May 2, 2013

Editorial: Take a stand, local athletes


---- — Veteran NBA center Jason Collins showed courage and commitment in publicly declaring that he is gay. Now, local coaches and athletes have an important mission of their own to take on.

In many aspects of society, the view on gays has changed in recent years. The shift is evident in the fact that nine states, including New York, have legalized same-sex marriage, with Rhode Island on track to become the 10th. Another 15 states recognize civil unions.

The changing attitude is also demonstrated by the overwhelmingly supportive reaction to the revelation by Collins, who is the first active player in a major sport to “come out.”

The 34-year-old is in his seventh season in the NBA. He is known on the courts as a tough and skilled reserve player and off the courts as intelligent, composed and respected — just the kind of person whom gay-rights activists would want as a role model for their cause.

All around the league, players and coaches voiced their support for Collins as he broke a barrier in the world of high-profile male sports.

The next step needs to come at the high-school and college level. Athletes are among the highest-profile students in those institutions, and they have the responsibility to serve as leaders on and off the field.

Yet, sadly, in many schools it is those very students who have perpetuated a homophobic stereotype that results in bullying and harassment of certain classmates.

And far too often the favorite derogatory phrases thrown around by teenage males are “fag,” “dyke” and “that’s so gay.”

We have even heard of some coaches standing by while this kind of language is used in the locker rooms, playing fields and school corridors. Can you imagine any school officials allowing racial slurs to be voiced without punishment?

It is time for zero tolerance toward hate language involving sexual preference.

The NBA recently launched a series of public-service announcements in partnership with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Ad Council. In the campaign, NBA players urge teens not to use anti-gay language.

The effort’s website provides information and displays, for example, how many times certain slurs have been used that day on Twitter alone. The shameful count midday this Tuesday was more than 21,300 for “fag,” 5,950 for “so gay” and 1,895 for “dyke.”

It isn’t easy for teenagers to stand up to friends or teammates who are using inappropriate language. They may fear that accusations will be turned on them or that they won’t get peer support. It will take courage and leadership to speak up.

Some of America’s most respected pro athletes have cheered Collins for his groundbreaking statement, and they have publicly stated that anti-gay slurs are not cool.

Now it is time for young athletes in our area and their coaches to step up and do their part.