There are not many openly gay, world famous, top-of-their-game, sportspeople, but Nike’s decision to fire boxer Manny Pacquiao for his homophobic comments could have a long-term impact on that reality.
Let’s count how many famous out sportspeople there are. Divers Tom Daley and Matthew Mitcham. Footballers Robbie Rogers and Megan Rapinoe. Athlete Caster Semenya. Swimmer Ian Thorpe. Boxer Orlando Cruz (would LOVE to be a fly on the wall the next time he sees Pacquiao). NFL player Michael Sam. And… um… some people you’ve never heard of. Speed skaters, hockey players, that sort of thing.
The key word here is ‘out’. Statistically, it is impossible for there to be no top class gay golfers, tennis players, rugby players, Premier League footballers, and so on. They’re simply not openly gay, and one reason for that is the fear of losing endorsements.
A decade (or less) ago, instead of Nike defending their out athletes, and the LGBT community in general, it and companies like it could well have terminated an athlete’s contract if there was even a whiff of The Gay.
Added to the much-praised Adidas Valentine’s day advertisement this year, and their subsequent statement that they will protect rather than fire their athletes who want to come out, the endorsement threat is receding.
Nike’s reaction to Pacquiao’s comments (I’m not rehashing them here, they deserve no more screen time) was emphatic. Short, unapologetic, and nothing vague about it: Homophobes will not be paid to wear the Swoosh.
Here’s what they said: “We find Manny Pacquiao’s comments abhorrent. Nike strongly opposes discrimination of any kind and has a long history of supporting and standing up for the rights of the LGBT community. We no longer have a relationship with Manny Pacquiao.”
While the current crop of out LGBT athletes is small, statements like this will ensure that future stars benefit. That fear a high school tennis prodigy has of coming out in case he or she is denied sponsorship will fade away.
I often hear people bemoaning a story about an athlete or celebrity coming out. ‘Why does it matter? Who cares? Just keep it to yourself!’. Usually from people who would like to pretend everyone is straight, lezbehonest.
Well, it does matter to a vulnerable kid in a small town who has no-one to look up to, no role model to emulate and show that it won’t be the end of their sporting world, or their actual life, to come out.
Nike and Adidas, and other big brands who openly say their athletes are valued for their talent, not for who they love, will encourage that queer Varsity track star on the brink of fame to keep training hard, to keep getting up at 4am in winter, because there is a bright future for them doing what (and who) they love.
Article by Lindsay du Plessis