Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Action for equity in sports

  • In this July 7, 2019 file photo, United States’ Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring during the Women’s World Cup final soccer match. AP

Published: 1/5/2021 11:38:31 AM

Over the past four years and more acutely over the last year, I have found myself feeling deep despair and anger more than any other long period of time in my life. I am on a learning curve as I am more naturally hopeful and optimistic in the midst of personal challenges. My sensitivity to injustice and intentional harm caused by people in power has reached new heights.

As I learn to sit with difficult emotions, I realize that I must continue to work to be part of the solution and not part of the problem no matter all the strife and suffering in the world. Mind you, I allow for days where all I can do is read a good book, drink red wine and watch too many episodes of “Schitt’s Creek.”

Remaining open to how I may serve has led to an unexpected convergence. When I was younger, I was a good tennis player. I played in high school, college and adult tournaments, and I was ranked fourth in New England in my division when I was 38 years old. I also became a United States Tennis Professional Association (USPTA) pro, I have taught and coached here and there, and I was a certified umpire for Division I and adult non-pro tournaments. While I never would have made a living playing tennis (trust me), it has been important to me throughout my life in one way or another. I never guessed that my LGBTQ cultural competence trainer role would intersect with the tennis world.

I have been asked to lead a team to create a national curriculum for USPTA members and affiliated teachers and coaches so that clubs, teams and other tennis-playing environments become more overtly welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ players and pros. This action for equity in sports will have reverberating effects; I have spoken with several lesbian and gay tennis pros who have suffered various forms of discrimination in their careers, and they are excited that this long overdue progress will help youth and adults alike in the tennis world.

A student-athlete organization called SportSafe reports that 85% of LGBT athletes have received verbal slurs and 70% of those surveyed reported that homophobia was worse in sports than in society at large. Sports competition requires focus, and team sports require trust and cooperation. An athlete at any level feels diminished if s/he feels uncomfortable to be themselves. Many middle-age and older LGBT adults feel the need to be closeted at clubs and on teams because they fear being ostracized.

Teaching people to be allies and to use the power of empathy is a good start. Megan Rapinoe and Breanna Stewart are exemplary allies for racial justice. Naomi Osaka notably wore face masks with the names of Black victims of police violence during the course of this year’s U.S. Open. Rapinoe is a lesbian. All have been named Sportspeople of the Year by Sports Illustrated. This would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago.

I remember when Martina Navratilova came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. Before the era of Serena Williams, she was arguably the best female tennis player ever. Despite her standing, no one would sponsor her. One woman on the tour said she would not want to be in a locker room when Martina was there. But guess what? She had a very powerful ally — Chris Evert. They were legendary rivals. Off the court, Evert was infuriated that Navratilova was treated so horribly. With wry humor, she proclaimed to women on the tour not to worry because they were not Martina’s type. Her leadership changed everything. Eventually, Navratilova became a spokesperson for Subaru — the lesbian car of choice in New England. Since retiring from the pro tour, Navratilova has worked for LGBT and other social justice causes.

Another important starting point is having inclusive written policies. This conveys to LGBTQ athletes they are welcome and safe to be who they are in the sport. Heterosexual athletic and club directors may not understand the significance of inclusive policies because of their biases or more likely because it is not on their radar. To be clear, it is a game-changer (pun intended). When coaches and fellow teammates have your back, they benefit from engaging in empathy and getting your best performance. This comes at an opportune time to counter my skepticism about human behavior. I recommend getting involved in something that will help others while boosting your spirits. All such actions, small and large, chip away at the wrongs of the world.

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist, trainer and health care advocate. If you follow tennis, you will understand that you should never fall in love with a tennis player. To her, love means nothing.


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