Coverage of the responses to a bowl game sponsorship exemplifies how newspapers can stimulate relevant discussions
THIS IS pretty much the way this newspaper thing is supposed to work.
The Cavalier Daily published a story about an open letter The Serpentine Society sent to University President Teresa Sullivan ("LGBTQ organization protests bowl game," Jan. 19). The Society's letter expressed "great dismay" that the University's football team was participating in a bowl game associated with "Chick-fil-A, a company whose anti-LGBTQ record has been consistently noted over the years." The University responded with a letter that said, in part, "The administration, however, believes that its actions diminish neither the University's respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, nor its commitment to inclusivity and diversity … The University has a strong commitment to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, providing unwavering support, space and resources to create programs and raise awareness and inclusion of sexual and gender minorities at the University and among students, staff and faculty."
Readers posted more than a dozen responses to the story online. They were not all well-considered or polite or reasonable, but some were. Frankly, that discussion seemed much more rational and mature than the responses The Society's letter got on The Daily Progress website.
If you were unaware that Chick-fil-A's anti-LGBTQ record has been noted for years, you should not feel too bad. According to the website IMDB, actor Neil Patrick Harris won the Trevor Life Award in 2009 - an award that goes to an "individual who, through his or her example, support, volunteerism and/or occupation, is an inspiration to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning youth." Apparently he did not know about Chick-fil-A's reputation until fairly recently.
According to Metro Weekly, which describes itself as the news magazine for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, Harris tweeted in September about his excitement regarding a Chick-fil-A opening in Hollywood. He loved the food. After fans responded, Harris tweeted: "Didn't realize Chick-Fil-A was so opinionated, politically. I just thought their chicken tasted really good. #buzzkill."
It is doubtful, though not impossible, that this discussion of a bowl sponsor changed anyone's mind. But it may have prompted a few people to do a little research or to consider a different point of view. The story certainly gave more attention to The Serpentine Society's letter and the issues it raised than they would have received otherwise. That, of course, was the point.
It is difficult to believe The Serpentine Society really expected the University to pack up the Virginia football team and bring it home, particularly since the letter appears to have been distributed the day before the bowl game. It is difficult to believe that the Society really believed, as requested in its letter, that the University would give any bowl-generated money toward the effort to expand LGBTQ studies at the University. The Society members probably hoped for it, but did not expect it.
The Cavalier Daily article quoted Sean Kennedy, co-chairman of the Society, saying, "We don't begrudge the University's successes ... all we want from the president was acknowledgement that they support LGBTQ equality." But it is apparent from a letter Kennedy wrote in response to the University's response that he did not get all he had hoped for: "... not only does the University's prominent alignment with Chick-fil-A diminish 'respect' for the LGBTQ community, it very certainly betrays the University's commitment to inclusivity and diversity. But in this area, of course, the University has much work to do."
University spokeswoman Carol Wood, in the University's response to The Serpentine Society's initial letter, wrote that LGBTQ studies would not get any bowl money because the money was already spoken for. AccessUVa would get $50,000 from the bowl payout and another $50,000 from coach Mike London. "In addition," Wood wrote, "the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Chick-fil-A each gave $50,000 to fund a scholarship at the University for a student of need from Georgia. These gifts have the ability to benefit LGBT students in our community."
That did not impress Kennedy, who responded in another letter, "While our students might very well benefit from AccessUVa, we doubt they'd shine to scholarships funded by a company that actively denigrates their existence."
That is a reasonable way to look at it. On the other hand, it would be ironic if money from an anti-LGBTQ company helped pay for an LGBTQ student's education. The Society's letter apparently generated some money for LGBTQ studies. At least one person who responded online said he generally contributes to AccessUVa, but this year he plans to put that money toward LGBTQ studies instead.
A lot of issues get raised in this discussion: the definition of marriage; government's role in defining marriage; religion's role in government; the 14th Amendment; the University's approach to LGBTQ studies; the intersection of athletics, universities and corporate sponsorship. Maybe others occur to you.
And that is the part that worked. A discussion happened. I hope it is still happening. Instigating that sort of behavior is one thing newspapers are supposed to do.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.