By Dan Woog
Last month, after a two-year, super-secret study by a group of unnamed people, the Boy Scouts of America announced that their next hike would take them all the way back to the 1950s. The Scouts vowed to deny their own Law mandating values like courtesy and kindness by continuing to ban gays at every level of scouting, from the youngest Tenderfoot through the oldest administrator.
That portion of America not stuck in the 1950s reacted with outrage. Editorial writers tsk-tsked. Eagle Scouts returned their badges. Major League Soccer acted.
Within days, president Mark Abbott announced that the league's strategic partnership agreement – including cross-promotions, "Scout Nights" at stadiums featuring discount tickets and player visits to local BSA troops – would not be renewed at the end of this year. The partnership began in January.
MLS cited "a variety of business reasons" for the abrupt end of the alliance. But the connection was clear. Since when does an organization go out of its way, six months after its start, to announce that six months later a partnership will end?
This was not the first time the soccer league acted so decisively.
In March officials suspended Dynamo's Colin Clark for three games, and fined him an undisclosed amount of money. The midfielder had screamed "faggot" at a young ball boy who was slow to toss him a ball during a game in Seattle. Six weeks earlier the Vancouver Whitecaps gave Lee Nguyen a "formal warning" for tweeting the word "fag" to describe a teammate.
Soccer seems to be a sports world leader in many LGBT-related ways. The MLS team Chicago Fire has hooked up with Equality Illinois in a very visible way. Team representatives marched with the organization's float – and its "I Do" support marriage equality banner – during June's Chicago Pride Parade. Players Gonzalo Segares and Jay Nolly showed up at an Equality networking cocktail party. Earlier this month, a portion of ticket sales at the Chicago Fire Pride Night game was donated to Equality Illinois' Education Project.
Chivas USA, meanwhile, sponsored an "Equality Night," preceded by a pre-game reception with the NOH8 campaign. The Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus sang the national anthem. The It Gets Better Project staffed a booth at Home Depot Center's main concourse. And cheerleaders performed a halftime routine to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way."
On their own, soccer fans have started a private effort to get professional soccer players to publicly affirm their support for gay rights. The drive is taking place at the website http://www.gay4soccer.com. (The tagline – riffing on a long-ago denigration of soccer – is "because soccer isn't gay, but once in awhile it kinda is.")
The online petition, signed by scores of players (including national team members Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, broadcaster Kyle Martino, Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, and entire team fan clubs), says that "sports are about fairness and equality, respect and dignity. Sports teach individuals how to strive and succeed, how to cope with success and disappointment, and to bring people together to achieve a common goal." Take that, Boy Scouts of America!
Petition signers promise to reach out to LGBT people, to challenge unacceptable behavior, and make soccer "a welcome, inviting and inclusive place for everyone."
It already seems to be. Late last year, David Testo quietly came out. He'd been in the closet as a player with the MLS Columbus Crew – and before that, when he helped the University of North Carolina win the NCAA Division I championship – but after moving to the Montreal Impact in the second division, most teammates knew. (Montreal moved up to MLS this year.) Testo said he felt comfortable with teammates and coaches, and they with him. That's exactly the kind of low-key coming-out story the sports world is ready for (and, unfortunately, the Boy Scouts can't understand).
But, once you think about it, it's easy to understand why the North American soccer world supports LGBT issues so fervently.
Soccer is a game that celebrates independent thinking. Unlike most other sports, where coaches call timeouts and diagram plays – particularly football, where every block and pass pattern must be executed to perfection – soccer players constantly figure out problems on their own. They don't need to be told what to do; they know the right thing to do, and they do it.
In addition, soccer is an international game. Players are used to teammates from different nationalities, with different accents, doing little things differently. Sexuality is just one more difference to appreciate.
The Boy Scout oath includes the words "physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight." But its Major League Soccer – and millions of soccer fans – that truly walks that talk.