Craig James's Views on Homosexuality Shouldn't Cost Him a Fox Sports Job

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Like so many Americans of my generation, the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in this country strikes me as a wonderful, long-overdue advance in moral sense. I've supported equal marriage rights in print since the first time I conceived of the idea, thanks to Andrew Sullivan's eloquent advocacy. How joyful it has been to read his essays and blog posts, along with others by Jonathan Rauch and Dan Savage, to believe in the moral rightness of their cause, and then to see their victory enable so many ecstatic couples to join together. 

The arguments against gay marriage have never persuaded me. Christianity's insistence on treating homosexuality as a sin strikes me as a tragic, historic mistake. When I read that college-football analyst Craig James, formerly an SMU player, believes homosexuality is "a choice," that homosexuals will "have to answer to the Lord for their actions," and that even civil unions ought to be opposed, all positions he took during a 2012 U.S. Senate run, I couldn't disagree more. My belief is that homosexuality is both natural and inborn; that God, in whom I believe, looks upon gays and lesbians no more or less favorably than heterosexuals; and that opposing even civil unions is a morally objectionable position.

Despite strongly disagreeing with James's political and moral judgments, I want to go on record expressing my dismay at press reports that Fox Sports Southwest has withdrawn a job offer after discovering his remarks, even after a higher-up said of him, "He’s a talented broadcaster who I’ve admired throughout his career. His knowledge of college football and the experience he brings as an analyst will be a tremendous asset to our coverage."

Twenty years ago, when gay equality was an outlying position and prejudice against gays was the norm, I would've regarded it as imprudent and unjust to fire a college football analyst because he favored gay marriage or declared homosexuality not sinful. Today, I am every bit as convinced that it's imprudent and unjust to fire someone for calling gay marriage unwise and homosexuality sinful. These aren't remarks that he made on air, while doing his job.

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A network would be justified in firing a sports broadcaster for expressing controversial moral or political views during an entertainment telecast that had nothing to do with the subject. But to not hire someone for prior remarks made amid civic debate, and that are indistinguishable from the position taken by almost half of all Americans at the time?

That action strengthens a suboptimal norm, even if Fox Sports is acting within its legal rights.

America is always going to be a diverse country that encompasses people with very different political views and moral values. In order to get along, despite our differences, it is useful to debate divisive issues openly through the civic process, and to establish spheres where what divides us is set aside as irrelevant. Fox Sports's actions undermine society's ability to do both things.

It isn't always easy to decide how to separate political and religious disagreement from other spheres of life.

The guests at my wedding almost certainly included both supporters and opponents of gay marriage. Had a debate on the subject erupted at one of the dinner tables, I'd have thought, "This isn't the right place to argue politics." At the same time, my wife and I wanted to include, as one of our readings, the opinion from Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in part to celebrate an understanding of marriage we could fully share with our gay friends.

A recurring sports broadcast is far easier to navigate. It would be fantastically easy to analyze college football and to never pronounce upon the prudence of society embracing civil unions or whether homosexuality is or isn't sinful. 

Some advocates of gay equality would like to stigmatize opposition to gay marriage and the judgment that homosexuality is sinful by shunning from polite society anyone who expresses such positions. Doing so would be intolerant, unnecessary, and counterproductive: Robust, open public discourse about homosexuality has brought about steady gains for proponents of gay equality. All the generational data we have suggests that trend will continue, but a campaign by the victors to stigmatize the defeated could bring about a backlash. 

And while I sympathize with everyone who laments all the damage that has been done throughout history by the Old Testament notion that homosexuality is sinful, I'd argue that today, that view itself isn't actually particularly important.

Religious believers regard all sorts of things as sinful. If pressed, some of my closest friends and family members from my Catholic upbringing would acknowledge that, when my wife and I lived together before marriage, they regarded that as a sin; when I spend a Sunday afternoon writing blog posts, they regard that as a sin too. I don't agree with them, but they're very smart people. I could be wrong. There are all sorts of ways in which they think I need saving. Indeed, their faith teaches them that all of us are fallen sinners who need saving. 

I object when some American religious believers discriminate against gays and lesbians by treating homosexuality as if it's a sin worthy of a special kind of opprobrium and condemnation. They're willing to dismiss large parts of the Old Testament, but not the parts about homosexuality. They treat boycotting a gay wedding as if their faith compels it, but don't think twice about attending the nuptials of serial divorcees. But the problem isn't that they think of homosexuality as a sin. It's what comes after that. Someone who thinks gays and lesbians sin when they have sex, or that the law shouldn't recognize their unions, hasn't done anything that ought to be cause for being fired or shamed. If, in contrast, Craig James had said, "Homosexuality is a sin, and I'd never vote to give a gay athlete the Heisman Trophy, or player of the game honors, because to do so would elevate a sinner," that would be grounds to refrain from hiring him.

But I'm a bit perplexed by the people who are celebrating his firing under the present circumstances. There are millions of Americans who think homosexuality is a sin. Is the implication that if any of them dare express that view out loud, they ought to be unemployable? If not, why should James be denied this job? What profession is farther removed from the controversy than college-football analysis, which entails watching, dissecting, and describing on-field plays?

I don't have all the answers about civil society and the spheres it encompasses. But this seems like an easy case, and I don't blame religious believers for seeing a troubling signal that their ability to espouse their political and religious beliefs is being constrained by folks who'd like to see their livelihoods taken away if they express politically incorrect thoughts. As much as I disagree with James' particular thoughts, I prefer to live in a country where the consequences of expressing them is a persuasive rebuttal, not an effort to stigmatize and coerce. For those saying that Fox Sports should have known about these statements before hiring him, do we really want a country where employment is predicated on an investigation of one's political and religious beliefs to make sure that, on matters totally unrelated to the job, you've never said anything deemed unacceptable? In that sort of society, the weak and marginalized, whose views are generally least protected, would be hardest hit, and we would all be hurt.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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