As I sit and think about sports today, I think about the hot topics splattering headlines in the recent weeks and months. It’s not about money or arrests or even cheating. Instead, we’re reading and discussing unacceptable bigotry in major league sports – Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments and Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL. While some may not agree, I think this is pretty incredible. An industry previously thought of as traditional, and keen to an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, has now become a reflection of real social change.
A lifetime ban for Donald and jerseys flying off the shelves for Sam (despite his lack of assigned number) have both been applauded by the general public, as well as the players and organizations they support.
Furthermore, when Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeted, “Horrible” shortly following the St. Louis Rams selection of Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft, he was bombarded with disapproving criticism. His employer even issued a statement assuring the public that he would be addressed appropriately. An admirable effort from the team that was previously at the center of a bulling scandal – bringing national scrutiny to locker room culture in the NFL.
Circling back to the outrageous babbling of Donald Sterling, a valid question was raised by his wife, Shelly Sterling, in an interview with Barbara Walters: “I’m wondering if a wife of one of the owners, and there’s 30 owners, did something like that, said those racial slurs, would they oust the husband? Or would they leave the husband in?” An interesting and noteworthy perspective, but perhaps not a legitimate claim. We’ll have to wait (likely years) to see her fate while she contemplates the fate of her marriage. Donald, on the other hand, issued an apology today via a taped CNN interview with Anderson Cooper begging to be allowed this one mistake in his 35 years of ownership. Somehow I doubt that this is his one and only mistake during that time…but I could be wrong…
All in all, once the standard is now the unacceptable. While state and federal laws in the past few years (and 50 years) have helped spearhead equal rights movements worldwide, it was once projected that men’s professional sports were far from following suit. With both surprise and gratitude, I look to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Michael Sam and the St. Louis Rams (and their PR teams, of course) for their courage and commitment to social change in sports. It may be too early to say that we are entering a new world of sports, but this is undoubtably a conscious effort by industry leaders to shift perception and mirror societal evolution.