When Pitt’s football team faces off against Penn State tomorrow at Beaver Stadium, both teams will continue a tradition which began in the 19th century — but in a vastly different culture.
At the teams’ first meeting in 1893, Pitt had yet to integrate, and Penn State had never admitted a black student. Women in Pennsylvania would have to wait over two more decades before winning the right to vote, and the Commonwealth was in the process of tightening already draconian anti-sodomy laws.
The world of college sports today is beginning to reflect social changes since the days of Victorian mores. This fall’s collegiate football season counts among its participants the highest number of openly gay athletes playing simultaneously in history — six. This year also marks the first time the NFL will have an openly LGBTQ+ individual serve as a pro football coach, Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers.
While none of these athletes hail from Pennsylvania, it’s impossible to deny that the country’s sports culture as a whole is moving closer and closer toward LGBTQ+ inclusion. That athletes can feel safe enough in their teams to be open about their sexuality is without a doubt a victory for equal rights.
But in a society where rights for gay Americans are still far from complete, it’s hard to say that the progress already made is enough. While these first isolated cases are vital steps to integrating LGBTQ+ people in the sports world, it’s not true that gay and straight athletes are treated equally now. And portraying mere acceptance from straight athletes as exemplary lowers the bar for how LGBTQ+ athletes are treated in the future.
The way the LGBTQ+ community is treated in the culture of sports — collegiate as well as professional — has changed significantly, even over the past few years.
Xavier Colvin, a sophomore on the football team at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, became the sixth openly gay player in the NCAA this August when he stood up on a stage with a microphone and came out to his teammates. And the team accepted him for it.
Colvin cited, among others, former NFL defensive end Michael Sam as one of his inspirations in gaining the courage to come out to his team. Sam, who visited Pitt in March 2016, was the first openly gay NFL players in history. His visibility was a positive, giving an example to closeted gay players like Colvin.
Another athlete, Jace Anderson, who participates in track and field at the University of Nebraska, described his coming out to the rest of the athletic community at his school last year as full of anxiety.
At an off-campus party, Anderson was on a patio by himself when members of the university’s football team approached him and “confronted” him about his sexuality. When Anderson confirmed he was gay, the players let him know that they thought “that’s awesome.”
Obviously, this kind of interaction between a gay athlete and straight athletes is considerably more positive than what used to happen. Ed Gallagher, an offensive lineman for Pitt in the late 1970s, felt so strongly about a sexual experience he had with another man that he threw himself from the top of a dam in an attempted suicide. And while Gallagher inflicted this punishment on himself, it’s nevertheless indicative of how those in the sports world here in Pittsburgh viewed homosexuality a mere 40 years ago — as totally unacceptable.
It is an exceptionally low bar where we point to improvements like athletes beginning to feel comfortable enough with their teams to be who they are — as opposed to killing themselves rather than outing themselves to their teams.
Yes, a team’s acceptance of gay athletes among their ranks is a huge step forward for those individuals. But when we look at these examples of team tolerance as exceptional, it has the effect of making teams where LGBTQ+ members are afraid of coming out the norm.
To an extent, then, this narrative has an element of truth. With a total of over 70,000 football players currently, the NCAA’s six openly gay football players make up less than .01 percent of the association’s population. Assuming a similar ratio in the sports world as in the population as a whole, most LGBTQ+ participants in collegiate football either don’t want to or can’t come out publicly.
We need to get to a point where acceptance of another player’s non-straight sexuality is seen not as an act of kindness and compassion, but as an element of basic decency. Until the sports world reaches that point, LGBTQ+ athletes will remain on the periphery of the discussion, notable only for their perceived novelty.
What is probably most striking about the celebration of stories of acceptance like with Anderson or with Colvin — as important and positive as they are — is the startling uniqueness with which they’re painted. For a straight athlete, acceptance of one’s sexuality is so much of a given that it likely never even crosses the mind.
Of course, it can be difficult to see openly gay athletes as normal while there are still so few of them in the public eye. This isn’t the athletes’ fault — if anything, it makes their bravery in being honest about themselves all the more commendable.
But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to put LGBTQ+ athletes fully on the same playing field as straight athletes. We should strive to give LGBTQ+ athletes the same respect and right to privacy as anyone else.
Henry is the Opinions Editor of The Pitt News. Write to Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.