Like many athletes, I started playing sports at a young age. My earliest memories take me back to wrestling mats and arenas and early-morning drives with my father as we traveled to find the best competitions and open tournaments.
We spent thousands of hours (yes, thousands) together in the car preparing for matches and talking about life. Though these conversations focused mainly on wrestling technique and tournament brackets, more often than not my dad found a way to weave lessons about decency and morality into discussions about athletic achievement.
As he talked about his heroes — the New York Yankee legends of the1950s who lifted American spirits in the wake of World War II — my father set up a hierarchy of sports-based integrity that is still with me: Athletes become worthy of the greatest respect not when they win at their sport but when they stand up for the dignity of others and represent something bigger than themselves.
My father emphasized integrity because he knew what I was up against.
As a young wrestler, I was learning to inflict pain to force submission. In such a grueling contact sport, he wanted me to become a “respectful competitor.” Win, lose or draw, each match was an opportunity to learn, enjoy the camaraderie of competition, and show respect for another human being.
Through my experiences — first as a Division I wrestler at the University of Maryland and now as a coach at Columbia University — I’ve found that respect is linked inextricably to the unity of team.
Every team I have been on has been filled with loyal and generous men who would do anything for a teammate in need. They would give the proverbial grimy, sweat-soaked shirt off their backs if they felt it would help — and they would joke to pull attention away from their selflessness.
Few non-athletes understand the intensity and primacy of the bond that develops through shared times of intense struggle and celebration — hours of practices, heavy moments in the locker room after a tough loss, and the exhilarating highs of unexpected victory. It is the kind of respect that stems from familiarity and a shared identity.
At the University of Maryland, this familial bond was as strong as any blood tie. We cried together when our coach accepted a job at another school. We swelled with collective pride when our athletic director reinforced the department’s motto: 500 athletes, 27 sports, one team.
As a wrestler, I have been blessed to be part of my sport’s familial culture and to witness how respect is at the culture’s core, not only among athletes but also among parents, coaches, league officials and fans. But I have also come to realize that respect in athletics has a comfort zone that does not easily extend beyond defined margins.
Unfortunately, many have been forced to exist outside these margins. Before the passage in 1972 of Title IX, the landmark legislation that made it illegal to deny women equal access to federally funded educational programs, women were relegated to the sidelines of sports.
Before 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball, African Americans were denied the right to compete with white players as equals. While much has changed for these groups, the culture of sports does continue to marginalize.
I have never been on a team with an openly gay wrestler. To this day, I know only a handful of closeted gay athletes, though I have likely met and befriended countless without knowing. With stereotypes about LGBT people pulsing through the athletic experience, this is no surprise.
As an athlete in gyms, locker rooms and on bus rides, I can attest to the prevalence of anti-gay attitudes and language.
My teammates frequently demeaned those who did not measure up to distorted standards of masculinity or femininity with both homophobic and sexist slurs. Most often, the slurs were tools of humor — generic, strangely impersonal arrows that targeted just about anyone and anything. Calling someone “gay” was as common as calling someone a “jerk.”
It was only as a college student that I began to question this. Didn’t the nature of competition push sports to accept anyone with talent and perseverance? Homophobia seems wholly unaligned with the inclusivity and diversity necessary for winning.
Nonetheless, I have no illusions that ending homophobia is going to be as simple as telling a closed-minded teammate that setting aside fear or stereotypes will improve performance, or that team diversity is simply the right thing. But I also believe that by appealing to individual honor, the honor of the team, and the sense of fairness that is ingrained in every athlete, change is possible.
The help we need will come from a corps of athlete-leaders, particularly straight athletes who want to rise above a culture that marginalizes others. Even if they do not use anti-LGBT language themselves, they feel disrespected because others on the team do. The help will also come from coaches, parents, league officials and fans.
As a wrestling coach, I know the influence I have to model positive attitudes and conduct. And I know the influence my father had when he placed human dignity at the top of my list of competitive priorities.
I started my advocacy at a time of breathtaking societal change toward LGBT equality. The military‘s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is now history, and marriage for gay and lesbian couples is legal in six states and the District of Columbia.
With these changes as a backdrop and with a renewed national focus on anti-LGBT bullying and harassment shaking our sense of complacency, sports at every level are responding with actions that were inconceivable only a few short years ago.
In professional baseball alone, eight teams have contributed videos to Dan Savage‘s “It Gets Better” project, and more plan to. Professional hockey players and team executives have marched in LGBT Pride parades. And college coaches in such disparate sports as volleyball and lacrosse have stood proudly in support of LGBT inclusion.
Although there are still many obstacles to overcome, I am continually encouraged by the forward motion of sports in the direction of doing the right thing. I am keenly aware of what Princeton University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah sees as “a growing appreciation of the obligations each of us has to other people” to alter the unacceptable.
“One day,” he writes, “people will find themselves thinking not just that an old practice was wrong and a new one was right but that there was something shameful in the old ways.”