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Between the Lines: Sports Fan Winkle

Intolerance in sports—a thing of the past?

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A sports fan falling asleep Rip Van Winkle-style in 2004 and waking up in 2014 would have a hard time believing she wasn’t still dreaming.

In the past year, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player. Michael Sam declared his homosexuality, and was drafted into the NFL. Brittany Griner came out, and was picked first in the WNBA draft. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for expressing racist views. Here in the Valley, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay male basketball player at a Division 1 school.

Intolerance in sports—based on race or sexual orientation—seems like a thing of the past.

The day of Gordon’s announcement, UMass held a media event with not only the sophomore guard, but also men’s basketball coach Derrick Kellogg, Athletic Director John McCutcheon, and Professor Emeritus Pat Griffin—who has been an advocate of LGBTQ sports equality for decades.

“I could have been anywhere and come out,” Gordon told me, “but I just happen to be in Massachusetts, which is great.”

“I’m really proud of UMass,” Griffin added. “The entire athletic department, from McCutcheon on down, has been amazing.”

So, too, was the larger UMass and Valley community, who mobilized a week later in support of Gordon and LGBTQ rights when the reliably intolerant Westboro Baptist Church paid a visit to the state university’s Amherst campus.

Five Westboro protesters stood across the athletic fields from the Mullins Center, holding signs declaring “UMass Fag Enablers,” “God Hates Fag Enablers,” and “God is America’s Terror.” They were vastly outnumbered, however, by 1,500 school and community members marching behind a banner stating “UMass United.”

On the other side of the country, things have been a little more complicated than they seem at first glance. The NBA is reacting strongly to racist statements by Donald Sterling which became public after his girlfriend released a recording of a private conversation in which Sterling advised her not to be seen with black people.

Which is odd: until now, the NBA tolerated the racist behavior of their longest-tenured owner. Sterling amassed his wealth by building low-income housing, which he then rented to tenants based on their race, according to a Justice Deparmtment lawsuit that was settled for $2.73 million—among the highest totals ever collected by the government for a housing discrimination case.

Sterling’s racial preferences extended to his on-court business as well. According to Los Angeles Lakers legend and former Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor, part of the reason the Clippers have (until recently) been so bad for so long is that Sterling wanted a team of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.”

Baylor brought a discrimination suit against his boss, claiming players were paid based on race. Baylor’s lawyers stated Sterling runs his team with the “vision of a Southern plantation–type structure.”

None of that mattered to recently-retired NBA Commissioner David Stern and his assistant and successor Adam Silver, nor to the other NBA owners.

But now? The leaked tape proved bad for business and costly to the league’s image. And there’s just no room for that kind of racism in the NBA. Not in 2014.

Seems like our Van Winkle should settle in for another decade of sleep. Maybe by then, even the NBA will react to intolerance for reasons more like those of the 1,500 who marched in Amherst against the haters from Westboro.•

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