The NBA's Full-Court Press Against Homophobia

| Thu May 19, 2011 4:19 PM EDT

The Miami Heat handed it to the Chicago Bulls Wednesday in the NBA East Conference finals second game, and breaks in the action featured the usual: commercials for sports drinks. Beer. Razors. Cars. Deodorant. Oh, and a public service announcement on gay slurs and why you shouldn't use them:

Yeah, you saw right. That's Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of the Phoenix Suns, lending their voices to a spot produced by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN. "Using gay to mean dumb or stupid?" says Hill. "Not cool." A sentiment probably very much appreciated by the Suns' newly out president, Rick Welts.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Daryl Presgrave, the interim communications director at GLSEN, says the group was approached by the NBA last year, and the resulting partnership is vital in reaching an important demographic: boys. "The first wave of TV spots we did featured Wanda Sykes and Hilary Duff," he says. "With that, we were more successful in reaching young women. When the NBA opportunity came about, we were thrilled, because this would allow us to get the message in front of millions of young men." The GLSEN PSA featuring Hill and Dudley will air throughout the NBA playoffs.

This is new territory for American pro sports, considering how an anti-gay tenor still pervades in US arenas and stadiums. On the same day that the PSA was filmed last month, LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant spewed a homophobic slur at a referee mid-game, for which the NBA fined him $100,000. Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was recently suspended by Major League Baseball for using similar language to harass fans in the stands. And while Hill and Dudley have been lauded by many for their stance, the Twittersphere is lousy with insults—remarkably creative ones, like "Grant Hill is gay." "It's amazing how hostile our society still is," says Presgrave. "There is a misnomer out there that it's all getting better, but victimization is relatively constant."

Still, Presgrave hopes a full-court press by organizations like GLSEN, along with the recent media spotlight on LGBT bullying, will effect a big-time transition. Hill and Dudley aren't the only professional athletes lending their support to the cause—it was announced this week that the San Francisco Giants will be the first professional sports team to film an "It Gets Better" video in support of the anti-bullying campaign.

The other source of momentum, of course, is the growing number of openly gay sports pros and their champions. In the wake of Rick Welts' announcement, former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan also came out to the public. This morning, ESPN Radio's Jared Max told his listeners that he is gay, too.

And who, you ask, is one of their most vocal supporters? Charles Barkley, who has (for once) been using his loudmouth tendencies for good. "I've been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can't be in for any form of discrimination at all," Sir Charles recently told a DC sports-talk radio station. And if a pure argument for human equality doesn't motivate listeners, Barkley said, then maybe they should honor that highest of all sports values, judging folks by their athletic merit: their ability to box out, rather than their decision to come out. "I'd rather have a gay guy who can play," he said, "than a straight guy who can't play."