Pro sports leagues stress acceptance after Collins' announcement

Major professional sports leagues are emphasizing to teams, coaches, players, and other personnel that they are prepared for one of their athletes to announce he or she is gay.

Major professional sports leagues are emphasizing to teams, coaches, players, and other personnel that they are prepared for one of their athletes to announce he or she is gay.

The organizations tell PRWeek they are reaching out to stakeholder groups about the issue the same week that Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, publicly announced that he is gay. He is the first active openly gay athlete in a major American team sport. On Monday, Collins' peers in professional basketball and other professional sports largely supported his decision to disclose his sexual preference.

The NBA, which has backed LGBT education and advocacy for years, says it supports Collins' announcement. Mike Bass, EVP of communications at the NBA, notes that the league's players and teams are “knowledgeable and sophisticated” on the subject of sexual orientation, and have been “overwhelmingly” supportive.

“The NBA is an egalitarian league,” he adds. “What matters is whether or not you can play — not a player's race, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.”

The organization's key LGBT partners include GLAAD, Athlete Ally, GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network); and PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

NHL communications VP John Dellapina says the hockey league has had an anti-discrimination policy in its collective bargaining agreement since 2005 that states no player, team, or league staffer can be discriminated against based on a number of traits, including sexual orientation.

“When an NHL player decides to come out, we will do everything we can do to support him to the extent that he wants support,” he says.

A few weeks ago, the NHL officially began a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group that fights homophobia in sports. Dellapina says the partnership will give the league a level of expertise in dealing with issues of sexual orientation.

Despite the slew of support from sports organizations and athletes for Collins, Bill Curry, a former NFL player, NCAA coach, and ESPN analyst, says it may be challenging to educate professional athletes on sexual-orientation issues.

“The pro-athlete community is made up of gladiators, and we have to feel like we're tough or we wouldn't survive one day,” explains Curry, who founded communications agency Curry, Wellborn & Battcher last week. “It's a world of driven competitors, and we don't make any apologies for it, but it does make us more likely to be a tough society to crack if you're somehow different.”

In order to connect with and educate athletes on the issue, sports organizations need strong and trusted internal leadership teams, adds Curry. Seminars and conferences can also be helpful in attacking prejudice, he says.

The week before this year's Super Bowl, Chris Culliver, cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, said in a radio interview that he doesn't want a gay teammate. The team and Culliver both made statements apologizing for the remarks. The 49ers also partnered with It Gets Better, an organization that helps teenagers who have been bullied for being gay or because others suspect them of being gay.

The NFL, which sent out a sexual-orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy memo to its clubs on Monday, also announced its backing of Collins.

“We admire [Collins'] courage and continue to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion to our players, coaches, and personnel,” says NFL VP of communications Brian McCarthy, via email. He adds that the anti-discrimination memo was sent to players and coaches prior to Collins' announcement.

Former Baltimore Ravens player Brendan Ayanbadejo said earlier this month that a number of gay NFL players could disclose their sexual orientation in the near future.

Meanwhile, NASCAR does not have a formal plan in place to react if one of its drivers comes out because it doesn't feel it needs one, says David Higdon, MD of integrated marketing communications.

He notes that NASCAR has “pushed [its] diversity efforts” over the last decade to include more women and minority drivers. If a driver says he is gay, NASCAR would support him, Higdon adds.

After Collins' statement, NASCAR's communications team also ensured that drivers who are doing interviews this week are prepared to talk about issues of sexual orientation.

Major League Baseball says it is also an active supporter of the LGBT community. The league has a relationship with GLAAD and added non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation to its most recent collective bargaining agreement in November 2011.

“As the sport of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball believes in equality and acceptance for all, and we hope that Jason Collins' announcement serves as yet another example on how to live openly and proudly,” said a league spokesperson.

At the moment, Collins, who will be a free agent this summer, is only endorsed by Nike. The athletic gear giant said in an emailed statement that it admires Collins and is “proud that he is a Nike athlete.”

“Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete's sexual orientation is not a consideration,” it added.

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