Interview: Lions’ receiver Marco Iannuzzi teams up with You Can Play to fight homophobia

The discussion of homophobia in sports has taken huge leaps thanks to You Can Play, and it's great to see the renowned organization doing an event that includes a CFL player. B.C. Lions' receiver Marco Iannuzzi, who just signed a contract extension with the team, has agreed to moderate a You Can Play event in Burnaby, B.C. on March 28. The free event will feature athletes Scott Heggart (hockey), Angela Hucles (soccer) and Jordan Goldwarg (skiing) talking about homophobia in sports and their experiences coming out. Iannuzzi is straight, but in an interview with 55-Yard Line Wednesday, he said he was eager to take part in the event to try and reduce homophobia in the sports world.

"I thought it was a great event," Iannuzzi said.

He said he doesn't expect people's opinions to dramatically swing as the result of a single event like this, but he thinks the work of organizations like You Can Play can reduce the stigma some attach to gay athletes, and he's optimistic events like this can help people realize the issues around homophobia in sports.

"It's not a binary switch," Iannuzzi said. "You've got to start somewhere."

The numbers of outwardly homophobic comments in sports have taken a downturn recently thanks to groups like You Can Play, but Iannuzzi said the sports world still isn't an easy place for openly gay athletes to enter. In fact, he said he's never seen a teammate at any level identify himself as gay.

"I've been playing football for about 17 years," Iannuzzi said. "I can't think of a situation where someone came out as gay."

Iannuzzi said that speaks to the pressures that still exist in pro sports. The CFL's shown some progress on that front, with players like the Argos' Mike Bradwell and Joe Eppelle telling Xtra they'd welcome a gay teammate and the Stampeders' Jon Cornish openly talking about his mother's lesbian relationship, but that hasn't yet translated into a CFL player coming out publicly. Iannuzzi said he'd like to see more athletes take a clear stand that homophobia's unacceptable and that all orientations will be welcome in locker rooms. He said the issue often isn't on players' radars, though. For example, he hadn't heard about the comments from Bradwell, Eppelle and Cornish before doing some research in preparation for this forum. Iannuzzi said he's optimistic his participation in this event will help boost the profile of anti-homophobia efforts in the CFL.

"It should bring some more attention," he said.

Iannuzzi said he can't speak to exactly how an openly gay player would be received by the B.C. locker room, but his own experience with that room was extremely positive, which has him optimistic.

"When I joined the Lions' locker room, it felt very familiar to me," he said. "The group of guys just felt like there was no cliques. You could talk to anyone about everything."

He said that positive feeling about the organization was a key figure in his decision to sign a new deal with the Lions.

"The B.C. Lions have been my family since Day One," he said. "The whole organization has a real sense of pride."

Iannuzzi said football is such a team sport that it's crucial for players in a locker room to be close.

"When you're playing a team sport, the concept of winning stems from the concept of team," he said. "You'd do anything for the guy next to you."

Iannuzzi said he thinks that sense of family could absolutely extend to openly-gay CFL players, something that fits right in with his beliefs.

"I grew up with the mentality that you should respect everyone's rights," he said.

However, Iannuzzi's quite aware that significant challenges for gay athletes remain, and that it's not always easy to publicly come out of the closet. He doesn't claim to have all the solutions. In fact, he said one of the key reasons he wants to be part of this forum is to hear from the gay athletes present about their experiences and what might make it easier for others to follow in their footsteps.

"I'm going to be having a conversation from my side of the fence, which is ignorant and blind," he said.

Iannuzzi said the forum's goal isn't to lecture, but to provide information for those in attendance that can hopefully bring awareness to You Can Play's efforts and reduce the prevelance of homophobia in sports.

"I hope they can learn from it."

The Burnaby event will be held at Michael J. Fox Theatre at 7 p.m. at 7 p.m. on March 28. Tickets are free, but seating is limited, so RSVP to if you'd like to attend. More info on You Can Play can be found on their website.