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Coach's anti-gay comments an 'embarrassment' but not fireable offense

By Chris Welch, CNN
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Huskers assistant coach voiced opposition to a city anti-discrimination policy amendment
  • The amendment would have extended protection based on sexual identity
  • That's basically what the policy at University of Nebraska does
  • UNL's chancellor called his remarks "an embarrassment" but not a violation

Lincoln, Nebraska (CNN) -- When University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant football coach Ron Brown stood in front of the Omaha City Council in March to speak against a proposal to protect sexual identity, he was merely exercising his right as a private citizen, he would later say.

It came as no surprise that Brown, an outspoken born-again Christian and a preacher, believes that homosexuality is a sin. But his passionate opposition to the proposed amendment to the city's anti-discrimination policy raised questions as to whether Brown was really speaking as a citizen.

After all, the university's own anti-discrimination policy does just what Brown spoke against: It protects students and staff from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Adding to the confusion, when addressing the council, Brown gave his address as "One Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska," home turf of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

"The question that I have for you all is, like Pontius Pilate, what are you going to do with Jesus?" Brown asked the council. "You will be held to great accountability for the decision that you make. And so, like Pontius Pilate, who didn't -- who kind of waffled around -- he wasn't sure. He knew what to do, I think. But he let political correctedness (sic) shape his thinking."

The measure passed anyway, by a 4-3 vote. Brown's comments triggered national media attention and calls for his dismissal.

This week, all eyes were on Lincoln, Nebraska, where the City Council held a public hearing on a similar change to its anti-discrimination policy. Many expected Brown to show up at Monday's hearing, particularly because this time the vote would be in his own backyard.

But that didn't happen. Instead, Brown penned a letter published in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper a day before the hearing. It stated his support of UNL's anti-discrimination policy, despite his personal beliefs.

"I have and will embrace every player I coach, gay or straight ... but I won't embrace a legal policy that supports a lifestyle that God calls sin," he wrote.

Brown told the newspaper he stayed away from Monday's hearing to avoid media attention being diverted from the issues and toward him.

CNN's repeated attempts to reach Brown for comment went unanswered, and an athletic department spokesman said he would not be commenting further.

It's unclear how much pressure the University of Nebraska has put on Brown to keep quiet after the uproar over his public comments in March. In an interview with CNN, UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman acknowledged that Brown's views are in stark contrast to the university's anti-discrimination policy. He said he has spoken to the coach, telling him to be clear when he speaks publicly that he's not doing so on behalf of the school.

Perlman said he "absolutely" understands why a gay football player would feel uncomfortable playing on the team now. Brown's comments, according to Perlman, brought a "certain level of embarrassment" to the school, and more than 2,500 people have signed an online petition calling for him to be fired.

But the chancellor said that just because Brown has an opinion that differs from the university's is not grounds for dismissal. The coach merely exercised his right to free speech, Perlman said.

"If I thought he was discriminating against a football player or anybody else on the basis of sexual orientation, that would violate university policy and would be grounds for some remedy," Perlman said. "But I have no evidence that he's done that."

Brett Major, center, with his parents, is a gay Christian Nebraska fan who once revered Brown.
Brett Major, center, with his parents, is a gay Christian Nebraska fan who once revered Brown.

One of Brown's biggest fans over the years was Brett Major, who was born and raised in Omaha and, like most Nebraskans, bleeds Husker red.

Major, an active member of the Christian faith who is also gay, credits Brown with helping strengthen his relationship with Jesus Christ.

"I was in middle school (and) my dad invited him to come speak at our church," said Major, now a first year master's student at Wake Forest University. "He's a very engaging, dynamic speaker. It's hard not to like him when you hear him speak."

But his reverence for Brown changed when he heard what the longtime Huskers coach said to the Omaha City Council.

If I thought he was discriminating ... on the basis of sexual orientation, that would violate university policy. But I have no evidence that he's done that.
Harvey Perlman, chancellor, University of Nebraska Lincoln

"It doesn't bother me that he thinks homosexuality is a sin and all that ... I hear people say that all the time," Major said. He heard Brown express his position against homosexuality in 1999 on a Christian radio program, triggering outrage from the American Civil Liberties Union, which threatened a lawsuit.

Brown's comments in Omaha went beyond his opposition to homosexuality, according to Major.

"I don't agree that along with that he should be preventing any group of people from getting jobs that they deserve and to allow them to be fired from jobs," Major said. "That's not what the Bible teaches."

Major said the worst part is that Brown's comments make it even more difficult for LGBT athletes to feel comfortable living their lives openly.

"There's a whole community of LGBT athletes out there that are playing for the teams that we know and love across the country," Major said. "It's about those athletes and creating an environment in NCAA athletics that they feel comfortable in."

Major and his parents, who are both Nebraska graduates, wrote a letter to the university saying they believe "more should have been said" by university officials to make it abundantly clear that discrimination against LGBT individuals has no place at Nebraska.

Although Brett Major wrote that the University of Nebraska needs to "take a stand against Ron Brown," neither he nor his parents called for Brown's firing. In fact, Major believes the university has a unique opportunity to turn the negative situation into a positive one by "publicly show(ing) some support, acceptance and advocacy for one of the most marginalized groups in our culture."

"I want gay and lesbian athletes to know that we love it when they score a touchdown ... and I want them to know that we hate it when they fumble -- just like everyone else," Major said.

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