As the winter-long controversy about gay rights and pro sports continues, the fastest growing sport in America finally may be advancing where the most popular still cannot: The Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming out in support of gay marriage outside the ring, and preemptively accepting gay fighters inside.
Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, one of UFC's most popular stars, signed on Monday to the brief urging the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage filed by Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, the football players turned outspoken gay rights' advocates from an NFL that's suddenly looking like an even more homophobic league than the one where guys perform jujitsu in a cage for a rabid fan base not exactly known for its progressive views on equality.
On top of that big step, Evans gave some extremely progressive comments to Outsports about his stance on gay marriage. "I am a heterosexual guy in a tough macho sport, which is exactly the reason I feel a duty to say I support gay marriage and gay rights," Evans said in a statement to Outsports' Jim Buzinski. "I have nothing to gain personally from supporting this issue, and that's the point. Society as a whole is better when there is equality, and I want to live in a country where everyone has the same rights because we all benefit from that."
Evans continued that his children factored into his public decision — and it's this part of his defense of gay marriage that may speak the most to pro athletes' impact on the culture at large: "I don't want them growing up in a society where they, or their friends, could be second class citizens based on which person they fall in love with or who they want to be happy with." But it was a conversation with one of Evans' gay friends that he said ultimately convinced him to speak out:
“I've never been a homophobe, never understood what that is all about. I knew some people who were gay and never cared about their sexuality. But at the same time, I didn't fully understand the issues around gay people until my friend BA started telling me about his full public support for gay marriage. We talked about the issue and I decided its not enough to not be against a minority, if you want things to go better for them you have to speak up with them.
The macho-ness of the UFC may not exactly scream equality, but it's sure making more positive strides than the NFL of late. While Kluwe and Ayanbadejo have been some of the most prominent athletes speaking out for the cause in any sport, the football world still has some major issues to overcome, both from players and team executives. There's potentially good news on that front as well: The NFL says it's trying to crackdown on claims of job discrimination, and at least one of football's most recent embarrassments is making some progress: Chris Culliver, the San Francisco 49er who sparked an outrage for his homophobic comments at the Super Bowl, recently won praise from gay rights activists for his work with The Trevor Project, an LGBT organization he's been working with as part of his rehabilitation for those comments.
But Evans has been winning praise around the blogosphere for what's being seen as a leadership role, rather than a reactionary one — especially for UFC, an organization with an occasionally spotty history when it comes to gay rights, and an increasing amount of influence on young people across the country. UFC fans and would-be fighters are one thing — big arms and backwoods don't always make for a gay-rights paradise — but the sport has faced intense criticism for public use of gay slurs by fighters, commentators, and executives as the league continued its meteoric rise to network-TV prominence in the last three years. UFC President Dana White, trumpeted as a kind of mad-genius sports executive for his mix of social-media savvy, marketing, and unapologetic quest for world sports domination, was at the center of the UFC's problems when he used a word that starts with "f" and ends with "t" on his video blog in 2009. The slur — the video for which has since been removed — began something of a turnaround for White, even as everyone from announcer Joe Rogen to the mega-star Rampage Jackson used the same word in public:
Indeed, White and the UFC have been making very public strides to fight an image of homophobia, transforming a negative conversation about attitudes toward gay people in general into something of an open dialogue about gay fighters in the cage. In late 2011, White urged any gay fighter in the UFC to come out of the closet: "I'll tell you right now, if there was a gay fighter in UFC, I wish he would come out," White said a press conference. "I could care less if there's a gay fighter in the UFC. There probably is and there's probably more than one."
Since then, the UFC has signed an openly gay fighter. At the end of 2012, the organization started its first women's division at 135 pounds. The very first women's title fight was between inaugural champion Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche, a former Marine who also happens to be openly gay. The fight happened on February 23, and while Carmouche ended up losing, it remained a significant moment for her and for the sport, which has grown at an even faster clip since its national TV deal with Fox began last year. It was the first time a women fought in the UFC, and the first time an openly gay fighter of either gender has fought in the UFC — not that White thinks she'll be the last.
Asked after the Rousey-Carmouche fight whether he could see a straight male fighter potentially refusing to fight a gay male fighter, White shot down the idea and promised retribution if a fighter were to ever utter outwardly homophobic biases again. "Most of the guys that are in this sport are really good people," he replied. "I honestly don't see a situation where that would happen, but if it did, I'd fix it." White even touched on the criticisms he and the company has faced in the past for their history of homophobia. "Some of our guys, and I have said some things that make it look like we're homophobes," White said. "But we're not, and we've apologized."
That's a lot more than can be said by or for the NFL, where teams might still be wondering in private if Manti Te'o is gay in anticipation of next month's rookie draft.