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The Role of Apology in Altering the Discourse of Professional Sports

Content Warning: This article focuses on the problem of anti-LGBTQ slurs in professional sports and the role of apology in creating change. Please be aware that this article quotes offensive and disturbing anti-LGBTQ language (homophobic and transphobic) used by professional athletes.

Professional athletes in the 21st century live their lives in spotlight and, like other celebrities, can influence key social and cultural issues. They know their words and actions on and off the playing field will be judged by the larger culture and could impact their image. When athletes are accused of wrongdoing, apologies have become an important strategy in restoring their reputation and that of their organization, but how can we account for the varied effectiveness of athletes’ apologies and their impact on the larger culture?

Rhetoricians often study public apologies as part of the practice of image repair or as a ritual to initiate a process of reconciliation to restore the dignity of those who have been harmed and repair social relationships. The strategizing, positioning, and re-positioning of the guilty through words and actions has formed the basis for theories of analyzing apologies. William Benoit, for example, develops a theory of image repair that includes apology as part of mortification, one of five possible strategies used to respond to an accusation of wrongdoing in order to repair the image of the guilty party. Benoit also conducted a study on the appropriateness and effectiveness of image repair strategies like apology and found that, together with corrective action, they represent the most effective way to repair one’s image. The study also determined that other well-known strategies like denial, blame-shifting, and minimizing are viewed by audiences as the least appropriate and effective.1 Robin Lakoff encouraged further consideration of apologies as contributions to a larger discourse beyond their pragmatics.2 In viewing apology from a variety of perspectives—formal and functional, cognitive and interactive, individual and group—Lakoff believes we may achieve “a full and satisfying explanation of its properties and range of use.”3

This essay examines three apologies for anti-LBGTQ language by three professional athletes as contributions to the larger discourse on equity, diversity, and inclusion. These public apologies demonstrate how professional sports and the larger culture may become more inclusive by challenging the use of offensive language and the discourse that promotes it. While some sociological research by Eric Anderson has argued that contemporary athletes reflect a general cultural attitude that is more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, professional athletes continue to provide examples of LGBTQ+ slurs and pejorative language that demand public apologies, especially in professionals men’s sports.4 In one large survey, for example, over 80% of U.S. athletes who responded reported having witnessed or experienced homophobia.5 In another study, researchers concluded that transgender athletes face significant resistance and hostility from other athletes, as well as from fans.6 When teams and leagues call on athletes using this kind of language to apologize, they may appear formulaic, insincere, and ineffective, but an examination of the discourses surrounding athletes’ apologies tells a more complex story of social change.

By analyzing the context and language of each athlete’s apology, as well as the language of sports reporters and fans, this study reveals the dynamic process of cultural transformation initiated by apologetic rhetoric. The discourse of athletes, reporters, and fans are located in both texts and talk through which meanings are constructed, reproduced, contested, and adapted. These patterns of discourse not only reflect, but also help produce, ideological positions that may not be explicitly articulated as such. This study uses the insights of Critical Discourse Analysis into the circulation of power in contested discourses to show the “constructive effects discourse has upon social identities, social relations and systems of knowledge and belief.”7 In other words, the words and symbols used by a group to describe something affect how it is viewed and how others view the group. Within the discourse that surrounds any issue there are people that prefer one set of terms, phrases, symbols, or images to communicate about that issue, while others will rely on another. When conflict ensues over which set of terms should be used, often the “winner” is the side of discourse that is able to convince the largest number of people to adopt their language and symbols (i.e. their discourse). As an important part of the discourse used to negotiate membership in a changing community, public apologies are key to advancing social change.

By examining the anti-LGBTQ+ language used by athletes, their apologies, and the popular discourses their apologies produced, this essay shows the role of apologies in negotiating the contested ideas, symbols and words of competing discourses. To better understand the role of public apology in transforming the discourse of professional sports, I analyze three examples: NBA player Roy Hibbert’s use of the term “no homo”; NHL player Andrew Shaw calling a referee “faggot”; and Martina Navratilova referring to transgender athletes as “cheats.” Their language and subsequent public apologies represent the struggle to negotiate the changing discursive framework of professional sports. Their apologies did not repair their ethos or restore the dignity of those who were harmed, but their apologies did generate public debate. Because of the influential role of professional sports in popular culture, examining the struggle over language represented in athletes’ apologetic rhetoric also sheds light on the larger culture’s struggle to respect, accept, and include LGBTQ+ people.

NBA player Roy Hibbert

In June of 2013, many were startled by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert’s homophobic slur, which occurred just weeks after NBA player Jason Collins came out of the closet. In a post-game press conference, Hibbert and Paul George were answering reporters’ questions when one reporter asked Hibbert what was going through his minds when he saw LeBron James receive a technical foul for charging him. Hibbert responded:

I was on the floor to tell you the truth, so I didn’t know what was going on. I had to ask Paul. That play right there, I tell Paul, I have his back all the time. If he gets beat, LeBron has a large launching pad, I don’t block a lot of shots all the time, but I try to alter it as much as possible and not to give up any easy plays. Because the momentum could have shifted right there if he got an easy dunk. There was what — was it Game 3 here? I really felt that I let Paul down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint, because they stretched me out so much. No homo. [laughs] But I wanted to be there for [Paul]. He’s the future. I mean, I think he has a chance to be MVP of this league next year. Every guard needs to have a big guy to have his back. So I’m that guy.8

The brief interview ended without anyone commenting on his use of “no homo,” but NBA officials determined his comment violated a league policy against using slurs and fined him $75,000. He was also required to issue an apology, which he did through his team the next day:

I am apologizing for insensitive remarks made during the postgame press conference after our victory over Miami Saturday night. They were disrespectful and offensive and not a reflection of my personal views. I used a slang term that is not appropriate in any setting, private or public, and the language I used definitely has no place in a public forum, especially over live television. I apologize to those who I have offended, to our fans and to the Pacers’ organization. I sincerely have deep regret over my choice of words last night.9

There were several factors influencing the NBA’s reaction to Hibbert’s violation of their policy. His use of the term “no homo” seems quite deliberate and, in fact, he had been criticized in the past for using other slurs. Of course, there are differences between the way Hibbert and other players have used “no homo” and the way a player like Kobe Byrant used “faggot” to insult a referee several times in 2011. Bryant used “faggot” in anger, to insult the referee, while “No Homo” isn’t a term used in anger. “No homo” and “Pause” are terms that have their origin in Hip-Hop and Rap as disclaimers or qualifiers for words or behavior that may be interpreted as gay. Hibbert followed his comments about being “stretched out” with “no homo” to jokingly clarify that he didn’t mean that LeBron had stretched him out in a sex act. “Pause” works much the same way. “No homo” and “pause” were not new to NBA circles—superstars Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have used “pause” in post-game interviews, Andrew Bynum has also used “no homo” when being interviewed after a win, and plenty of players have tweeted either or both terms, though the use of these terms has not received the attention that Kobe Bryant or Joakim Noah received for using the term “faggot” from the bench. “No homo” and “pause” were used pervasively in NBA, but until Hibbert’s case, it remained largely unpunished. This example helps to demonstrate not only how enmeshed homophobic language is in the fabric of professional sports, but also how increasingly unacceptable it is. The struggle over language like “no homo” becomes visible in Hibbert’s apology when it refers to the slur as “slang” and never directly names the LGBTQ+ community as suffering harm. Characterizing his use of “no homo” as slang crucially ignores the negative impact conveyed with a slur, and not naming the LGBTQ+ community represents another effort to distance himself from those he harmed. Hibbert’s apology clearly illustrates the tension between the NBA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and an existing discourse that promotes anti-LGBTQ+ language.

A review of social media sites like Twitter and YouTube also revealed that many people reacted negatively to Hibbert’s comments, calling on him to apologize or demanding the NBA discipline him. There were also many others, especially on sports news websites like and SB Nation who came to his defense. An examination of readers’ comments to SBNation’s article, “Roy Hibbert Fined $75,000 for Homophobic Comment” reveals the discursive struggle occurring over words and phrases like “no homo.”10 The story detailing Hibbert’s use of “no homo” and the subsequent action by NBA commissioner, David Stern, included thirty-three comments. Analyzing these comments produced three themes: “no homo is not a homophobic slur,” “LeBron James is at fault for ‘flopping’,” and “Commissioner David Stern is at fault.” Ten of thirty-three comments argued that “no homo” is not a homophobic slur because its use is not intended to insult or damage LGBTQ+ people. These commenters argued that Hibbert didn’t intend his comment to demean or harm anyone. It was a harmless joke. One commenter compared it to middle school students describing almost anything as “gay.” Comparing Hibbert’s use of “no homo” to middle school students using “gay” does not, however, consider the harm these words cause. By eliding Hibbert’s intent in using “no homo” with its effect, commenters ignored how slurs convey and reinforce stereotypes about target groups, harming the target group’s self-worth. One of the few commenters who supported the NBA’s action explained to those arguing “no homo” was not a slur that athletes even jokingly asserting they aren’t “homo” derives its humor from the fear of being identified as gay. Even if Hibbert had stopped in the middle of his response and said, “By the way, I’m not gay,” this still serves to reinforce the idea that one wouldn’t or shouldn’t be gay.

Seven commenters argued that it was LeBron James who should have been fined for “flopping” (deliberately falling or stumbling to create the appearance of a foul). These commenters were attempting to deflect blame from Hibbert by insisting the entire incident would not have occurred if the referees had called LeBron for flopping. This argument suggests that some players, like LeBron, are allowed to do what they want on and off the court, while others, like Hibbert, are held to a more rigid standard. Six commenters argued that the problem is not with Hibbert’s use of “no homo” but league commissioner David Stern’s unfair application of policies. Like those commenters blaming LeBron’s flopping, these commenters deflect blame away from Hibbert by accusing Stern of being unfair. To support their argument, several commenters pointed to the proliferation of “fuck-yous” and other pejorative language used during the game that Hibbert was commenting on when he used “no homo.” Commenters reasoned that if Stern punishes players who use slurs, he should also punish players who use pejoratives like “asshole” and “motherfucker.” If Stern applied policies more evenly, these commenters claim, they wouldn’t object to Hibbert’s punishment.

Social media, with a much wider audience, also reacted to Hibbert’s words and subsequent apology and fine. Searching Twitter for “Roy Hibbert ‘No Homo’ Fine” revealed fifty-four tweets. Like the sports website, SB Nation, almost all posts (fifty of fifty-four) fell into the same themes: “ ‘no homo’ is not a slur,” “LeBron’s flopping is the real problem,” or “David Stern is incompetent and/or unfair.” The most impactful tweet, the one receiving the most likes (fourty-three) and retweets (311) offered a somewhat different interpretation of what happened: “David Stern fined Roy Hibbert \$75,000 for saying ‘no homo.’ Hibbert’s paying 37.5 k per word. But Jason Collins made \$$$ saying ‘I’m a homo.’”11 NBA Retweet, the author of that tweet, interprets what has happened as ironic: one player is fined for not being gay while another is rewarded for coming out as gay. This popular perspective suggests that players like Hibbert are the real victims, they’ve been wronged. This perspective contends that Jason Collins and the LGBTQ+ community expect and demand special rights and recognition that damage the game.

This tweet expresses the sense of incongruity and paradox some fans see in the NBA’s efforts to be more inclusive. Hibbert’s apology and the reactions people shared on a sports website and twitter demonstrate the discursive struggle over the use of homophobic slurs as well as the larger social struggle for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

In 2013 attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people were changing. This was the year Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete to play any major U.S. professional sport. Players like Kobe Bryant praised Collins’s decision, as did Commissioner David Stern. Collins coming out signified greater visibility for LGBTQ+ people and brought into focus the hostile environment professional sports has created for LGBTQ+ people. In response, the NBA took steps to promote inclusion by focusing on eliminating homophobic slurs. Hibbert’s team-issued apology represented a new policy direction for the NBA: it announces in his apology that it will not tolerate homophobic slurs of any kind regardless of the context. The struggle over the use of terms like “no homo” and “pause” represents a larger changing set of community norms that professional sports is beginning to come to terms with. In this way, apologies help to shape politics by publicly acknowledging injustice and by registering support for certain views of community membership while displacing others. Reinforcing the significance of these new expectations for NBA players, David Stern, NBA Commissioner, fined Hibbert $75,000, and while he did not mention homophobia, he did say that a hefty financial penalty “is necessary to reinforce that such offensive comments will not be tolerated by the NBA.”12

NHL player Andrew Shaw

On April 19, 2016 during Game 4 of the Blackhawks-Blues series, Chicago forward Andrew Shaw directed a homophobic slur towards an on-ice official after being called for a penalty. His shouting “Fucking-Faggot” was caught on camera for all to see. After the game, Shaw said, “Emotions were high. I don’t know what I said. I wasn’t happy with the call.”13 The 24-year-old forward appeared visibly upset as he stood before the media the next day to apologize:

I am sincerely sorry for the insensitive remarks that I made last night while in the penalty box. When I got home and saw the video, it was evident that what I did was wrong, no matter the circumstances. I apologize to many people, including the gay and lesbian community, the Chicago Blackhawks organization, Blackhawks fans and anyone else I may have offended. I know my words were hurtful and I will learn from my mistake.14

Shaw’s words seemed to show he understood the harm his words caused and his sincere commitment to change. When asked if he would use the slur again, Shaw quietly said, “I’ll never use that word again, that’s for sure. I mean, I get it—it’s a hurtful word. It’s 2016 now. It’s time that everyone is treated equally. I’m sorry and I want to apologize.”15

In Shaw’s slur and subsequent apology, the competing discourses are readily apparent: one that perpetuates anti-LGBTQ+ views and another that promotes diversity and inclusion. Anti-LBGTQ+ views become most visible when athletes act out during a competition, as Shaw did, but his language is part of an ideology learned through years of experience on and off the ice. Amongst players in professional sports, homosexuality has been viewed as something humorous or contemptible, with slurs being one of the main ways to prove and police masculinity. The referee, neither player nor fighter, becomes a target for Shaw’s slur when his aggressiveness is penalized. In the discourse Shaw knows, he asserts his masculinity following the penalty by alleging the referee is gay, and therefore, contemptible. The context for his outburst is very different from Roy Hibbert’s. While they both used language that denigrates gay men, Hibbert’s words were part of an exchange with reporters after a game in an effort to be humorous, and Shaw’s angry attempt to insult the referee occurred in the midst of a game. However, even if Shaw was reacting in the heat of the moment, as he claimed immediately after the game, his words show how homophobic schema are encoded throughout the discourse of professional hockey, from practices to workouts to team meetings and social interactions. This language is then retrieved and applied under pressure, often without consideration for the harm it causes.

In contrast, the apology Shaw offered in person the next day represents a disruption in the established homophobic discourse. In his apology, Shaw expressed regret, but also named the gay and lesbian community and promised to learn from his transgression. In 2013, Hibbert released his apology through the team and did not name his transgression or the community he damaged. Like the NBA, the NHL also fined Shaw ($5000) and suspended him for game five of the playoffs. Unlike the Hibbert case, Shaw was also required to undergo sensitivity training. These actions signaled that the NHL did not want to be a business that was branded anti-LGBTQ+. They recognized that the world of professional sports, and, in particular, professional hockey, had to establish policies and practices that promoted equity and inclusion. Shaw’s apology, like Hibbert’s, represents part of the strategy by professional sports to change their discourse in order to promote equity and inclusion.

The reaction of fans on sports websites and social media to Shaw’s outburst differed in some ways from the reactions of fans to Hibbert’s case. Satchel Price, writing for SecondCityHockey, characterized Shaw’s slur as not just “dumb,” but “unacceptable.”16 As a blogger for Blackhawk fans, a reader might expect some of the minimizing, rationalizing, and deflecting that occurred in Hiberrt’s case, but his blog post establishes from the outset that Shaw’s words are indefensible. Even though calling a referee or opposing player “faggot” had been a regular part of what some had defended as the high emotions of the game or “chirping” (using slurs to antagonize another player to induce a penalty), Price argued it is unacceptable in today’s world and hockey must change. Combating the very common belief that words can’t harm when they aren’t intended to, Price described a similar altercation between NBA player Rajon Rondo and a referee. The referee responded to Rondo’s homophobic slur by revealing that he was, in fact, gay. For Price, this incident underscores the harm caused by slurs and the need to eliminate them from the discourse of professional sports17.

Chris Hine, who was the Blackhawks beat writer for the Chicago Tribune in 2016, and is also gay, argued “Shaw is not the problem,” but his use of the slur “like it was another four-letter word—and not remember saying it after the game—is the problem.”18 Hine’s column speaks to the larger implications of Shaw’s actions. Players like Shaw use these slurs, according to Hine, because they are deeply rooted in the values and attitudes of professional hockey and eliminating them will take time and effort.19 Hine’s observation suggests that homophobia remains “ingrained” in the culture of the NHL and the use of slurs reinforces it. “You hear it in all sports and nobody has really thought twice about it and its impact,” he wrote in an email to Sports Illustrated reporter Joshua Kloke.20 Ironically, according to Kloke, the team had recently highlighted its partnership with You Can Play, which lobbies for equal and respectful treatment of all athletes without regard to sexual orientation.

Brian Kitts of the You Can Play project describes the efforts of the organization to promote fair treatment for all athletes, stressing skills, ability, and character, without stigmatizing players for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Kitts believed Shaw’s apology was important even though it would not eliminate homophobia from hockey because the player “may not know any LGBT people and maybe this isn’t an issue he’s ever even thought about. But he knows it’s important to fans, the Blackhawks and the League and he’ll think about it.”21 The article concluded by reaffirming the need for the league and team organizations to demand public apologies from players so that slurs like Shaw’s are no longer considered part of game. Shaw’s case illustrates the tension between those who dismiss outbursts like his as part of the game and those who want the NHL and other professional sports to reflect the efforts of the larger culture to be more inclusive. Shaw’s example also highlights how firmly fixed homophobia is in the discourse of the NHL and how apology may serve to move the sport in a different direction: one that recognizes how language serves to shape social attitudes.

Fan reaction to Shaw’s slur and subsequent apology and punishment also demonstrates how the shifting discourse of the NHL has affected fans. In Patrick Iverson’s article for SBNation reporting on Andrew Shaw’s suspension and fine, 25 readers posted comments.22 Analysis of these comments yielded three distinct themes: “Shaw’s punishment was justified” (twelve comments); “ ‘PC culture’ is destroying hockey” (8 comments); “Shaw’s slur is not the problem” (three comments). The majority of comments expressed condemnation of Shaw’s behavior and support for the NHL’s actions. Commenters used words like “justified,” “right,” and “consequences” when commenting on Shaw’s punishment in order to indicate their support of the league’s actions. Two commenters in this group were directly refuting comments that argued Shaw’s punishment and apology were an intrusion of “PC culture” (political correctness) ruining the league. Among the eight comments referencing PC culture, they shared the view that political correctness is a kind of fake restraint people have been coerced into observing by PC “police.” One of these commenters reasoned that “faggot” is no more a slur against gay people than “idiot” or “retard” is a slur harming the disabled. These comments are similar to ones defending Roy Hibbert. They assume that if a speaker does not intend to cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm their words cause. A few commenters also made similar arguments to the Hibbert commenters’ complaints that the league is really at fault. In Shaw’s case, it’s the NHL that doesn’t apply its rules and policies fairly. Sports fans in 2013 and 2016 responded in some similar ways, using rationalization and deflection, for example, but the biggest difference between comments from Hibbert’s 2013 incident and Shaw’s 2016 incident was the overwhelming agreement among Shaw commenters that his punishment was justified, and his apology was necessary. Very few of Hibbert’s commenters agreed with the NBA’s actions.

Social media also reacted to Shaw’s use of the slur. Chirp Fest Hockey, a popular account with over 30,000 followers, using the popular hashtag, #PottyMouth#Shaw, tweeted the video clip of Shaw shouting the slur and making a rude gesture.23 With 876 retweets and 1700 “likes,” this tweet circulated widely. Of the twenty-eight comments, most claimed again that Shaw was the victim of PC culture. Thirteen commenters complained about PC culture and characterized those condemning Shaw as “too sensitive” or “soft.” They defended using slurs as a legitimate way to get under the skin of an opponent or referee and affect their behavior. An almost equal number of comments did not directly address Shaw’s use of the slur but focused instead on his overall lack of good character or the Blackhawks’ tarnished reputation. These commenters referred to Shaw as a “bad sport,” “crybaby,” “class-less clown,” and “ugly bum” and criticized the Blackhawks as “losers” and “thugs.” One possible factor accounting for the differences in reactions on the sports website and Twitter is the larger audience and ability to spread messages on Twitter that draws reactions that are more diverse. However, the comments people made on Twitter that were intent on attacking Shaw personally reflect practices Twitter users refer to as “taking down” or “dragging,” in which users attack offenders through ridicule and personal attack. The effects of this practice are not clear, but it does seem to deflect attention away from the transgression and its remedy and refocus attention on the commenter’s sense of outrage. In some sense, the meanness of some Twitter posts makes it more difficult to determine if posters are authentic in condemning anti-LGBTQ+ language, just attention seeking, or some combination of both. In a different post on Twitter, Chris Hine wrote, “Shaw wanted to talk after his media session and he’s sincere in his apology and is saying that’s not the kind of guy he is. I appreciate that.”24 This tweet received over 600 likes and 300 retweets, so while Twitter may be a platform that specializes in personal attacks, it also gave Hine a forum to complicate and challenge claims people were making about Shaw’s character.

Former Professional Tennis Player Martina Navratilova

In December of 2018, tennis legend and out lesbian, Martina Navratilova, was asked by someone on Twitter for her opinion regarding transgender women competing in female sports competitions. Her response angered fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies:

Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard. For me it’s all about fairness … Which means taking every case individually … there is no cookie cutter way of doing things.25

Her response raised complex questions about how we view gender and how we should apply it to all aspects of life, including sports. Fairness has been a central theme in the discursive frame of professional women’s sports since women like Bille Jean King fought to form a professional women’s tennis league that wasn’t just an extension of or add on to the men’s league. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was formed as result of women like King protesting the lack of recognition and equality they experienced in professional tennis. The WTA website advertises its success in achieving equal prize money for men and women, along with greater visibility for women in the sport. Starting in the early 1980s, Navratilova benefitted from the efforts of the WTA, competing in tournaments like the U.S. Open, which had equal prize money for men and women. She has also supported the advancement of women and LGBTQ+ people in sports through her advocacy work.

The commitment of professional tennis to fairness can also be seen in the policies of the WTA and United States Tennis Association (USTA) that provide access for transgender athletes to compete in women’s tournaments. According to the policies of the WTA and USTA, transgender female athletes must have declared their gender identity to be female for four years and undergo hormonal treatment for sufficient length of time to minimize gender related advantages in the game.26 Given this context, it’s hard to imagine her involvement in the struggle over what “fairness” means when applied to the participation of transgender athletes. Both the institutional history of women’s tennis and Navratilova’s own personal history suggest an openness to including transgender women in the sport.

Transgender female athletes and their advocates were quick to respond to Navratilova’s tweet, demanding an apology and seeking to correct her ideas about fairness. Dr. Rachel McKinnon, a transgender activist, who won a women’s cycling competition at the UCI Masters Track World Championship in 2018, was one of the people who responded to Navratilova and demanded an apology:

Genitals do not play sports, she tweeted in response. What part of a penis is related to tennis? How does that “level” any playing field? For me, the issue is much bigger than a penis. What exactly makes a woman a woman? Is it the lack of a penis? The presence of a vagina? Is being a woman about anatomy? Is it about physiology? Biology? Is it a state of mind? If someone is a female trapped in a male body, does she not become an actual female until she undergoes complete gender reassignment?27

Navratilova subsequently deleted her tweet and apologized: “I am sorry if I said anything near transphobic – certainly I meant no harm. I will educate myself better on the issue but meantime I will be quiet about it.”28 One significant difference in this discursive struggle is that it is took place online, via social media. In the examples of Hibbert and Shaw, their controversies followed statements they made during or after a game. In Navratilova’s case, the online setting accelerated both the reaction to her statement and her apology. Many people on Twitter were satisfied with her quick and sincere apology and offered to educate her about the issue, sending her articles and other resources arguing for the inclusion of transgender athletes.

Later, in February of 2019, presumably after listening to advocates for transgender athletes, Navratilova wrote an editorial for The Sunday Times of London explaining her perspective on why transgender female athletes should not be allowed to compete as women. Athletes who “decide to be female cheat” by using the physical advantages accrued while living as men to compete against cis-gender women.29 Navratilova argued there was nothing keeping transgender female athletes from competing as women, winning everything, and then retiring and returning to their lives as men. Navratilova’s tone-deaf phrasing and the use of hyperbolic examples motivated many to question Navratilova’s commitment to fairness, as well as that of women’s tennis. In her apology, Navratilova promised to educate herself and reconsider what fairness means for women’s tennis. Should the discourse of women’s tennis be altered and redefine language about “fairness” to include giving access to transgender female athletes? Martina Navratilova seemed to be saying, “no,” in her editorial, and other voices in women’s tennis were mostly silent. The larger culture, however, seemed eager to debate what constituted fair treatment for transgender athletes.

Liz Roscher reported in Yahoo Sports that Navratilova was removed from the board of Athlete Ally, a LGBTQ+ advocacy group, after her editorial was published. Roscher did not condemn Navratilova but included quotes from the leadership of Athlete Ally and other advocates for transgender athletes. The article seemed to suggest that Navratilova’s position was not supported by the larger LGBTQ+ community, as well as the larger culture.30 While a 2016 poll sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign shows Americans are growing more supportive of transgender people, Navratilova’s position on transgender women in professional sports demonstrates how contested our notions of fairness are.31

Roscher’s article had forty-eight comments. Of the forty-eight commenters, only one supported the rights of transgender women to compete in women’s sports. Most of the comments fit into three themes: “Science supports Martina” (twenty-five comments); “the ‘anti-trans’ label is too often applied to people who disagree with the ‘trans agenda’ ” (fifteen comments), and “Martina is a legend/great athlete whose opinion should be valued” (eight comments). The majority of comments expressed agreement with Navratilova, citing what they took to be the irrefutable biological differences between men and women. Most commenters didn’t mention the conditions under which transgender athletes are allowed to compete, but two commenters stated that they didn’t feel transgender athletes taking hormones was enough to balance the playing field. The twenty-five commenters supporting Navratilova’s view expressed their certitude in their scientific knowledge about gender differences and what makes someone “trans.” The logic most of these commenters relied on was purely observational: i.e. because they have observed that men are stronger and faster than women are, they assume they always have an advantage in sports. Advocates for transgender athletes have argued that scientific data show that there is actually more human variation within gender categories than between them, and this fact has not destroyed competition. One commenter in support of Navratilova did acknowledge that the messages they receive about the “science” on gender and transgender athletes are confusing and contradictory. The commenter ended their post calling for more reliable facts.

Fifteen commenters representing the second biggest category of comments were supportive of Navratilova, making the point that the “anti-trans” label is used as a tool to silence or punish people who ask questions about or disagree with the “trans agenda.” These comments are very similar to those made by defenders of Hibbert and Shaw who claimed “PC” culture is ruining sports. In both cases, people object to the social pressures used to alter language but fail to acknowledge the connection between athletes’ words and the treatment of LGBTQ+ people. Eight comments also expressed varying levels of outrage that anyone would question the opinion of a legend like Navratilova. For these commenters, Navratilova’s achievements and reputation give her a kind of unquestioned authority. These commenters noted her work as an advocate for LGBTQ+ people and her well-known personal relationship with Renee Richards, the first transgender woman to compete in the 1976 U.S. Open.

Social media saw many of these same themes replicated. One popular conservative Twitter account, @Spikedonline, posted a story defending Navratilova and received 483 likes and 152 retweets.32 Comments fell into themes that were similar to the article on the sports website, including a large number of commenters criticizing transgender advocates for labeling differing points of view as “transphobic.” Many commenters also supported their position by pointing to what they took to be the scientific evidence supporting Navratilova’s conclusion that transgender women have an unfair advantage over cis-gendered women in sports. However, of the three studies cited by responders, only one appeared to be from a peer-reviewed journal. Nevertheless, articles offering various forms of “scientific proof” were linked in comments. As evidence, two commenters also posted pictures of transgender athletes to demonstrate their obvious physical advantage.

Even popular advocates for transgender people, like @TransActualUK, were overwhelmed by support for Navratilova’s point of view. They tweeted: “We’re pretty devastated to discover Martina Navratilova is transphobic. If trans women had an advantage in sports, why aren’t trans women winning gold medals left, right, and center? Coz trans women don’t have an advantage. Look up the changes that oestrogen makes to the body.”33 While this tweet received over 1000 likes and 223 retweets, the over 150 replies were almost all supportive of Navratilova’s position. These replies also closely followed the themes arguing science supports Navratilova’s position and transgender advocates alienate people by labeling anyone who disagrees with them “transphobic.” Some of the responses directly addressed the tweet’s observation that transgender women don’t have an unfair advantage because if they did, they would be winning all the competitions they enter. Several responders pointed to transgender athlete MacKinnon’s own career as an example of unfair advantage: a mediocre “male” athlete who achieved success competing as a female. Others reasoned that the physical advantage was unfair whether the individual succeeded or did not.

Overall, social media demonstrates both the larger culture’s interest in questions of fairness for transgender athletes and the extent to which the discourse of women’s sports has influenced attitudes towards fairness for transgender women. A more consequential effect of Navratilova’s words has been the way they have been used to justify unfair treatment of transgender people in other contexts. In Montana, for example, the conservative Montana Family Foundation cited Navratilova’s Sunday Times article while attempting to prevent the addition of LGBTQ+ protections to the state’s human rights laws. In a Tweet on February 22, 2019, S.K. Rossi, advocacy and policy director of the ACLU’s Montana branch, reported, “FYI @Martina’s comments were just used to oppose inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in Montana’s state Human Rights Act.” Replying to @S.K. Rossi, Navratilova tweeted, “Well that is just ridiculous—I was only speaking of professional athletic competition—certainly not HUMAN RIGHTS and EQUAL rights for transgender people. That is totally misrepresenting what I wrote/said.” 34

In March of 2019, Navratilova again apologized for her transgender “cheating” comments on her blog. She said she had “stumbled into a hornet’s nest” and been labeled transphobic after her twitter post. She said she was sorry for “suggesting that transgender athletes in general are cheats.” She also added there was no “perfect solution” to the issue and if “everyone were included, women’s sports as we know them would cease to exist.” She continued, “I know I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think there is a definitive answer here. That is why I want debate, a conversation that includes everyone and is based, as I have said, not on feeling or emotion but science, objectivity and the best interests of women’s sports as a whole.”35 Since this blog post, she has not made any public comments on the participation of transgender women in professional sports. Navratilova’s apologies have done little to repair her image among those who found her comments objectionable, but by apologizing, Navratilova acknowledged she had violated the standards for speech in professional women’s tennis and become something of a pawn in the hands of those seeking to subjugate LGBTQ+ people. On sports blogs and social media, the discourse surrounding Navratilova’s words and apologies further represents the struggle over values, beliefs, and perspectives. Like the other examples, some criticized Navratilova for reinforcing prejudice, while her defenders have viewed efforts to increase tolerance and inclusion as forms of cultural McCarthyism that take away the right to speak freely.

Apologies as Rhetorical Strategies Used to Change the Discursive Frame of Professional Sports

Studying the discourse of professional sports reveals how athletes’ language reinforces heteronormative dominance. While the words that prompted each apology varied, they shared a common effect: reasserting binary gender identity and heterosexual orientation (meaning, there are only two sexual orientations and genders) as the norm. The discourse of professional sports and the fan discourses it prompts have energized the struggle over what kind of attitudes, outlooks, mindset, and worldview should govern public and private life. The examples of Hibbert, Shaw, and Navratilova demonstrate how professional sports has become a kind of cultural proxy war over for how the larger culture should treat LGTBTQ+ people.

One theme that has dominated fans’ responses across all three examples is distain for political correctness. Fans responses suggest that athlete’s use of non-offense language is somehow too coded, cloaking their true positions and avoiding offending vocal minorities. The assumption they make is that the opposite of politically correct language is unvarnished truth-telling: telling it like it is. Few fans recognized, however, the possible consequences of athletes using careless language indifferent to the circumstances, attitudes and beliefs of others. Especially in Shaw’s case, it’s possible to see how such language promotes vulgarity, indecency, and incivility towards LGBTQ+ people. The essence of this position centers on fans’ resentment for having to suppress their prejudices. Their anger towards political correctness is also part of an older cultural tradition that distrusted people who spoke eloquently in public. In other words, eloquence isn’t a sign of intelligence but self-indulgence. The suspicion directed at the sensitive use of language can be traced back to ancient Greece when the sophists were criticized for going around Athens and training wealthy young men to become more skillful speakers so they could win votes or court cases. Analysis of fans’ comments shows that many would rather cheer for athletes who, despite their athletic prowess, resemble them in their careless use of speech in public.

While each example shows how the discourse of professional sports has sustained and reinforced the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people, the public apologies by these athletes also represent an intervention in that discourse, one that says the old ways of talking about LGBTQ+ people are no longer tolerated. In one sense, the discourse has been changed. Since Hibbert’s 2013 apology for using “no homo,” only one other athlete, Nikola Jokic, has been fined for using “no homo.” Since Shaw’s 2016 apology for using “fag” during a game, no other NHL player has been disciplined for using a homophobic slur. Since Navratilova’s apology for referring to transgender women in professional sports as “cheats” in 2018, no other star athletes have been accused of denigrating transgender athletes. Ultimately, apologies initiate ways for offenders to think and live differently. And yet it’s also clear that these apologies have not changed the reality for many LBGTQ+ persons who face discrimination every day. Should organizations and communities require apologies when the offenders aren’t motivated to do so? Ultimately, the power of the apology doesn’t rely solely on the sincerity of the person delivering it, but on the community which has demanded the apology as a public recognition that their standards have been violated. Eliminating words, symbols, and ideas that represent LGBTQ+ people as contemptible is only the beginning of a process of change and renewal for professional sports and the larger culture.


Anderson, Eric. “Assessing the Sociology of Sport: On Changing Masculinities and Homophobia Studies.” International Review for the Sociology of Sports. 50 no.4-5. (May 2015): 363-67. (

Benoit, William and S. Drew. “Appropriateness and Effectiveness of Image Repair Strategies.” Communication Reports Vol.10.2 (May 2009): 153-63. (

@Chirp_X_Fest (Chirp Fest Hockey). Video. Twitter post. April 19, 2016.

@ChristopherHine (Chris Hine). Twitter post. April 20, 2016, 1:00 p.m.

Cunningham, George B and Pickett, Andrew C. “Trans Prejudice in Sport: Differences from LGB Prejudice, the Influence of Gender and Change over Time.” Sex Roles. Vol.78. (February 2018): 220-27.

Cwik, Chris. “Martina Navratilova Deletes Tweet about Trans Athletes.” Yahoo Sports, December 21, 2018. (

Devine, Dan. “Roy Hibbert Fined $75,000 for Saying ‘No Homo’ Calling Media ‘Mother [Expletive]’ After Game 6.” Yahoo Sports, June 2, 2013. (

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Garrison, Drew, et al. “Roy Hibbert Fined $75,000 for Homophobic Comment.” SBNation, June 2, 2013. (

Gregory, Sean. “U.S. Ranks Worst in Sports Homophobia Study.” Time.Com, May 2015. (

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––––—“Andrew Shaw Apologizes, Says he Has ‘No Excuses’ for Using Homophobic Slur,” SecondCityHockey, April 20, 2016, (

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End Notes

  1. William Benoit and S. Drew, “Appropriateness and Effectiveness of Image Repair Strategies,” Communication Reports Vol. 10.2 (May 2009): 153-63. ↩︎

  2. Robin Lakoff, “Nine Ways of Looking at Apologies: The Necessity of Interdisciplinary Theory and Method in Discourse Analysis” in The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, eds. Deborah Tannen and Heidi Ehernberger Hamilton (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003): 199-214. ↩︎

  3. Lakoff, “Nine Ways of Looking at Apologies,” 201. ↩︎

  4. Eric Anderson, “Assessing the Sociology of Sport: On Changing Masculinities and Homophobia Studies,” International Review for the Sociology of Sports, 50 no.4-5. (May 2015): 363-67. ↩︎

  5. Sean Gregory, “U.S. Ranks Worst in Sports Homophobia Study,” Time.Com, (May 2015), (↩︎

  6. George B Cunningham and Andrew C. Pickett, “Trans Prejudice in Sport: Differences from LGB Prejudice, the Influence of Gender and Change over Time,” Sex Roles. Vol.78. (February 2018): 220-27. ↩︎

  7. Norman Fairclough, Discourse and Social Change (Cambridge, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1992), 12. ↩︎

  8. Dan Devine, “Roy Hibbert Fined $75,000 for Saying ‘No Homo’ Calling Media ‘Mother [Expletive]’ After Game 6.” Yahoo Sports, June 2, 2013. ( . Emphasis added. ↩︎

  9. “Statement from Hibbert.”, (June 2, 2013). ↩︎

  10. Drew Garrison, Keith Zimmerman, and Kurt Mensching, “Roy Hibbert Fined $75,000 for Homophobic Comment,” SB Nation, June 3, 2013, (↩︎

  11. NBA Retweet (@RTNBA), Twitter post, June 2, 2013. ↩︎

  12. Devine, “Roy Hibbert.” ↩︎

  13. Satchel Price, “Andrew Shaw Apologizes, Says he Has ‘No Excuses’ for Using Homophobic Slur,” SecondCityHockey, April 20, 2016, (↩︎

  14. Satchel Price, “Andrew Shaw Apologizes.” ↩︎

  15. Satchel Prince, “Andrew Shaw Apologizes.” ↩︎

  16. Satchel Price, “Andrew Shaw Got Caught on TV Using a Homophobic Slur in Penalty Box,” SecondCityHockey, April 20, 2016, (↩︎

  17. Satchel Prince, “Andrew Shaw Got Caught.” ↩︎

  18. Chris Hine, “Andrew Shaw’s Slur Sheds Light on Homophobia in Sports,”Chicago Tribune, April 20, 2016, (↩︎

  19. Chris Hine, “Andrew Shaw’s Slur.” ↩︎

  20. Joshua Kloke, “Andrew Shaw’s Gay Slur has Wider Implications,” Sports Illustrated, April 21, 2016, (↩︎

  21. Joshua Kloke, “Andrew Shaw.” ↩︎

  22. Patrick Iverson, “NHL Suspends Andrew Shaw One Game for Using Homophobic Slur,” SBNation, April 20, 2016, (%20https:/↩︎

  23. @Chirp_X_Fest (Chirp Fest Hockey). Video. Twitter post, April 19, 2016. ↩︎

  24. @ChristopherHine (Chris Hine), Twitter post, April 20, 2016, 1:00p.m. ↩︎

  25. Chris Cwik, “Martina Navratilova Deletes Tweet about Trans Athletes,” Yahoo Sports, December 21, 2018, (↩︎

  26. “WTA Gender Participation Policy,” WTA Tennis, December 2, 2016. (↩︎

  27. @rachelvmckinnon (Rachel McKinnon/Dr. Veronica Ivey), Twitter post, December 20.2018, 11:53 a.m. ↩︎

  28. Chris Cwik, “Martina Navratilova Deletes Tweet.” ↩︎

  29. Martina Navratilova, “The Rules on Trans Athletes Reward Cheats and Punish the Innocent,” The Sunday Times, February 17, 2019, (↩︎

  30. Liz Rocher, “LGBT Group Cuts Ties with Martina Navratilova over Anti-trans Comments,” Yahoo Sports, February 20 2019, (↩︎

  31. Human Rights Campaign, “New HRC Data Shows Dramatic Increase in Americans Who Know Transgender People,” March 31, 2016, (↩︎

  32. @spikedonline (spiked), Twitter post, February 21, 2019, 8:00 a.m ↩︎

  33. @TransActualUK (Trans Actual). Twitter post, February 16, 2019, 10:31 p.m. ↩︎

  34. @S_K_Rossi (SK Rossi), Twitter post, February 22, 2019, 9:32 a.m. ↩︎

  35. “Martina Navratilova Apologizes for Transgender ‘cheating’ Comments,” CNN Sports, March 4, 2019, (↩︎

About the Author: 

Matthew K. McCurrie is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches courses in writing, rhetoric, and literature. In addition to his interest in the rhetoric of apology, he also researches writing pedagogy and biblical and religious rhetoric.

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