This is what Milwaukee veteran guard Pat Connaughton said on a social media video for the Bucks during the 2022-23 season:
“The power of sport can bring everybody together, right? It doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter your ethnicity. It doesn’t matter your political views and it definitely doesn’t matter your sexual identity.”
Connaughton’s comments were part of a brief social media gesture by his team and employer, the Milwaukee Bucks, to promote Pride Night, which was held in January, to celebrate and support the LGBTQ+ community.
Other Bucks, Khris Middleton and Joe Ingles, also offered short comments of support. The overall message was pretty vanilla: Let’s be inclusive and let’s celebrate our diversity.
Still, there were plenty of ugly responses for the rainbow community on Instagram. A small sample (of what we can print):
“Bro delete this (expletive)”
“don’t comment if you don’t like lgbt just ignore them they’ll stop making it their personality if we stop giving them attention”
“Thank God Giannis didn’t say anything in this video”
“L, nobody likes lgbtq community, its all trash”
So as we enter Pride Month and with another Pride Night coming up on June 7 – for the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field – here are a few questions:
Do these Pride nights still serve a purpose? How receptive is the community to them? Is there any genuine pro athlete support?
And does anyone even care to read about it here?
I don’t often explore, report on and write about social issues much anymore for this reason: Critical thinking, informed and open-minded discussion of ideas and viewpoints, and just general empathy for another human being seems to get drowned out immediately. Topics get twisted and overdramatized so fast that the discussion of the original issues and concerns goes right off the rails. It’s either laughable or infuriating, but almost never productive.
But something about Connaughton’s simple statement struck a chord.
Connaughton isn’t just any NBA player. He has spent five years in Milwaukee. He’s a local real estate developer and investor. He’s from Boston. From Notre Dame. He’s a great public speaker because of all the practice he had in church, where in his youth he was expected to talk to the congregation a lot. But he’s an NBA veteran, a world where you don’t hear a whole lot about the rainbow community.
From Connaughton’s viewpoint, the support for Pride Night was just a humanitarian gesture, but it started a bigger conversation about how far – thankfully – we’ve progressed.
“It’s important to me to make videos like that,” Connaughton said a week after Pride Night. “I don’t usually get involved in politics, because I think politics is a whole other animal. But when we talk about social issues? At the end of the day, we’re all human, right?”
Most major sports hold Pride Night or related events
And we have laws to protect all of us. But being inclusive, welcoming, supportive and kind is a choice.
To further explain why, some data is needed. Alex Reimer agreed to help with that.
Reimer is a multiplatform sports reporter in Boston, working as the deputy managing editor of Outsports, as well as the digital content producer for Audacy for the Boston and New England area. While being LGBTQ is not a requirement to work at Outsports, Reimer is gay and he also contributes editorial content for Outsports, which covers the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in sports.
His findings, from years of coverage:
Every team in MLB, the NBA and NHL has some kind of specific pride LGBTQ night, now that the last holdout – the Texas Rangers – had their first Pride event in 2022.
This is not the case in the NFL, where many teams, including the Green Bay Packers, haven’t had a specific Pride game. But a couple of NFL teams ‒ including the Packers ‒ do make gestures to support LGBTQ:
The San Francisco 49ers have several Pride events and a LGBTQ fan group that they sponsor.
The New England Patriots “are really good allies,” Reimer said. “There’s a national Gay Flag Football league, and every year they have a Gay Bowl and the Patriots were the first NFL team to sponsor the Gay Bowl when it came to Boston.”
And since then, Reimer said it has been common that the host-city NFL team has sponsored the Gay Bowl every year.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft signed an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage in Massachusetts “before it was really a mainstream opinion,” Reimer said.
The Miami Dolphins started supporting the community with events in 2021.
In 2018, The Vikings hosted an LGBTQ Summit, the first event of its kind that focused on inclusion, awareness and sensitivity.
“For a football franchise to host an LGBTQ summit, it’s incredible,” Greg Louganis, a former Olympic diver who came out as gay in 1995 and is now an LGBTQ activist, told the gatherers.
Last October, the NFL donated money ($100,000) to The Trevor Project on National Coming Out Day once again; it’s a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ young people.
New Packers’ diversity, equity and inclusion position includes focus on LGBTQ+
Of the nine home games a year, the Packers follow along with themes that are guided by the NFL, such as: Salute to Service (military support), A Crucial Catch (cancer), Inspire Change (social justice), My Cause My Cleats, Fan Appreciation and Play Football (youth football). The team also has had longstanding game-day themes, like Packers Give Back or Packers Alumni Weekend.
Pride Month in June, when the team usually conducts its minicamp, is when the Packers display the NFL Pride logo on the Lambeau Field marquees and feature Pride-centric merchandise in the Packers Pro Shop. The Packers also previously hosted a Pride Panel for its employees that featured LGBTQ+ leaders and featured guest speakers on LGBTQ+ topics.
The Packers also hired Rob Davis in April as director of organizational development & diversity, equity and inclusion, a new position, and Davis is also expected to includes LGBTQ+ as part of his focus, according to a team spokesman. The Packers also are a member of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce and have sponsored the NEW Pride Alive festival.
Wisconsin teams offer support through Pride nights, but it’s only a start
The Bucks held their first Pride Night in 2016; the Brewers started in 2018. Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team had its first Pride Night. The other Division I women’s basketball teams also have hosted Pride nights, as have the Milwaukee Admirals.
The reality is, Pride nights are usually another marketing tool to make money.
“Pride nights, to be honest, are also promotional night,” Reimer said. “Baseball teams have 81 home games; if you can have a Pride Night, that’s a good way to ensure that you’ll have maybe more butts in the seats for that night.”
But they are still a worthwhile endeavor, because we still need to work toward acceptance and inclusivity.
“It’s great that you’re having a night dedicated to LGBTQ fans and you have the rainbow flag or the progress flag and you have maybe, Rainbow merchandise. That’s all well and good, and we appreciate that,” Reimer said. “Having a Pride Night alone shows appreciation for your LGBTQ fans who, in sports, have traditionally been an exclusive place; it’s not very welcoming for LGBTQ people, especially men.
“The symbolism is nice. I don’t think the symbolism is meaningless.
“But you have to be more substantial now. What are you doing the other 364 days of the year? Are you active in the community? Are you promoting the community?”
Reimer said that having athletes speak to Outsports for a story, or about Pride Night, is a big step forward for supporting the community.
“Can you get us a player who can actually talk about, what does LGBTQ inclusion mean to you?” Reimer said.
Support and visibility remain very valuable.
“I look at myself for example, I always wanted to be in sports media,” Reimer said. “And in Boston, there was a man named Steve Buckley (at The Athletic) who came out. A very respected sportswriter; that meant a lot to me. That said, Oh, wow, there’s another gay man who’s had a really long and successful career covering sports in this city. It showed that could be me.
“So that’s why visibility is so important, coming out remains so important, because there’s just not a lot of representation for LGBTQ people in sports.”
What is the LGBTQ+ representation in sports?
But how does that representation look in the sports world?
“Whenever you’re talking about LGBTQ visibility in sports, in pro sports, in particular, you really have to separate the women’s sports from the men’s sports,” Reimer said.
Reimer estimated that 20% of WNBA players are out.
“Or 25% even, it’s a really staggeringly high percentage,” Reimer said. “And look at the U.S. women’s soccer team, Megan Rapinoe. Women’s sports have a lot of representation.
“Men’s sports at the pro level, yeah, we’re very much behind.”
“We thought, here comes the tidal wave, and it never really occurred,” Reimer said. “There’s a couple of minor-league baseball players. A minor-league hockey prospect came out last summer. So there’s still that lack of visibility.
“And that used to be a main interest of mine, but as I actually cover this stuff now for a living, my attitude is like, why wait for them? There are high school kids coming out every day; college athletes coming out.”
What showing support means to Pat Connaughton
Connaughton has always been drawn to the idea that sports brings people from all backgrounds together. He values that. He appreciates the diversity and the opportunity to learn something new about a teammate, a competitor, an athlete.
With him, the support feels genuine – he volunteered to do the Pride Night sound bite for the Bucks video. But other athletes have felt forced to support Pride nights. Media reports have covered recent examples of that. That’s a debate we continue to have: Is it the choice or the obligation of athletes to show support for Pride Night either with their comments or by wearing pride clothing? Last month the Los Angeles Dodgers welcomed back a satirical LGBTQ+ group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence after withdrawing the original invitation.
All that mattered in Milwaukee was that Connaughton began his foundation as a way to reach kids with guidance and inspiration in sports, with the goal of bringing people together through sport as well.
“Sports have brought me into the most diverse communities I could ever imagine,” Connaughton said.
Whether Connaughton was hooping in Boston ‒ playing basketball with Shabazz Napier in various neighborhoods all over the city and suburbs ‒ or when he was drafted in MLB and played Class A baseball with players whose first language was Spanish, Connaughton embraced the opportunities to engage himself with people of all backgrounds.
What Connaughton learned from those experiences was more than acceptance, but embracing differences and individuality.
“And, how you make someone feel when you’re interacting with them,” Connaughton said. “I’ve seen that first-hand, with my foundation. You’ve got a kid that’s sitting on the side that feels like they’re different. Me going over and having a conversation with that kid, trying to make them excited. Noticing them – they’re a completely different kid for the rest of the day – and other kids treat them different.
“You can have that big of an impact just by doing the human things. We’ve been doing a disservice to everybody by not using our platform like that.”
Why would the LGBTQ community be any different than the kids Connaughton wants to look after? So when the Bucks community relations social media team went looking around for volunteers to record a few video messages for the promotion of their Pride Night, Connaughton readily agreed to do one of them.
Connaughton was not thrilled when he was told some of the comments about the video were negative.
“Because of hatred, that seems to find its way on social media where people can say anything behind a screen,” Connaughton said.
“I don’t know what it’s like to have that, I guess burden (of being LGBTQ); however, learning…educating myself on what that may feel like, and most importantly, just showing support, is most important. Making sure that you use your voice to speak out to make them feel more comfortable.
“It’s on us – in my opinion – to shed light on that. And make sure we try to help them in whatever capacity we can. With the platform we have.”
Pride nights are still needed because they are public demonstrations of support. And when the genuine support is there from someone like Connaughton, yes, it helps, and yes, it matters. Because it’s one more positive voice to drown out the hate.
Message Lori Nickel on Twitter at @LoriNickel, Instagram at @bylorinickel or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChinUpLoriNickel