The irony of Missouri football's bold actions will be quietly on display against anti-gay BYU

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on Nov 11, 2015

BYU’s anti-gay policies are a powerful reminder of the power of homophobia in sports. – Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Missouri football players were ready to boycott their game against BYU because of racial injustice on their own campus. They will take the field Saturday against BYU despite persecution of LGBT people on BYU’s campus. The NCAA remains silent.

The irony of the University of Missouri football team’s game this weekend against BYU will be lost on most.

While the focus on racial issues in Columbia has taken center stage in the sports world over the last few days, the decades-long anti-gay policies in Provo continue to be ignored on a daily basis by the NCAA and every one of its members.

This Saturday, when the two schools’ football teams clash, that dichotomy will be on display… and ignored.

It’s understandable at some level. The men of the Tigers football team, who boldly went on “strike” until university president Tim Wolfe was removed from his position, demonstrated something incredibly rare in sports: Athletes making social justice more important than their own participation in sport. The move harkened back to the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City and was in stark contrast to the silence from athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics when they avoided LGBT issues.

Sure we’ve seen recent forays by athletes into social issues, as St. Louis Rams players last year raised their arms to say “hands up, don’t shoot,” and Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams was fined for raising awareness for cancer on his eye black.

The Missouri Tigers were ready to sit out games in their battle against the systematic ignoring of racial issues on campus. That was powerful. No fine hurts athletes like losing playing time; That these players were ready to make that sacrifice was a moving statement.

Now the football players have cleared themselves to play in their next game. Yet when they take the field in front of what I’m sure will be a raucous crowd on Saturday, they’ll be doing so against BYU. That school has not just failed to address incidents on campus, it has codified specific bans on homosexuality and actively uses the school’s code to diminish the lives of every LGBT person and their children.

The anti-LGBT policies at BYU are so strong they have prompted a change.org petition asking the NCAA to cancel BYU’s competitions against other NCAA schools over its harmful policies.

“We need someone to be there for LGBT people and families in Utah, to have a counter voice,” petition supporter Lawson Miller told me, “to let closeted Mormons know that you’ll be okay. It tears people apart inside thinking that they can’t coexist with their faith and their sexuality.”

That’s an understatement. Gay youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide. Not coincidentally, Utah has the fifth highest state suicide rate in the nation.

Decades ago there was a similar campaign against the very same BYU this Missouri football team will play against on Saturday. Back then San Jose State football players began a boycott against BYU because the Mormon Church banned black people from the priesthood. Other schools like Stanford followed suit: They simply refused to play the school because of racist Mormon Church policy. After a decade of these boycotts by some teams, and mounting pressure across the country, the Mormon Church changed its policy and allowed the ordaining of black priests.

Yet there is no “strike” by players of other schools to boycott BYU’s anti-gay policies today. No NCAA athletes are making the ultimate sacrifice to change the actions of a school whose code of conduct is stuck in 1952.

The Missouri Tigers will play the BYU Cougars Saturday at 4:30pm, and no anti-gay policy will change that.

The irony of these men lifting their “strike” so they can play against BYU gives us powerful insight into the state of collegiate athletics and the minds of so many college administrators, coaches and athletes, the likes of whom these men reflect.

Despite Michael Sam playing for that very Tigers team just two seasons ago, I doubt there’s been any thought given to what taking the field against the Cougars from Mormon country means. It’s hard to place blame on these young men. We don’t teach LGBT history in high schools. The NCAA allows members to ban homosexuality and marginalize an entire class of students and athletes. The college football playoffs made the Chick-fil-A Bowl part of the national championship picture even as the company’s president fought against marriage equality for loving same-sex couples.

The NCAA has a gay problem I doubt any of the players on the Missouri football team even realize.

Consider some of the official policies of the Mormon Church, which owns and operates BYU and writes the school’s policies. From the words of the church’s own handbook, “a natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.” The handbook also specifically calls the cohabitation of two gay people the same as “attempted murder, forcible rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse” and other actual crimes.

My guess is there’s very little awareness among collegiate athletes in or outside of Columbia about the amount of suffering BYU and the Mormon Church inflict on students and prospective students at the school.

There was so much talk about elite athletes boycotting the Winter Olympics in Russia last year, yet BYU’s policies go unchallenged in the sports world. Russia banned what it called gay propaganda aimed at children. BYU and the Mormon Church ban homosexuality itself and banish the children, adopted or otherwise, of gay people.

Yet on Saturday the University of Missouri and its football team will welcome the school and its football team to Arrowhead Stadium.

It underscores something I’ve been saying more and more loudly over the last year: If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

While straight people are important components to our LGBT sports movement, they will not act boldly like the Missouri football team, because they are not LGBT. The athletes of color on the Missouri football team raised their fists this week because they were the affected class. While I’m sure there was support among some of the white players (and, of course, some did not support it), it was by all accounts the players of color who drove this. They got it in a way that many of the white players did not.

These same athletes would never consider going this far for the gay and lesbian people struggling with suicidal thoughts under the thumb of the LDS Church and BYU. No chance the Missouri football team would refuse to play Saturday against BYU: Given where we have placed equality for gay people in our culture, it probably wouldn’t even cross their minds.

Because gay men are such a minority on college football teams, it would take a special group of straight men to fight for us the way the Missouri football team fought for themselves. With the presence of Michael Sam back at Missouri and around the team, you might think the Tigers would be the perfect team to take up that fight.

Yet they will, instead, share the field with a school owned and operated by a church that would ban Sam and any of his children from membership.

And virtually no one will realize it.

 

 

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