Washington Markup

Making It Better in the Big Leagues

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:35pm

Many people may have been too preoccupied with holiday travel and tasty food to notice, but last week Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Players’ Association reached a new, five-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which ensures that America’s pastime will continue uninterrupted through the 2016 season. So what, you ask? What has this got to do with civil liberties? Well, included in the new CBA are important sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections.

When I first heard about this latest civil rights advance for current and future gay professional baseball players, I immediately thought of the late Glenn Burke, a former outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s in the late 1970s who was also the first MLB player to publicly acknowledge that he was gay. Despite putting up solid numbers and playing in a World Series, Burke was driven from baseball in 1980 at the age of 27. As was reported in the New York Times obituary at the time of his death, Burke said people too many people in baseball condemned his sexuality:

Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.

It breaks my heart that this man was driven from the game of baseball and never permitted the opportunity to reach his full potential because he was gay. While we should certainly honor his memory and fighting spirit against imposed closets, we should aspire for a world where this could never again happen to another player. This new agreement seems like an important step in the right direction.

The most recent announcement comes on the heels of the NFL CBA which was finalized over the summer and also included specific sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections. Professional football and baseball join professional soccer and hockey in having nondiscrimination policies that include protections based on player’s sexual orientation.

These nondiscrimination policies are important because they remove some of the risk for a player if he decides to come out and live openly. And yes, job security is important, even in the world of professional sports. Amazing though it may seem in the year 2011, there still is no federal law that expressly protects people from discrimination in employment on the basis of either sexual orientation or gender identity. Clearly the U.S. Congress could learn a thing or two from the big leagues and finally pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Throughout the 2011 baseball season, numerous teams contributed videos to the It Gets Better Project, including the San Francisco Giants who were the very first to do so. Well, this new MLB CBA is actually a concrete example of team owners and players coming together to make it better. As I originally said at the time the NFL CBA protections were announced, I hope the important nondiscrimination message in these professional sports agreements makes its way down to both college and high school athletes. Knowing that it gets better even in the world of professional sports can really be a game-changer for LGBT youth, particularly those involved in athletics.

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