Politcal Notebook: SF Pride courts sports teams
by Matthew S. Bajko
Homophobia in sports, both on the field and off, has been a hot topic of late, garnering widespread media coverage.
It has also caught the attention of officials with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, who courting the area's professional sports teams.
They are seeking greater partnerships with the San Francisco 49ers football team, the World Series champion San Francisco Giants baseball team, and the Golden State Warriors basketball team, whose owners want to build a brand new arena along the city's waterfront on a dilapidated pier.
None have yet participated in the annual parade, which takes place the last Sunday of June. But Pride officials hope that is about to change.
San Francisco Pride CEO Earl Plante said the 49ers and Giants would be asked to participate this year, as sports teams are part of Pride's "overall strategy of engaging nontraditional partners."
Asked whether Pride will be requesting money from the teams, Plante said, "Certainly we're open to money, but we're open to partnerships at all levels."
One team that has pledged to participate in Pride is the Golden State Warriors, whose president, Rick Welts, is openly gay. Welts attended the March meeting of the Castro merchants' association to discuss the team's planned arena at Piers 30-32.
Asked by the Bay Area Reporter if the team would participate in Pride, Welts replied that the Warriors would have a presence at the event "going forward" and disclosed that Mayor Ed Lee had invited him to walk with his parade contingent last year.
Welts said he had to decline the offer because of a previous commitment but noted that Lee's "whole staff was in Warrior's shirts" as they marched in the parade.
Plante said he hadn't met yet with Welts, but he's reached out to Welts's office to set up a meeting with him. He said the Warriors had personally invited him to attend a recent game.
Matt Chisholm, media relations manager for the Giants, was unaware if the team had ever been asked to participate in Pride.
He suggested contacting Staci Slaughter, the team's senior vice president of communications. In an email after the B.A.R. went to press, Slaughter wrote, "We have participated in the past, I believe. Though many times in the past it has conflicted with our games." She added that she could not recall if the team's involvement had to do with donating money to Pride or having a contingent in the parade.
Bob Lange, director of public relations for the 49ers, told the B.A.R. that the team has been contacted by KOFY, which broadcasts the Pride parade, about having it participate this year and is awaiting a proposal from the local TV station.
"In general, we would absolutely consider participating, as we do with a number of community events," said Lange, adding that the team would also welcome a call from Pride officials. "Obviously, the Pride parade is a significant event. Once we get some more facts, we will definitely see what we can do."
Another team that is looking at how to have a presence at Pride is the San Francisco Bulls professional minor league hockey team that started calling the Cow Palace home in October. A farm team for the San Jose Sharks, the Bulls had looked into having a float in last year's parade but found it to be cost prohibitive.
"We really wanted to participate and be a part of it," Jason Lockhart, the team's director of media relations and broadcasting, said this week in a phone interview. "It was a little too out of our budget."
Lockhart added that the team is "going to see if we can participate this year now that we have gotten things rolling."
He doubted if any of the players would be part of a Pride contingent since the parade happens after the hockey season is over and most of the team lives in Canada or on the East Coast.
"It would just be representatives of our organization, our mascot and some of our ice girls" – named the Cowbelles – who go on the ice and clean it up during stoppages, explained Lockhart.
The team is holding its first LGBTQ Night this Saturday, March 23, and one of the benefitting nonprofits is SF Pride.
For each special group ticket priced at $25 that is sold, $7 will be shared between SF Pride and the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. The Bulls were the first minor league hockey team to tape a 48-second video for the project. (For more, see Jock Talk.)
Its co-founder is Patrick Burke, whose brother Brendan came out as gay and was publicly supported by his father, Brian Burke, the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team. Brendan Burke was involved in a car accident in Indiana in 2010 and died from his injuries sustained in the crash.
"Playing in a city with such a vibrant LGBT community, it is great to see that the Bulls are reaching out to embrace their fans, both gay and straight. We hope to see the city return the embrace," stated Patrick Burke in a press release about the LGBTQ night.
Since 2011 the Sharks have had an unofficial LGBT night of their own, which is mainly coordinated by the San Jose Pride committee. Last year the special game raised money for Pride, and this year's will do so again, with $8 from tickets sold to the April 18 game benefiting the LGBT event in August.
During the last Pride parade held in San Jose the Sharks had a contingent but it did not include any players, said Gloria Nieto, a lesbian fan of the team who has pushed them to address LGBT issues.
"I just think homophobia is strong in locker rooms," she said. "We need to be breaking down the barriers that exist between professional athletes and regular league hockey and softball players."
Sharks players have worked with the You Can Play Project. The Sharks were one of the first hockey teams to sign up and played a PSA about the project during a game. (To view the video, CLICK here.)
Player Tommy Wingels, who went to college with Brendan Burke, sits on the nonprofit's board and rode in last year's Chicago Pride parade, where he lives during the off-season. He also taped a video for San Jose Pride last year, said Nieto.
Such efforts at outreach, said Nieto, are "like breaking down the shame. There is no shame in participating with folks who idolize you who happen to be LGBT."
Of the six professional sports teams in the Bay Area, all but the Oakland Raiders football team host special LGBT-focused events. Both the Giants and Oakland Athletics baseball teams host LGBT game days.
The San Francisco 49ers started holding LGBT fan appreciation nights in the gay Castro district after a player in 2002 told a newspaper reporter that he didn't "want any faggots on my team!" Four years later a racist and homophobic video produced by a team media official led to the creation of a community advisory group that included a number of LGBT representatives.
The team began sponsoring the San Francisco LGBT Community Center's annual galas and honored the LGBT community during a half-time celebration, recalled Thom Lynch, a former center executive director who served on the panel.
"I went on TV and was pretty critical of the 49ers," recalled Lynch in a recent interview.
That led to then team co-owner John York calling Lynch. At the time Lynch said he doesn't believe anyone suggested that the 49ers participate in the Pride parade.
"It might be now a no brainer. I think it is really possible they would do it," he said. "Things have changed so much over the last few years in terms of support" for LGBT rights among sports figures.
Yet the 49ers were embroiled in an anti-gay controversy during this year's Super Bowl week when a player once again said they didn't want a gay teammate. Then the team's video for the It Gets Better Project, aimed at reducing LGBT teen bullying, was pulled ahead of the championship game when several 49ers in the video told reporters they didn't know it was related to reducing homophobia.
Should the team or some of its players march in the Pride parade, "it would be really symbolic and have an impact because it is San Francisco," said Lynch.
Current center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe told the B.A.R. that the local teams should be fostering strong ties with both their gay fans and the LGBT community at-large in the Bay Area.
"I do think it is important," said Rolfe, who has also been in contact with Warriors officials as the team curries support for its arena proposal. "I think San Francisco is a deeply loyal community and is deeply supportive of their sports teams. It is great to see those teams connect to the community on all levels and be a part of the fabric of the city."
Plante said seeing the sports teams have a "straight ally presence" at Pride would be "very powerful," especially if in the parade.
To purchase the special Dress Circle seats tickets to the Bulls' LGBTQ Night this Saturday call Jason Breiter at 855-SF-BULLS or email him at JasonB@sfbulls.com.
Be sure to indicate you want the group seats for the LGBTQ Night game against the Stockton Thunder, which starts at 7:15 p.m. Attendees can take free shuttles provided by the Bulls from the Balboa Park BART and Muni station to and from the Cow Palace.
Tickets for the Sharks' LGBT Night can be purchased online at http://tinyurl.com/csth2wf.
Seth Hemmelgarn contributed to this story.
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