Bill Kennedy is one of the most accomplished referees in the NBA, having officiated over 1,000 games across 18 seasons.
Two weeks ago, Kennedy was on the receiving end of a truly ugly rant from a player who disagreed with a call.
After Kennedy ejected Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo from the game, Rondo wheeled on the ref and unleashed a torrent of anti-gay slurs, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
"In the game officials’ report used as part of the NBA's investigation — which includes details provided to Yahoo Sports from National Basketball Referee's Association general counsel Lee Seham — Kennedy and fellow referee Ben Taylor described Rondo's post-ejection diatribe as including the statements: "You're a mother------- faggot. … You're a f------ faggot, Billy."
Instead of quietly letting Rondo's outburst blow over, however, Kennedy issued a bold statement: He came out of the closet.
Yes, Kennedy told Yahoo! Sports. I am gay. I'm proud of it. And that matters.
"'I am proud to be an NBA referee and I am proud to be a gay man,' Kennedy told Yahoo Sports on Sunday night. 'I am following in the footsteps of others who have self-identified in the hopes that will send a message to young men and women in sports that you must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are.'"
In a time of amazing gains for LGBTQ Americans, professional sports is one of the few remaining areas where equality is still lagging.
Considering how slow progress has been toward LGBTQ equality and visibility in American pro sports, Kennedy's defiance is remarkable and courageous. According to OutSports, Kennedy is only the third referee employed by any of the major U.S. sports leagues — baseball, basketball, football, and hockey — to come out of the closet.
Gay bashing is still an all too common occurrence in the locker room and on the field. As a result, only one male professional athlete in any of the four major league U.S. sports — Jason Collins — has come out publicly while on an active roster.
Things are changing for the better — but slowly.
Some professional sports franchises have taken baby steps toward ending the culture of homophobia in sports. Some have begun sponsoring LGBTQ events, despite fan backlash. Others have taken more symbolic steps, like featuring gay couples on the "kiss cam," and putting an end to stadium traditions that cast LGBTQ relationships as punch lines.
It's progress. But we're not there yet.
That's why Kennedy's impassioned response is so important.
The more players, referees, general managers, and owners come out, the harder it will be for even the most resistant athletes to view comments like Rondo's as acceptable. And more young LGBTQ people will feel empowered to become involved in sports and reshape the culture from the ground up.
As Kennedy so eloquently put it:
"You must allow no one to make you feel ashamed of who you are."