This is not about Ron Brown.
This is not about the Nebraska running back coach's appearance at a March 6 Omaha City Council hearing, when he warned Christian councilors they would face "great accountability" if they supported a measure to give gay and transgender residents anti-discrimination protections. This is not about his statement to the Associated Press Wednesday that "to be fired for my faith would be a greater honor than to be fired because we didn't win enough games." It's not about his acclaimed pregame prayer before the Nebraska-Penn State game last fall, either, a "cathartic moment" of inspiration for thousands upon thousands of wounded college football fans in Happy Valley and elsewhere.
This is not about Ron Brown living his life fully according to his convictions and being precisely the man he feels called to be. We should all be so lucky.
But that's the thing: thanks in part to Brown, any gay athlete who might want to enroll at Nebraska has to ask themselves if they'll be lucky enough to be the man or woman they feel called to be in Lincoln. Can they do that in a locker room that includes a coach who believes companies should have the legal right to fire them for being gay? Whose approach to a gay athlete on his team would be to "walk him or her to the truth of Jesus Christ, just as [he] would" the "thieves, liars" or "alcoholics"?
That hypothetical athlete is why this isn't about Brown, who -- by all accounts -- has never for a moment pretended to be something he isn't. It's about his bosses. In the wake of Brown's comments, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini, athletic director Tom Osborne, and university chancellor Harvey Perlman have the opportunity to do something entirely unheard of in college football, and pricelessly rare anywhere in college athletics: to tell the world, and any potential gay athletes who might wish to come to (or have already come to) Lincoln, that within Nebraska athletics everyone, gay or straight, will be welcomed with open arms.
They'd be lying, of course. No openly gay player has ever taken the football field in the FBS or NFL, nor a basketball court in D-I or the NBA, and that's not by accident. Few stories concerning gays and the atmosphere inside current locker rooms make it sound as if that player is only a few years away from announcing himself, either. If Nebraska football isn't ready for a gay player, well, it's likely got 123 other FBS teams for company.
But that's all the more reason for Pelini, Osborne and Perlman to clarify the program's/department's/university's stance towards Brown's remarks. They can't wave a magic wand and turn the inner sanctums of Memorial Stadium into the kind of Tolerance Narnia you'd find in a Glee episode, but they can at least tell prospective gay athletes that whatever Brown might say, Nebraska has their backs. It wouldn't be much. It wouldn't even be true. But this is gays in major college athletics we're talking about; it would be something. It might even prove to be something we'd call a "first step."
None of them, unfortunately, seem to have bothered to look at the staircase. First, there's Pelini, annoyed the AP had even bothered to ask him about Brown's comments.
"Why don't you ask me why I hired him?" Pelini said. "I hired him because he's a good football coach. He's trustworthy. He has a lot of integrity. I hired him because I believe in him as a football coach and a guy who has positive impact on kids."
Osborne also declined comments on Brown's remarks themselves, other than to say "it's important that there be clarity with what you do in your capacity at the university and what you do as a private citizen." He assured an angry e-mailer over Brown's City Council appearance that "Ron's comments are reflective of his own views and do not represent those of the Athletic Department or the University."
With Brown now serving as an assistant under Pelini and having first come to Lincoln as an assistant under Osborne in 1987, maybe it's not realistic to expect them to publicly stand in opposition to their current/former coaching colleague. Perlman, however, should be above any athletic department politics and should represent the reaction of the campus at-large. In fairness, he did offer the most direct response to Brown's Omaha comments, writing in a letter to the local Journal-Star that "the University of Nebraska has made it clear that the university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
But he, too, backed off of the issues raised by Brown's comments themselves, writing that "the university defends the right of its faculty and students to participate in public dialogue and to express their personal views ... Unfortunately in this instance Coach Brown did not make it clear in his comments that he was asserting his personal viewpoint and not representing the university."
It's Brown's right to have a "personal viewpoint" as a "private citizen," and even to air that viewpoint in a public setting. But it's also well within the rights of Pelini, Osborne and Perlman to rebuke that viewpoint point-blank. If Brown had stood before the Omaha City Council and defended the right of employers to fire workers solely on the basis of being Asian-American, would the biggest issue for his three bosses really be his failure to clarify that his racist views weren't shared by the university?
No doubt many in Brown's corner would argue that race and sexual orientation aren't equivalents, but that's not what the university itself believes, per its anti-discrimination policy. "It is the policy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln not to discriminate based upon age, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, gender, sex, pregnancy, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, veteran's status, marital status, religion or political affiliation," it reads.
Because that "religion" clause matters, too, this is not a recommendation that Brown's bosses take him up on his offer to be fired. But it is a call for them to take the "sexual orientation" clause just as seriously--to publicly tell Brown and anyone else listening that his argument against full gay rights in Omaha doesn't mean there won't be full gay rights in every corner of the Lincoln campus, athletics facilities included. College football coaches and administrators have happily ducked the issue of homophobia for years; whether intentional or not, Brown has opened the door for Pelini, Osborne and Perlman to stride through and assert there's no place for it in the sport. And maybe, just maybe, that gets us all that much closer to the day when there truly is no place for it in the sport.
To this point, Brown's superiors have decided to quietly shut that door instead. And college athletics is poorer for it.
HT for some links: Campus Union.