guy [Escobar] went on the field like that. Nobody would’ve said anything.”