The Portland Trail Blazers publicly endorsed Oregon’s marriage equality ballot initiative on Friday.
While there’s a lot that can be said about this announcement, I’m going to stay away from wading into political arguments or my feelings about the issue to focus on what it means for the Blazers and for sports more broadly.
For the Blazers, it’s a public reflection of the city’s social compass, by the city’s most internationally-recognized brand (besides, of course, Nike, who publicly endorsed marriage equality back in February). The Blazers also recently announced that four local food vendors would be taking up shop in the RoseModa GradenCenter, another nod to some of Portland’s municipal values, in this case those values are gastronomic. While both are small steps, both are also tacit acknowledgements of Portland’s culture, whose image is perhaps most prominently reflected and satirized by the popular show Portlandia.
Portland may not be the liberal utopia depicted in the show; but certainly, among larger cities, it’s among the more progressive. It sort of makes sense that its sports team may reflect that.
One could also say that other cities in more conservative quarters (such as Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City) ought to make announcements or have business practices that reflect their residents’ beliefs. I suspect the reason that hasn’t happened more (at least with marriage equality) is because the nation and the world are moving toward expanding marriage rights. It would be mighty awkward to be caught on the wrong side of such a broad issue.
For sports in general, the Blazers’ announcement is a small step toward institutionalizing tolerance in an arena (sports) that still seems to lack it. Ole Miss investigated an incident where athletes allegedly used homophobic slurs during a play depicting Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming man tortured and murdered in 1998 for being gay. A NASCAR driver was recently fined $10,000 and suspended for using a gay slur. Both Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah used homophobic slurs in different contexts back in 2011. And in what seems like an eternity ago, Tim Hardaway said in a radio interview that he wouldn’t want to have gay teammates and he “hates gay people.”
Starting with the oldest first, Hardaway has since walked those comments back quite a bit, and recently was the first signature on Florida’s petition for marriage equality. Both Bryant and Noah apologized almost immediately. And while Ole Miss couldn’t find enough evidence to punish specific athletes, they will undergo an “educational dialogue” to promote “diversity and understanding.”
Sports have long been a bastion not only of homophobia but of sexism, as this high school athlete can attest. Homophobic slurs are easier to fling around when you have the protection of 5, 10, 20 other like-minded peers behind you. Professional sports franchises coming out in front of issues such as these will make it easier for a new generation of athletes to feel comfortable participating in the sport of their choice without feeling marginalized or threatened.
Regardless of how you feel about this issue, the Blazers’ announcement is much more than a reflection of Portland: it’s a reflection of a changing world.