In a statement released on Friday, the Portland Trail Blazers as an organization waded into mostly uncharted territory for a major sports team by declaring support for the Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection ballot initiative in Oregon. The initiative, which will require 116,284 signatures to make it on the ballot in November 2014, would amend the state constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry while also protecting the right of clergy and religious institutions to refuse to perform marriages that conflict with their views.
“We know that we have a really unique position to shine a bright light on an issue like this that is probably not completely traditional in professional sports today,” said Trail Blazers Vice President of Community Relations Traci Rose.
Oregon’s constitution, by way of a ballot initiative passed in 2004, currently defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman.
The Trail Blazers joined the Timbers and Thorns, along with many other Portland businesses, in throwing their support behind the initiative. It is believed the Trail Blazers are the first team of the four major leagues in the United States to take an explicit stance on same-sex marriage.
“We knew it might not be everyone’s opinion but we knew, from a business standpoint, that it was the right thing to do,” said Rose. “It was really cool to have it be able to come all together at the same time the Timbers and Thorns were getting behind it. There was no concerted effort for us to do it hand-in-hand but shoot, it sure made an impact. Obviously Oregon United For Marriage was thrilled to have both sports take a position and then to end up hearing that Oregon was the first state to have professional sports team get behind an issue like this was great.”
The team knew the endorsement of the ballot initiative might be controversial, as there are few issues more hot-button in the United States, but in the end, Rose said the decision was a rather easy one.
“We have such a tremendous privilege and responsibility for who we are,” said Rose. “I said it this weekend, the Timbers and the Trail Blazers bring national attention to things easily because of who we are and what we do. And even though we’re not doing it politically, it’s not like we haven’t stopped for a second and thought about who are our customers and who are our fans. At the end of the day, in this particular case, it doesn’t matter. What we’re saying is we get behind equality, period. And why wouldn’t we? It shouldn’t be over-thought, it’s just about human compassion for one another.”
According to Rose, endorsing the ballot initiative was a logical extension of the team’s “Respect, Pass It On.” campaign, which focused on putting an end to bullying by raising awareness.
“We’ve been working with Basic Rights Oregon for years,” said Rose. “They’re actually one of the first groups that came to us and helped inspire us to head into the “Respect” campaign. They came and talked to us about the issues that LGBTQ students were facing in school, so when we were building the “Respect” campaign they were really one of the first groups that inspired us to try and figure out how we can be the conversation-starter for people to start talking about the affects of bullying and individual choices and just respecting individuals for who they are.”
Vulcan Inc., the company that oversees all of Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen’s business and charitable endeavors, was one of the most prominent organizations to support Washington state’s same-sex marriage law approved by voters in 2012. Rose said knowing that same-sex equality was something that was already supported by “our owner on down” so the Trail Blazers’ involvement with Oregon’s ballot initiative brings the team in line with other Vulcan companies. Rose said several Trail Blazers executives are supporting the initiative personally and that the response internally has been overwhelmingly positive.
It is yet to be seen what impact the Trail Blazers endorsement will have on the initiative should it qualify for the ballot in 2014 or if there will be significant backlash from their fans, but none of that really factored into the organization’s decision. It came down to the team doing what they felt was right, regardless of the repercussions.
“We’re not asking anyone to change their lifestyle,” said Rose. “We’re just saying this, to us, is right.”