Every other Wednesday I will be writing about LGBT Issues in Sport. Between each regularly scheduled post I may chime in with more posts if something comes up and/or I have the time. I have a serious academic interest in sport and in this column I’ll be highlighting current events, sharing resources, reflecting on complex issues and sharing athlete’s stories among other things. For more about me, you can read my first post, here. Please feel free to email me with thoughts or if you come across something you’d like me to include on the blog.
I know that the winter Olympics kicked off last night, but before we get too far removed from the Super Bowl, I wanted to highlight a few things. Ideally, I would have posted this last weekend or very early this week, but things got away from me. Sorry! I do, however, still think these issues are relevant and interesting and I hope that you will, too.
Now, imagine that you’re sitting in Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida last Sunday. The “big game” is about to kick off. The PA announcer’s voice booms and echoes through the speakers: Starting [ing, ing, ing] Linebacker [acker,acker,acker] for the New Orleans Saints, Number Fifty-Five and gay rights advocate…Scott Fujitaaaaaa.
Gay rights advocate? Nobody would blame you if you did a double take. I mean, with the exception of the inherent homoeroticism (you know, men wearing spandex, passing a ball through their legs and slapping each other’s behinds) competitive football hasn’t exactly been the greatest ally of the gay rights movement. Those locker rooms and practice fields are filled with all sorts of anti-gay slurs by players and coaches, a like. And during a game, you can be sure that the fans hold their own in homophobic heckling.
So what’s this all about?
No, Scott Fujita’s introduction didn’t go quite like that. But it might as well have. Saints star Fujita first made a big splash when he publically endorsed the National Equality March this past October (if you know of a public statement or action Fujita took prior to this in support of gay rights, please correct me!). In an interview with The Nation’s sports editor and host of Sirius XM Radio’s “The Edge of Sports,” Dave Zirin, Fujita spoke publically about his position on gay rights.
An Arkansas initiative which would have restricted single parents from adopting resonated with Fujita—himself, adopted. In his interview with Zirin, he said that “the way I read that [the Arkansas initiative] and the way that I translated that language was that only heterosexual, married couples could adopt children. As an adopted child that really bothered me. I asked myself, what that is really saying is that the concern with one’s sexual orientation or sexual preference outweighs what’s really important, and that’s finding safe homes for children, for our children.” 
He hopes that his status as a professional football player helps to advance the movement saying, “I think for me it was a cause that I truly believe in…For me, in my small platform as a professional football player, I understand that my time in the spotlight is probably limited. The more times you can lend your name to a cause you believe in, you should do that.”  It seems that Fujita has made a habit of using sport for “bigger” things. He reportedly signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006 because he believed that “this could be bigger than football [referencing the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts].” 
Fujita rejects the notion that he’s acting courageously by speaking up about these issues. He says he’s simply “standing up for equal rights…It’s not that courageous to have an opinion if you think it’s the right thing and you believe it wholeheartedly.”  His humility is admirable, but I do think that taking the measures he has constitutes as courageous—that is, he’s overcoming a lot of social pressures to engage in a way that does not really benefit him personally and that actually threatens his popularity.
Since he doesn’t identify as gay, bi or queer (more on this below), with the exception of my and your respect and a “more just” society, he doesn’t have anything to personally gain by speaking up. To my knowledge he isn’t getting paid for making these statements. On the other hand, he has a lot to lose. His profession is partially based on popularity and speaking up about these issues isn’t always popular (though, I suppose he’s more popular in my book for doing so). In short, I believe there is a reason that so few athletes have publically taken a stand on the issue of gay marriage—it’s divisive. Most athletes don’t want to alienate a portion of their fan base. Professional athletes also have their images to worry about in a way that you and I don’t. While you and I both know that speaking up about gay rights isn’t indicative of someone’s sexual orientation, others often conflate the two. I’m not suggesting that being gay or being thought of being gay is bad in any way, just that many people (especially straight) go out of their way to avoid this ‘reputation’ because it’s socially difficult. I admit that I think it helps that he’s already an established veteran.
During his interview with Dave Zirin, Fujita mentions in passing that “just because I’m in favor of gay rights doesn’t mean that I’m gay or doesn’t mean that I’m some kind of ‘sissy.’” He hopes that others will step up and realize that it’s okay to talk about these issues without feeling threatened. Indeed, Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens wrote an op-ed in April of 2009 for the Huffington Post entitled “Same Sex Marriage: What’s the Big Deal?” Fujita’s activism came six months after Ayanbadejo spoke up, so it’s safe to say that Fujita’s public comments didn’t influence Ayanbadejo, but together they’re paving the way for other athletes—especially for those who play “macho” sports.
Though he volunteers that he is not gay, I don’t get the impression that he’s parading around reassuring everyone that he is straight. As I mentioned above, it is common for individuals (outspoken allies or not) to feel the need to proclaim their heterosexuality (“no homo,” anyone?). Zirin asks him about this issue, explicitly, saying “Do you have any concerns that teammates, fans, people will say Scott Fujita may be married and have kids, but maybe down low he might really be gay?” To which Fujita responds that is not concerned about that “whatsoever.” He explains that “I know who I am. My wife knows who I am. I don’t care one way or the other Dave. I imagine that when some of this gets out guys in the locker room might give me a hard time…[but,] I’m used to it. I can take it all.”  ‘All,’ in this case, includes being called the “Pinko Communist Fag from Berkeley.” 
Even with that locker room talk, Fuijita challenges our stereotype of the NFL being homophobic. “By and large,” he says, “the players are more tolerant than they get credit for. It’s not a big issue. Some guys will think you are crazy for believing one way, but they’ll still accept you.” But would they embrace an out athlete? Jim Buzinksi, co-founder of outsports.com, is confident that there are gays in the NFL but since no active player in the NFL is publically out, it’s hard to know the answer. 
In the end, Zirin sums it up pretty well: “You have to get your head around the idea that Scott [Fujita] is a bad-ass linebacker for the New Orleans Saints and that he speaks his mind in support of gay rights.” 
1. Fujita, Scott. "'Why I Support the National Equality March': NFL's Scott Fujita Speaks Out for Gay Rights." Interview by Dave Zirin. Edge of Sports. Dave Zirin, 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
2. Zirin Interview.
3. Kilgore, Adam. "Solid backing by Saint: Fujita unafraid to support gay rights." The Boston Globe 3 Feb. 2010: n. pag. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
4. Lapointe, Joe. "The Saints Linebacker Who Speaks His Mind." The New York Times 3 Feb. 2010: n. pag. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
5. Zirin Interview.
6. Zirin Interview.
7. New York Times by Joe Lapointe.
8. Buzinski, Jim. "Openly Gay NFL Player Will Come but It’ll Take a While." Editorial. The Washington Post 17 June 2009: n. pag. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
9. The Boston Globe by Adam Kilgore.