Warning: this article contains strong language.
As I am writing this column, it is the middle of Christmas week and although there is no snow outside, it is definitely feeling like winter with temperatures dropping into minus double digits.
This period of the year is an extremely busy one in the world of sports, with the world junior hockey championships ongoing, the last weeks of the NFL season, a plethora of NCAA college bowl games and both the NHL and NBA seasons in full swing. You can hardly turn on the television set without encountering at least one of these sports being televised, and many fans of sports incorporate viewing the many events into their holiday experience.
While the focus of all team sporting events is on the players and teams, it is also evident that the umpires and referees that officiate the games play a vital role and can have a major impact on the outcome of these contests. Because of this, officials often experience verbal abuse from players and fans which — in an era when cameras and microphones can often pick up every word spoken and every gesture made — can cross lines that intrude into people’s personal lives. In the often macho world of sports, this can sometimes take the form of homophobic slurs which reflect poorly on the individual and league involved.
In an NBA game on Dec. 3 in Mexico City, Sacramento Kings player Rajon Rondo was ejected partway through the third quarter of the game by referee Bill Kennedy for his behaviour, after a call made by Kennedy.
As reported to league officials after, Rondo referred to Kennedy as a “f**king faggot” on a couple of occasions and refused to leave the court after he was ejected, creating a tense situation. While it took a while for the league to respond — the Kings played another four games with Rondo in their lineup — they did penalize him by suspending him for one game. In announcing this decision, the league made it clear that this type of behaviour is not acceptable and that no one involved with the game should experience this type of abuse targeting sexual orientation.
The more important element in this story is that shortly after this incident, Kennedy announced publicly that he was a gay man who was proud to be an official with the NBA and that his sexual orientation should have no bearing on his ability to do his job.
In coming out, Kennedy joined his colleague Violet Palmer and baseball umpire Dale Scott — who came out a year ago — as the only openly gay officials among the four major North American professional sports leagues. Although only a small group, these officials are generally well respected in their jobs and Scott, in particular, has had a 30-year career and has officiated several times at the pinnacle of his profession — the World Series.
It is interesting that there are no out officials in the NHL and NFL — the two sports in which body contact are part of the game and which can be considered the more macho of the sports.
In some commentary around this story, critics have stated that he should just shut up about his personal life and that people don’t need to know this about game officials. While I agree that it should not be necessary and should have no impact on their ability to do their jobs, the fact remains that in this case, Kennedy was subjected to verbal harassment based on his sexual orientation — not on the quality of his work — and this is not acceptable anywhere, and certainly not in the workplace.
Kennedy’s coming out is not needed for the conduct of a basketball game, but it does have an impact on young gay athletes who may want to pursue a career in professional sports and need to see a role model in these positions. Such young athletes also need to see leadership within these leagues responding to such attacks and showing that all athletes and officials are to be judged on their ability.
Both the NBA and Kennedy are to be commended for turning this ugly incident into an opportunity to show that things can change; in the sometimes macho culture of professional sports, it is a hopeful tone to start off the new year.
Brian Hodder is a past-chairman of Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality.