Let’s try a quick game: Guess the first professional sports team to publicly support marriage equality in the US. Don’t look it up or skip ahead. Here’s a hint — it happened way back in October 2013. Give it a go.
Maybe the San Francisco Giants? I mean, San Francisco, right? Nope. They didn’t endorse gay marriage until March 2015, when they joined over 300 corporations in signing an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down state bans on gay marriage.
Or maybe you’re thinking an NBA team is a more likely candidate — liberal Miami or LA? Wrong again.
For the correct answer, you have to look to a relatively fringe league and franchise — Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers.
The Great Shift
Professional sports are often thought of as a bastion of homophobia (and quite often, rightly so). Yet sports in America have played an important and often overlooked role in galvanizing support for same-sex marriage.
The proportion of Americans who oppose versus support marriage equality has undergone a dramatic reversal in the last sixteen years. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentages in 2001 were 57% oppose, 35% support. In 2016, they were almost the exact opposite, at 37% oppose, 55% support.
How did this extraordinary political shift happen, in less than two decades? It’s a complex story; any major political swing like this would be. But sports are an undeniable part of that story. And it starts with the Portland Timbers.
Timbers Step Forward
Major League Soccer is tiny compared to mainstream sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Last year’s championship match set an MLS TV record with 3.5 million viewers. Even the NHL doubled that mark during the last game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017.
But in “Soccer City,” the Portland Timbers have an almost cultish following and influence. Their supporters club, the Timbers Army, are self-described as “setting the bar” for soccer fandom in America.
“It was just the right thing to do, at the right time.”
In October 2013, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and COO Mike Golub decided to test the strength of that influence, and potentially put the team’s reputation on the line with their fans, when they publicly announced the team’s support (as well as the support of their sister team, the Thorns — a pro women’s soccer club also owned by Paulson) for an Oregon ballot measure to legalize same-sex marriage. The organization didn’t simply support the initiative, they explicitly called on fans to turn out and vote for the marriage equality measure. (A suit in U.S. district court found Oregon’s gay marriage ban violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, preempting the need to put the measure on the ballot.)
Weekend Caucus spoke to Mike Golub about what prompted the Timbers to take this historical action, at the risk of alienating some of the Timbers’ fan base and others in the League. He said, rather modestly, that
“It was just the right thing to do, at the right time.”
The impact, however, was anything but modest. Within a week, the Portland Trail Blazers followed suit, becoming the first NBA team to publicly support marriage equality — thanks in large part to the Timber’s own ‘trail blazing.’
In the months that followed, particularly leading up to the Supreme Court hearing on gay marriage in April 2015, several NFL and MLB teams publicly came out in support of same-sex marriage — with the notable inclusion of the reigning Super Bowl champs (the New England Patriots) and World Series champs at the time (the San Francisco Giants).
Portland Timbers, Portland Thorns and Portland Trail Blazers endorse same-sex marriage ballot…
The Portland Timbers and Thorns announced their endorsement of the Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection Initiative…
While we can’t know if the Timbers’ and subsequently other major sports franchises’ actions impacted the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, there is reason to believe it influenced the fans.
A recent research study found that sports fans are disproportionately influenced by the political positions of professional athletes, compared with regular Joes or even other types of celebrities.
The study explained that:
“When fans learn — sometimes unexpectedly — that other fans or athletes are supporters of marriage equality, they are motivated to agree” because this helps to “normalize their membership in those sports-fan groups.”
The bottom line? — Sports fans are 16% more likely to support gay marriage when they’ve been told a pro athlete supports it.
Ashland Johnson is a lawyer by training. We spoke with her about the impact of major sports teams speaking out for marriage equality. As the Director of Public Education and Research for the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest advocacy organization for LGBTQ equality, she felt strongly that an attitude shift among the general public was a critical precursor to the positive Supreme Court decision in 2015:
“It’s very rare for the Supreme Court to make a decision that is ahead of society’s hearts and minds on the issue, so when we’re trying to promote LGBTQ equality, a lot of the work we have to do is just changing people’s perspectives on the broader scale.”
Without the Portland Timbers speaking out, other professional sports teams would have been less likely to take a public stance. And when sports teams speak out — that changes people’s perspectives in a way that Johnson says is fundamental to achieving broader social and legal change.
In fact, the HRC’s experience confirms what the researchers found in their study — that pro athletes have a unique ability to impact mainstream perspectives on LGBTQ issues. Johnson told Weekend Caucus how important it has been for the HRC to involve athletes in their education and advocacy strategies:
“Our society relates to sports. We identify with the athletes in another way. We’re emotionally invested in what’s going on. When an athlete speaks out for LGBTQ equality, it reaches a much broader audience.”
One can easily paint a picture of a domino effect starting with the Timber’s announcement, affecting their fan base — many of whom they share with the Blazers; the Blazers then getting on board, followed by teams in the MLB and NFL; all of this having a widespread influence on fans across the country, swaying public opinion, and ultimately impacting the Supreme Court decision to cement these shifting social attitudes into law.
Previously, major sports teams have limited their support for LGBTQ equality to how their players are treated on the court or field — in other words, the player’s ability to feel safe during game time and do their job effectively.
Now, the HRC sees an important shift underway in the role that sports franchises are playing — they are taking their role off the field.
The Timbers’ move to endorse marriage equality shows this recent shift, expanding their notion of inclusion and playing a greater role in LGBTQ legal equality more broadly than actions that directly affect their players and staff, to issues that affect the broader community. Johnson explains the shift as being in the team’s best interest. “If you really want your athletes to perform their best and support them in all ways, you have to have inclusion under the law.”
Sports Take a Stand
Nowhere has this trend of sports activism intersecting with LGBTQ rights off the field been more evident recently than in the slew of anti-transgender bathroom bills that have been passed or proposed in a dozen states. North Carolina’s House Bill 2 became the most notorious example. The NBA withdrew their February 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, explicitly citing the discriminatory law as the reason for the move.
Newly-Emboldened Red States Be Warned: the NCAA Still Wants You to Play Nice.
As March Madness kicks off, NCAA reaffirms commitment to LGBTQ community.
That meant that underdog South Carolina faced off against Duke in the tournament as the home team — playing a game in Greenville, SC, that would otherwise have been played in Duke’s home state of North Carolina. South Carolina played in the Final Four for the first time ever after their 88–81 victory over one of college basketball’s winningest teams.
Athlete Ally, which “educates and activates athletic communities to champion LGBTQ equality,” joined the HRC and 80 other organizations in sending a letter to the NCAA in the week before the current March Madness tournament, urging it to commit to prioritizing LGBTQ-inclusive locations for all of its championship sites and events.
The NCAA responded the next day affirming its commitment to “maintaining a college sports experience that is inclusive and fair for all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” saying
“The bidding process for hosting NCAA events now explicitly asks potential sites how they will provide an environment that is safe, respectful and free of discrimination.”
According to Athlete Ally’s founder, Hudson Taylor, the NCAA’s statement made their intentions clear: “NCAA championships and events will not be awarded to places that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” That would include states that pass bills to force a person to use the bathroom of their gender at birth. North Carolina ended up repealing HB2 directly due to this pressure from the NCAA, although the manner in which they did so (and the NCAA’s subsequent acquiescence) leave a lot to be desired and has been roundly condemned.
With such anti-trans bathroom bills being introduced or passed in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Indiana, Washington, Kentucky, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, and North Dakota — so far — the LGBTQ politics of sport could get real interesting indeed over the course of the next year.
Luckily, with more major sports teams and organizations like the Portland Timbers willing to take a public stand, it has become that much harder for their fans to sit on the sidelines.