Opinion: Dr. King’s Dream Lives On in Sport

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Today, the sports equality movement and Athlete Ally join in celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy.  Dr. King’s teachings, actions, and principles for social change remain fundamental to the LGBT equality movement, including the burgeoning LGBT sports equality movement.

Throughout his leadership, Dr. King strove for an inclusive civil rights movement that reflected and uplifted the voices of all people experiencing systemic oppression. Mindful of the necessity to engage supporters of a mainstream civil rights movement, he recognized and utilized the impact athletes could have on increasing the visibility and voice of the civil rights movement.

For example, during the 1968 Olympics, Dr. King inspired athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos to engage in a symbolic protest of the human rights disparities in America. Dr. King understood the significant role that major sports events and athletes played in public awareness. With Dr. King’s guidance, these athletes showed their support for human rights, reaching audiences on a global scale. This act inspired others to become advocates and allies around the world. To this day, the iconic image of Smith and Carlos on the medal stand, raising their fist in support of black equality and human rights, remains a powerful symbol of solidarity.

The LGBT equality movement today owes a lot of its successes to the principles of Dr. King and the black civil rights movement. Following in these footsteps, athletes today are standing up and speaking out against LGBT inequality, in sport and in society. Their influence and public action has led to major advances on the Olympic level, more inclusive spaces for LGBT fans, and more awareness of how LGBT inequality impacts communities beyond the field. For example, athletes like Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, Chris Kluwe, and Martina Navratilova have used their status to raise awareness about school bullying, hate crimes, and marriage equality.  The continued efforts of these athletes and others will provide the LGBT equality movement with a unique opportunity to move the discussion even further in communities, particularly in the south, where the sports community wields tremendous influence.

The LGBT sports equality movement is still growing, and the number of out athletes and allies is also increasing.  We honor those who fought in the black civil rights movement.  We salute those athletes who used their position for a cause much greater than themselves.  We remain committed to the principals of Dr. Martin Luther King, and celebrate his legacy in continuing to advance equality both on and off the field.

Hudson Taylor is the co-founder and executive director of Athlete Ally.

Ashland Johnson has served as Policy Counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She worked with NCLR’s Sports Project to eliminate sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex discrimination in sport. Ashland has written and presented extensively on sports inclusion, and on the intersection of sports, race, and gender.