Bullies in the pulpit

Why does sports radio sustain bigotry in the locker room?

In the event of total nuclear war, cockroaches would rule the world — and sportscasters would still be making excuses for homophobia.

Imagine that a country, on some other continent, just passed a law to prohibit foreign black couples from adopting its children. Imagine that the same law banned foreign couples of any race from adopting children if their home country allowed black people to get married. Imagine that, in the country in question, police regularly detained activists who advocated for equal rights for black people, and the national government had recently made it a crime to spread “black propaganda,” or anything that preached even basic tolerance for black citizens.

Now, imagine that a radio broadcaster in Canada went on the air to excuse such state-sanctioned racism as a legitimate, if regrettable, difference in “culture.” Imagine that he argued repeatedly that it would be inappropriate for Canada to condemn official race-based discrimination in other countries, and that we should have no qualms about sending our athletes to compete in an Olympic Games where black athletes would not even be allowed to hold hands in the Olympic Village.

How long do you think he would keep his job? More to the point, how many minutes do you think would elapse before his radio station’s advertisers started calling and demanding that he be fired?

If you change “black” to “gay” and “racism” to “homophobia,” then what you see above is an accurate depiction of Russia in 2013, on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. And yet, after TSN Montreal’s Ted Bird said (and blogged) on Tuesday morning that, in Russia, LGBT rights are “still a moral issue, and it’s no one’s place to impose their moral standards on someone else’s culture,” and that, as a consequence, “calls to boycott all things Russian … because Bill can’t hold Bob’s hand at the Olympic Village in Sochi are as dubious as they are impractical,” his job never once seemed to be even remotely in question.

Why? Why do we tolerate statements by sportscasters about the persecution of LGBT people in faraway places that we would instantly condemn if they were about any other group? How has sports radio survived as one of the last safe spaces for those who make excuses for homophobes?

First, follow the money. Controversy sells. An on-air personality’s views may be reprehensible, but so long as they attract listeners, station management and advertisers rarely, if ever, object. But there should be limits. Those who occupy the broadcast booth’s bully pulpit — and those who pay for them to stay there — know full well that their opinions shape their listeners’. They also know that among their listeners are athletes, particularly young ones, who parrot what they hear on the radio in the locker room. If Ted Bird says that homophobia is “a moral issue” and a defensible part of “someone else’s culture,” then why should a midget hockey player say anything different?

Because the player beside him on the bench could be struggling with his sexual identity. Because, in a country that brands itself as a defender of human rights, bigotry anywhere can never be minimized as a difference in “culture.” Because if Ted Bird had been so cavalier about the rights of Russian Jews, or blacks, or just about anyone else, all of us would be writing letters.

After NBA player Jason Collins came out of the closet in April, David Pratt, a sportscaster with CKNW in Vancouver, took to the airwaves to suggest that a gay athlete’s sexual orientation would be a “distraction,” and a detriment to his team. “All you have to do is take a look at Chris Culliver from the 49ers before the Super Bowl just a few months ago saying that he personally would not welcome a gay member to his team,” Pratt said on April 30. “From a general manager’s point of view, if you don’t have to go and bring that distraction into your room, do you do it?”

But Pratt, Bird and their ilk are the symptom, not the syndrome. Homophobia survives in sports like bacteria in a Petri dish because of the culture that enables it — the sportscasters who defend it and the ones who stay silent when they do, the station owners and managers who seem to care less about the consequences of their content than about their bottom line, and the advertisers who keep on footing the bill. And this isn’t “someone else’s culture,” either. It’s ours.

Homophobia’s defenders have a right to their opinions, and to express them how they wish, but the rest of us are just as entitled to demand that their patrons stop paying them to do so. We should hold advertisers and station owners accountable for what they’re sponsoring.

Neither Ted Bird nor David Pratt will be around forever, and we can only hope that the next generation of sportscasters will end the culture of misplaced tolerance that continues to sustain bigotry in the locker room. But we should hasten that change with a simple demand: Sportcasters who make excuses for homophobes should be out of advertisers — and a job.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him at