The sports world may have mourned the death of Reggie White but the gay community lost an enemy
By Steve Charing
I admit that I wasn’t exactly mournful concerning the demise of former pro football great Reggie White, who died suddenly of a respiratory failure the day after Christmas at the age of 43. The former defensive end, who retired in 2000, had set the NFL record for sacks of a quarterback (later surpassed) during his career that spanned 15 years with 3 teams, most notably the Green Bay Packers.
That he was one of the most dominating defensive players in the game is indisputable. His sudden death brought sadness to those who follow the game—players, fans and sports journalists who were quick to remind people of his character and involvement off the field. He was also an ordained minister and had been dubbed the "Minister of Defense."
I had watched Reggie White play a lot through the years; he was a star in a game that so effectively showcases its stars. His speed, power and determination were admirable, and he was the consummate team player. But when I think of Reggie White, I didn’t see a giant of a man clad in green and gold sporting number 92 swooping in on a hapless, vulnerable quarterback. Instead I saw quite a different image that was incredibly disturbing. So when he died, I felt no sense of loss as many others did.
For what I saw was a bigoted homophobe, and to me, that overrides his on- or off-field accomplishments.
Being a celebrity brings its rewards: money, fame and a platform from which to speak. Many children look up to their sports heroes and cling to their every word. As a successful pro athlete, Reggie White also attracted the attention of corporate sponsors believing his endorsements of their products would encourage others to spend money on them and thus increase their profits. So when Reggie White addressed the Wisconsin state legislature in March 1998 on a variety of subjects, his words weren’t as innocuous as most others who stepped before the microphone. In that chamber, and echoed in subsequent interviews, he spoke the words softly, but they rang out loud and clear.
On that fateful day of March 25, 1998, Reggie White accused the U.S. of going away from God by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant." He said, "Sometimes when people talk about this sin they've been accused of being racist. I'm offended that homosexuals will say that homosexuals deserve rights. Any man in America deserves rights, but homosexuals are trying to compare their plight with the plight of black men or black people. In the process of history, homosexuals have never been castrated, millions of them never died. Homosexuality is a decision. It's not a race." White went on, "People from all different ethnic backgrounds live in this lifestyle. But people from all different ethnic backgrounds also are liars and cheaters and malicious and back-stabbing."
White explained that God had created different races for different reasons. In a shocking display of racial stereotyping he said, blacks are gifted at worship and celebration, while whites are good at organization. "Hispanics were gifted in family structure, and you can see a Hispanic person, and they can put 20, 30 people in one home," he said, adding that the Japanese and other Asians are inventive and "can turn a television into a watch."
He persisted with his onslaught against gays in interviews following his speech. And he joined other anti-gay radical religious groups to repeal a nondiscrimination ordinance, which protected gay people from being fired or thrown out of their homes for being gay. White appeared in anti-gay ads in the Washington Times and USA Today wearing the Packers uniform, which violated league rules.
Reggie White’s comments drew rebukes from many in the media, prominent civil rights leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King as well as glbt organizations.
"White's stardom gives him influence over millions of youth and adult fans," said Joan M. Garry, then Executive Director of GLAAD—Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "I am shocked that he would irresponsibly use his voice in such a damaging manner. White's assertion that being lesbian or gay is a malicious ‘lifestyle’ akin to dishonesty and cruelty is bizarre, wrong-headed and factually inaccurate."
His statements probably cost him a sports analyst position with CBS for which he had been under consideration.
Although White later attempted to apologize for the ethnic stereotyping remarks, he did not back off from his anti-gay comments. According to the Associated Press regarding a 20/20 interview, "White said he stands by his remarks regarding gays. ‘I am going to speak the truth and I am going to speak out against things that's hurting our children, that's killing off our people,’ White said. ‘If people think that's a contradiction and that's hate, they need to take them up with God, not with Reggie White.’"
Reggie White also said that there is no place for homosexuals in professional football; that it would diminish the "manliness" of the game. This type of rhetoric has fostered homophobia in sports at a time when the glbt community was hoping for a breakthrough where a notable athlete would come out and open the closet doors for others gays and lesbians.
Esera Tuaolo, who also wore a Green Bay Packers uniform in addition to several other teams but was not a teammate of White’s, was one of three gay NFLers to come out of the closet—after hanging up their pads. All felt they would have been hated by teammates had they chose to come out during their playing days. Reggie White’s outspoken rhetoric all but assured the closet doors will remain closed in the near future.
The power of celebrity can be awesome. Sadly, Reggie White’s fans, including so many children who looked up to him, were influenced by his venom. He poisoned the atmosphere that may have allowed a gay athlete to come out of the closet. He reinforced the myth and stereotype that gays and lesbians make a "decision" to be homosexual. He spoke as if God spoke directly to him; that same-sex marriage was an affront to God. He was the classic homophobe, only larger in stature and celebrity.
Football and its fans mourned Reggie White’s passing. But his death was their loss, not ours.