In the depths of Tropicana Field – between the Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants clubhouse and below a sea of more than 40,000 fans – a United States military veteran approached Billy Bean.
Major League Baseball’s ambassador for inclusion, Bean was talking to people all night the evening of June 17th. He threw out the first pitch, a fastball right down the middle. He watched Tampa Bay fill up the stadium for the first time in six years, all on its Pride Night. He shook hands with everyone: players, coaches, front office and fans.
It was five days after the mass shooting in Orlando that left 50 people dead. A baseball stadium filled with rainbows in all different forms, the evening functioned as something far more meaningful than a Rays-Giants game. A pregame tribute played on the stadium’s scoreboard, with every person silently standing — some with tears visibly streaming down their cheeks.
On a night filled with emotion, the veteran who approached Bean after his first pitch gave him an American flag that he’d received on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“He was very, very emotional,” Bean tells Rolling Stone. “He just wanted to say thank you. He said that he was bullied in ways in the military that scarred him. It’s so humbling that, in a way, I feel like I am a public servant.”
Bean, a gay former Major League Baseball player, has spent the past 15 days traveling around the country, helping to educate MLB’s 30 teams on the LGBT community. When this tragedy affected so many, sports helped people come together. The Rays raised $300,000 from ticket sales for the Pulse Victims Fund. The fact that more than 40,000 people showed up, paying $5 a ticket, when the Rays typically average 16,000 during games, could be seen as a sign that they tapped into a need for community that transcends baseball.
When it comes to the sports world connecting itself and fully embracing the LGBT community, however, not all teams and not all leagues are equal. And in the wake of the Orlando massacre, that became increasingly apparent. While MLB held a moment of silence in each of its stadiums, the NFL took 12 days to acknowledge the attacks – and still didn’t mention the fact that many of the victims identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. During Sunday’s LGBT Pride Parade in New York City, the NBA and WNBA became the first professional sports leagues to march in the annual event, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum wore #OrlandoUnited T-shirts. The NHL, on the other hand, never gave an official statement.
Though teams and leagues may be taking positive steps in their support and connection to the LGBT community, there has been an apparent hesitancy to use associating language with the community that was targeted on the early morning hours of June 12th.
Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor sees it as a breakdown that starts at the top of the organization. “When you have the worst mass shooting in modern history taking place, and you have LGBT fans as your constituents “and you are in the state of Florida, and you are not being vocally and visibly in support of the community in this time of need, that is a failure of leadership.”
The comfort-level when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics in professional sports is one that extends far past the reaction to Orlando. It’s something different teams have always handled differently.
Led by openly gay executive Erik Braverman, the Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the only teams that has an official “LGBT Night.” Very few teams actually use the words, unlike many that simply do “Pride Night” or “Pride in the Park” or “Night Out,” so that the promotion can be “more inclusive” to all people on the LGBT spectrum. It’s so the promotion is simply called what it is, erasing any chance of confusion. The ticket packages for the Dodgers game aren’t limited to one section and it’s an attitude that Braverman says extends beyond just one night.
But a promotion like that has yet to extend to all different sports. And even in baseball, not every team places the same emphasis on it as the Dodgers. Not every team even has an LGBT-themed promotional night in the first place.
“I think it may simply be that there are a lot of teams that may not necessarily have someone with the either the expertise or the understanding or the ability to connect with the community,” Braverman explains.
The NFL works closely with Wade Davis, a former player that came out after his career in the league. He speaks with the teams and helps bridge the LGBT community and the league. He acknowledges that “the NFL still has to do more,” while also contending that the league has taken strides toward inclusion.
The NFL was silent on the shooting for 12 days following the attack — save for a few retweets on its official account — and never acknowledged the devastating connection between the tragedy and its LGBT victims. Finally, a week after the Rays’ donation, the NFL Foundation along with Florida teams the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Jaguars donated $400,000 donation to the OneOrlando Fund.
“Issuing a statement of support would have been really, really wonderful out of the gate,” Davis says, noting the import to look at the NFL’s efforts of inclusion behind the scenes. “…I think that the NFL is the biggest target because it’s the largest league. It has such brand power and such brand equity that, yes, we would all expect a large corporation like the NFL who has so much power to speak up.”
The United States Men’s National Team for soccer put out a video following the attack titled “One Nation” that’s only reference to the LGBT nature of the attack was to people that “love differently than they do.” The NHL, though holding a moment of silence before its Stanley Cup Final game on June 12th, made no mention of the LGBT community then, or during their tweet of “heartfelt thought” that evening. And though the Orlando Magic of the NBA has been central in raising money and blood donations for the victims in need, a 10-minute radio interview with CEO Alex Martins following the attack only made one reference to the team partnering with the LGBT community.
The Miami Heat changed their Twitter avatar to a rainbow-covered logo. The Miami Marlins donated the proceeds from two of their 50/50 raffle events and plan to donate proceeds from ticket packages sold during their “Pride in the Park” event on July 9th to the Florida Disaster fund. But neither organization vocally showed LGBT support when the tragedy occurred.
In separate statements released by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Jacksonville Jaguars team owner Shad Khan, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Tampa Bay Buccaneers official Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, not a single one mentioned the LGBT community in any context. Neither did the NHL’s Florida Panthers — located near Miami — in any tweet or statement regarding the attack.
Michael Sam, a former NFL athlete commented on Instagram: “Let this hateful act of terror on the LGBTQ community be a wakeup call for America. Men and women of all races, ages, and sexual orientation are being slaughtered because of hate crimes.” Conner Mertens, a recent college football player wrote on Facebook, “For the 50 souls lost today and the hundreds of thousands of souls lost in the face of anti-LGBT sentiment, I will proudly sport the rainbow colors…” Martina Navratilova, a tennis legend, wrote on Twitter that it was “an attack of the worst kind on our LGBT community.”
All three are are athletes that identify as LGBT, and they saw the importance of a direct connection.
“Where there’s a challenge, especially in the response to Orlando, is the degree to which teams have been acknowledging to the LGBT community and especially the communities of color within the LGBT community,” Taylor, the Athlete Ally founder, says. “Not everyone’s response has been completely acknowledging.”
Taylor and Athlete Ally work closely with many teams and leagues. They provide rookie orientation training for every single incoming NBA player. In the NFL, there’s Davis. In MLB, there’s Bean. Across sports, there’s an undeniable trend toward inclusion and acceptance toward LGBT.
But the reaction to the Orlando shooting showed that teams and leagues are far from perfect in their embrace of the LGBT community. On a larger scale, Taylor says every team needs to make their stadiums a place that all fans feel comfortable in. That means more pride nights, gender-neutral bathrooms and inclusive polices. And if it’s not coming from the top professional ranks, then “the assumption is that sport is still not welcoming environment for LGBT people.”
There are still no openly gay athletes in professional American team sports. Whenever Bean starts to feel overwhelmed by everything, he remembers back to when he was a Major Leaguer, taking the field with those nerves every day. He retired just eight years after his debut, at the age of 28. He kept his his sexuality private throughout his entire playing career.
Now he travels around the country. After the shooting in Orlando, he visited three teams in five days — Oakland, Washington and Tampa Bay. He views his job like working with 30 different companies: Each company might have diversity platforms, but they’re unique to each one, each mindset is different.
He’s proud to be a part baseball, as it continues to prove itself as one of the more publicly inclusive sports. Moments like his encounter with the veteran in Tampa Bay are a tangible reminder that the game is reaching the LGBT community in a positive way. But he knows that his job is still ongoing, that baseball still has a ways to go. So too does the entire world of professional sports.
“We are the face of our community,” Bean explains. “So how and when we react in those terms, it’s never going to all be the same…[The attack] changed you, it changed me. It just did.”