By Connie Wardman
(From our January 2013 issue of Compete Magazine)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re almost sure to have seen it –THE KISS seen round the world! Together, the PBA and ESPN made unexpected history the end of December when they televised gay professional bowler Scott Norton and his husband, Craig Woodward embracing and kissing.
Three cheers for the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) for showing Scott and Craig kissing after Scott won the 2012 PBA Chameleon Championship, his second PBA Tour title. And it’s not just the kiss that’s groundbreaking. It’s also the fact that throughout the competition, the commentators made multiple respectful references to Craig as Scott’s husband or spouse. Scott revealed that when he won his first PBA championship in 2011, he and Craig were living together (they’ve been together for four years) and the PBA commentator kept referring to Craig as Scott’s “friend.” It wasn’t honest and for everyone who knew and loved them both, it made them uncomfortable. So Scott sat down with the PBA folks in charge once he knew he would be in this televised tournament. He asked them to afford the same courtesy to Craig that they would to the spouses of the other competitors. The fact that they agreed to it is a huge leap forward in equal treatment for the LGBT sports community. For an international organization to recognize LGBT athletes in the first place is important; and then to recognize their partners and spouses who are there to cheer on their loved ones with the same level of attention and respect they grant the partners and spouses of straight athletes is a real breakthrough.
We also want to thank ESPN. Although the event occurred in November in Las Vegas, ESPN didn’t broadcast the footage until December 30th, giving the sports network plenty of time to edit out their kiss and embrace as well as the husband/spouse references had they chosen to do so. After the show aired, there were some homophobic comments on the PBA’s Facebook page that ranged from name calling to saying that Norton shouldn’t win because he’s gay. But they were relatively innocuous and they certainly can’t diminish this amazing change in the way an international sports organization and a major sports network have chosen to present a gay athlete. They have shown Scott as a whole and real human being who is no different from any other competitor, and they have shown Scott and Craig as a loving married couple.
This is a huge step forward for the LGBT community because the sports world is really the last bastion of that illusionary vision of “manliness” where homophobia isn’t simply tolerated, it’s almost expected. Gay athletes have been required to be uncomfortable, to live a public lie so other people aren’t uncomfortable. Historically, gay pro or amateur athletes have either waited until after they’ve retired to come out or they didn’t come out at all. Scott made history by coming out in 2011 while still a working professional athlete. Here he is, breaking barriers again in 2012 – not through a campaign or protest of some kind but rather by living who he is openly. He is a regular human being just like everyone else and so is his husband, Craig. They both have jobs, they both have family and friends who love them and most importantly, they love each other and have chosen to spend the rest of their lives with one another. For most of us on the planet, it doesn’t get much better than that!
On one hand, this story is another example that gays most certainly can play at the highest levels of their chosen sports. On the other hand, it also provides a beautiful real-life example of a same-sex marriage in action. It demonstrates that LGBT couples can have the same need for love and support from their partners as straight couples.
If you don’t already know Scott Norton, allow me to introduce him to you. His engaging personality and easy going manner at first disguise the fact that in addition to being a great competitor, Scott is also a serious game-changer for the LGBT sports community. We first interviewed him in 2011 after he was named the PBA’s 2010-11 Rookie of the Year. Following that announcement, on May 19, 2011 the PBA ran Scott’s “official” coming out statement on their website. In it, he declared his support for gay athletes and revealed his own sexual orientation. He wrote that “It is extremely important for me to come out to show other gay athletes, both current and future, that it is important to come out to show that we are just like everyone else. It’s important to show people that being gay has nothing to do with one’s ability to do anything as a man, least of all compete at the highest level of sports.” He continued to say that “Being gay doesn’t define who I am as a person or as a professional athlete. I’m also a professional bowler, lawyer, caring, compassionate, strong, and many other things.” We were all very impressed with Scott. In fact, the judges for our first Compete Sports Media Diversity Awards in 2011 selected him as the winner of our Emerging Athlete Award. We believed then and now that they made a great decision since that award is presented to a gay athlete who is emerging as a serious contender in his or her chosen sport, whose continuing athletic development indicates a rising star.
While he didn’t officially come out as a gay man until 2011, Scott has never hidden his sexual orientation and fortunately, for the most part he’s not been faced with an overwhelming amount of discrimination over the years. At the time, we discussed how amazed we all were at how little flack he received from the bowling community. It even surprised Scott since he says he had always viewed bowling as a blue-collar pastime – he really expected many bowlers to be offended or angry. But thanks to his mother, Scott has been part of the bowling community since he was in utero … really!
He is the son of legendary bowler Virginia Norton, holder of eight professional titles and a member of the Halls of Fame of the U.S. Bowling Congress, the PBA, the State of California, Los Angeles County and Orange County. Coached by his mother, Scott knew by age four that he wanted to be a professional bowler. Under Virginia’s coaching, at age 18 he won 21 amateur bowling titles, a gold medal at the Junior World Amateur Championships and, as captain of the adult team, Scott won the Adult National Amateur Championship, the youngest person ever to win it. Perhaps the reason he is so well accepted by the bowling community is because people have known and loved him from the time he was old enough to hold a bowling ball. Once you’ve met someone as a person and decided to like them, discovering that person is gay isn’t such a big deal anymore. In 2008 Scott realized his childhood dream when he joined the PBA as a professional bowler.
By the time we met him in 2011, Scott had already won four PBA Regional titles, won his first PBA Tour Chameleon Championship, been named Rookie of the Year and come out as the organization’s only gay professional bowler. As if this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, along the way Scott (also known on the tour as “the Counselor) earned a law degree from the University of California-Hastings College of Law. In 2009 he passed the California Bar Exam on the first try (an event he says was the worst experience of his life) and opened his own law practice. And on the personal front, he and Craig, an executive with United Healthcare, were already living together and planning a wedding on October 22, 2011 in Laguna Beach, California.
Following their wedding, Scott embarked on the 2011-2012 bowling tours and had a disappointing season. As we talked about his emotional response to winning this recent Chameleon Championship, he said that winning is a drug – even worse than a drug. From a win standpoint, it had been so long since he had been in the winner’s circle that it was a flood of pent-up emotions when he won this title. Following his poor showing last season, he and Virginia worked hard on several things that needed improvement. Clearly, that coaching paid off. To get to this final, Scott defeated PBA Hall of Famer and all-time titles leader Walter Ray Williams Jr. in the semifinal match.
Then in this finals tournament, Scott won his first match against Fawaz Abdulla from Bahrain, the first bowler from the Middle East to make a PBA finals telecast. In the final match Scott played against Jason Belmonte of Australia. As the 2011-12 Player of the Year and five-time tour winner, Belmonte was a tough competitor. They were tied and Scott needed a strike to win. You could hear the crowd noise quickly elevate as pin-after-pin fell. As they announced that Scott was the winner and presented him with the trophy, he pulled a sticker from his jersey with TR on it and placed it on the trophy. Many of the people in attendance were also wearing the same sticker which Scott explained was to honor Tony Reyes, a dear friend to many in the bowling world who died unexpectedly a month ago.
Then as the win began to sink in, Scott began to cry. Craig joined him and they embraced and kissed just like any other married couple would do in such a magical moment. As the pictures of them went viral, the rest, as they say, is history. It’s been carried on “yahoo.com,” “Huffington Post” and “afterelton.com,” to name just a few. There is a new Facebook fan page for Scott – https://www.facebook.com/ScottNortonBowling and another page dedicated to getting him on the Ellen DeGeneres show – https://www.facebook.com/GetScottOnEllen. The latter has two clips from The Huff Post Live where you can listen to Scott talk about all this unexpected attention.
In case you’re not involved in bowling and think this is only a big deal to Scott Norton and his family and friends, that thought is incorrect. Bowling is huge. A favorite sport of many athletes (yes, we count it as a sport), it also draws lots of retired pro players from many sports, especially those with lots of wear and tear on their bodies. In fact it was just announced that tennis icon Billie Jean King has become the first woman owner of a Professional Bowlers Association League team. In an announcement by PBA Commissioner Tom Clark, he said that King “joins Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul, former Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champion running back Jerome Bettis, former NFL all-pro receiver Terrell Owens, actor/comedian Kevin Hart, comedian Chris Hardwick, and Pittsburgh Steelers all-pro linebacker LaMarr Woodley as owners in the ESPN-televised PBA League which debuts as part of the PBA Detroit Winter Swing Jan. 19-27 at Thunderbowl Lanes in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park, Mich.”
So in spite of people all over the globe seeing a genuinely tender moment between loving same-sex spouses, I’m happy to report that the world hasn’t come to an end as predicted by many. Scott will continue to compete and to attend to his law practice during the off-season. And Scott and Craig will continue to grow as a couple. Celebrating their first anniversary this past October, they purchased a home and are now living there with their two cats. The future looks bright for them as a couple and for the LGBT community as this latest segment of our population finally gets treated with the equality and dignity that its members so richly deserve.
Things will never be the same again – not for Scott and Craig and not for the LGBT sports community. How exciting to live through a moment that you know has forever changed gay sports. But thank goodness Scott has a great sense of humor and an ability to take it all in stride. Just take a look at the Facebook post comparing his serious “game face” to the now famous grumpy cat. One of the biggest changes in his life? After spending years being known as “Virginia Norton’s son,” the tables have now turned – people now ask Virginia if she is Scott Norton’s mother.
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