While this season may be forever remembered as the Summer of Trump, 2015 will inevitably enter the history books as a landmark year in the evolution of LGBT rights and awareness. From Caitlyn Jenner’s debut to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, we’ve witnessed a supersonic, seismic shift in our culture, leading some (like me) to sublime celebration, and others (many of my fellow Kentuckians) to bemoan society’s decline. But whatever your political or religious viewpoint, as the 74-year-old (!) Bob Dylan might rasp, “the times they have a’ changed,” and it’s incumbent on all of us to adjust to the new reality.
The institution of sport must especially prepare for this new paradigm. That’s because gender and relationship issues are magnified as athletics remains one of the few remaining professions where we still segregate the sexes. And that’s a good thing: As Serena Williams and the USA women’s soccer team proved this summer, women’s-only sports are empowering, beneficial to society and a whole lot of fun to watch.
It’s no wonder then that this year’s most high-profile same-sex marriage — and messy dissolution — came in the world of sports. This week, the soap opera relationship between WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson exploded into public view upon the airing of court documents that alleged duress, fraud and bisexual adultery — and in which Johnson demanded $20,000/month in spousal support upon the annulment of their 28-day marriage. These revelations came only a few months after both players were suspended over a domestic violence incident.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones mused that the Griner/Johnson spat could actually generate more interest in the sport: He imagined record ratings for the next time Johnson played against Griner’s Phoenix Mercury, all eyes panning toward the lane and the potential impact as the 6 foot 3 Johnson drives to the rim on the 6’9″, 200 pound Griner.
But a more intriguing scenario would imagine Griner and Johnson on the same team. Relationships in the workplace have been the subject of debate for decades, and many employers have imposed strict prohibitions against, or demanded tight regulations of, inter-office romances. Of course, the underlying issues — of nepotism, bias and harassment — become even more acute in the claustrophobic context of a closely-knit sports team. This is particularly true in a game like basketball where teamwork is so essential to success — where championships are not won by individuals performing at optimal levels independently, but rather by acting unselfishly, in concert as a unit.
A happily married couple could disrupt the team ethos and be accused of favoritism — Johnson’s only passing Griner the ball to pad her stats! Worse, when two spouses are fighting — or are in the process of breaking up — team chemistry could be harmed irreparably. And what if superstar Griner demanded that role-player Johnson be traded or released? I’d love to be the plaintiff’s lawyer in that slam-dunk lawsuit.
While men’s pro sports has seen only a trickling of openly gay athletes — Jason Collins’ revelation came at his career’s downslide, while Michael Sam has yet to pan out — our culture’s growing acceptance of the LGBT community means that the emergence of many more prominent gay athletes and same-sex couples is inevitable. Accordingly, it is important for pro sports to prepare itself for all of the good, bad and the uglies that accompany the institutions of love and marriage between teammates.
Where professional sports needs to be less concerned is on the issue of transgenderism. The issue was first publicly broached in 1976 — ironically, the same year a dude named Bruce Jenner earned the title of world’s greatest athlete for capturing Olympic gold in the decathlon. That summer, tennis player RenÃ©e Richards was denied entry in the women’s US Open when it was revealed that she had undergone sex reassignment surgery the prior year. Richards sued, and the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and she proceeded to enjoy a fairly successful career, rising to a top 20 world ranking a few years later.
Richards’ critics bemoaned the decision, worried that an army of men would soon secure gender reassignments to compete in women’s sports. Of course, that never happened. And even today, with broader societal acceptance following Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, it’s unimaginable that any man would undergo the treatments, surgeries, and emotional hardship simply to secure some competitive advantage in arenas where still only the elite of the elite enjoy riches, power and fame (especially in women’s sports).
The real battleground instead will be found in our nation’s high schools, where the debate over transgenderism is transitioning from the bathrooms to the ballfields. While the NCAA has carefully developed a science-based policy that assigns college athletes to teams based in part on the timing and progress of their hormone therapy, the states have a patchwork of rules, and it is estimated that only ten transgender athletes currently compete on high school teams every year.
I’m not going to pretend that I know the right formula to balance competitive fairness with student interests. But as policymakers at the state and school district level scrutinize these issues, they would be well advised to consider the highest mission of sport, especially at the school level. Sure, winning is important; but sports is at its most powerful and influential when it instills core, shared values with our children — values like diligence, teamwork, unselfishness, and community. And there’s no greater value that the one that all of our religious and moral traditions share — “to love your neighbor as yourself” — even if, or especially when, you don’t understand what they are going through.