Blog of Rights

Making It Better in the NFL

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 1:44pm

And here football fans thought, at least from our perspective, that one of the most important things the new NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between team owners and players did was end the lockout and remove the ominous cloud of a possible lost season. It turns out, the agreement included an important civil rights advancement.

Over the weekend, it was reported that the new CBA that was finalized this summer includes non-discrimination language that protects on the basis of sexual orientation. As first reported by Pete Olson at Wide Rights, the language (found in Article 49) reads as follows:

Section 1. No Discrimination: There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA [National Football League Players Association] because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.

This is a historic achievement in professional sports that may have slipped by and gone totally unnoticed by the general public. Writing on Advocate.com, Lucas Grindley nicely sums up the importance of this language, “If an NFL player decides to come out and live openly as a gay man, some of the risk of losing his job is now gone.” While three former NFL players have come out, none has yet to do so while still playing the game. This new language helps to make that hurdle less daunting. In addition, 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 should learn a thing or two from the NFL and finally pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog for the ACLU urging NFL teams to step up and produce video messages of hope and support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth through the It Gets Better Project. While numerous professional baseball teams and individual athletes have produced It Gets Better videos, no NFL team has filmed a video to date. Commendably, Mike Williams of the Seattle Seahawks did participate in an It Gets Better video with other professional athletes on Seattle sports teams.

As I wrote in my previous blog:

While all of the It Gets Better videos have served to provide critically important messages of hope and support, those coming from professional sports teams carry a special resonance, particularly for young LGBT athletes who often feel that their only path to success is if no one ever finds out who they really are. Fear of rejection by coaches and teammates often burden these young people with tremendous stress and worry far beyond that involving on-field performance and a desire to succeed.

I hope the important non-discrimination message in the new NFL CBA makes its way down to both college and high school athletes. Knowing that it gets better even in the world of professional football can really be a game-changer for LGBT youth, particularly those involved in athletics.

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