The sports headlines over the past month have at times been ugly and mean-spirited. Kobe Bryant uttered a homophobic slur at an NBA referee. LeBron James called a reporter's question "retarded." The leader of the U.S. team for the 2012 London Olympics had to resign when his anti-gay marriage activism became widely known. No sooner had the NHL's Sean Avery proclaimed that he was for gay marriage than a hockey agent called him "misguided."
Sport effects change in our society, often massively so. There was a time when those doing the changing were the likes of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King. Their courage, grace and depth were undeniable, and their actions have done more than stand the test of time; they have carved out a rather significant slice of American history.
But change through sports comes differently these days. No one will ever confuse Kobe for Robinson or LeBron for Ali, yet unwittingly, they are dragging this era of athletes into similarly essential discussions — and us with them.
"It's good to get it out in the open," King said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. "This has been going on forever, and now people are calling others on it. What's happened the past month will make people more aware that they are hurting others with their words and actions. We're discussing it. We're dissecting it. There's been disgust. That's all good."
King is not alone in believing nasty, hurtful words from today's athletes can bring about change in a positive manner in our culture.
"I think there's a lot of good that can come from this," Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said when asked about James' comment. "It has given us a chance to reach people at their kitchen table. It has awakened conversations around the country. People will say to me, 'I never knew why the Special Olympics was important, but now I understand.'
"This conversation is helping us to lift the veil of invisibility, to invite, not scold, people into the conversation about why the language we use is important."
Olympic gold-medal gymnast Peter Vidmar, who was to have been the chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team at next year's Summer Games, never uttered a slur as Bryant and James did. It was his actions that doomed him: participating in two anti-gay marriage demonstrations in California and donating $2,000 to the cause in 2008.
When Vidmar was named to his position late last month, Outsports.com first reported on his actions, followed by the Chicago Tribune. Barely 24 hours after the Tribune story broke — online only, never appearing in the newspaper itself — Vidmar had resigned.
"This was something that you could see just building and building within hours in the social media," said Olympic softball star Jessica Mendoza, a former president of the Women's Sports Foundation. "Normally, it would take days to get to the powers that be. This was happening much faster than that, and it was so important.
"I'm always proud to be an American, but there's no prouder moment to be an American than at the Olympic Games. My thoughts were about how we would look as a country on an issue that is all about inclusion, and that was the biggest reason (Vidmar and the U.S. Olympic Committee) had to make the decision that was made."
"This wouldn't have happened a few years ago," King said, alluding to our age of instant information. "He would have kept his job."
King looks at the issues of today, and those she played such a crucial role in during the 1960s and 1970s, and sees one similarity: the hoped-for end result.
"It's different now than it was for us back then," she said. "But there are always different paths to get to the same place."
Billie Jean King and Christine Brennan co-authored a self-help book