Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Plight of Gay Athletes in Pro Sports

Scott GyurinaCorrespondent IAugust 4, 2010

4 Apr 2001:  Mark Blount #30 of the Boston Celtics tries to pass the ball as he is guarded by John Amaechi #13 of the Orlando Magic at TD Waterhouse Centre in Orlando, Florida. The Magic defeated the Celtics 108-101.   NOTE TO USER: It is expressly understood that the only rights Allsport are offering to license in this Photograph are one-time, non-exclusive editorial rights. No advertising or commercial uses of any kind may be made of Allsport photos. User acknowledges that it is aware that Allsport is an editorial sports agency and that NO RELEASES OF ANY TYPE ARE OBTAINED from the subjects contained in the photographs.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons  /Allsport
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In many ways, the modern world of professional sports offers a glimpse of diversity, often unseen in other facets of life. Participants in a variety of athletic endeavors hail from many far-flung reaches of the planet, as globalization and technological advancement have improved the ability to scout and train athletes from around the world.

Of course, not everyone is supportive of such diversity, as xenophobia and racism are still issues that rear their ugly heads at times in the sporting world. For the most part though, sports fans accept athletes for who they are, regardless of their heritage; the primary concerns being performance and results.

Unfortunately, the same luxury is not afforded to homosexual athletes.

For all the publicity given to racial equality and ethnic diversity in sports, even specific high-profile campaigns designed to stamp out racism, there still remains an invisible barrier for gay athletes.

Sure, there have occasionally been openly gay participants in particular sports, such as former world champion diver and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, or former tennis stars Billie Jean-King and Martina Navratilova, but they are an extreme rarity in the highest profile, mainstream sports world.

Womens' athletics have been far more accepting of gay players in their midst than their male counterparts have thus far. The WNBA, women's tennis, soccer, golf, and other various sports have counted numerous lesbian athletes among their ranks.

The male-dominated upper echelons of popular sports; baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and hockey have thus far been highly reluctant to accept the fact that there are indeed gay athletes among them.

A very exclusive group of athletes in the mainstream athletic world have come out after their playing days were over, unburdening themselves after a career shrouded in secrecy and denial.

Former NBA center, John Amaechi, disclosed the truth about his sexual orientation in 2007, becoming the first and only openly gay NBA player known to the sporting public.

In the NFL, the first man to break the barrier was David Kopay, a running back from 1964-1972. He admitted to the world that he had been hiding his sexuality through a 1977 autobiography. Since then, only a couple other NFL players have acknowledged their homosexuality openly, but still, it has been after their careers were over.

Interestingly, Major League Baseball, an organization rooted in long-standing tradition, widely considered old-fashioned and reluctant to embrace change, was the first of the mainstream sports leagues to include an acknowledged gay player during his active career.

During the late 1970's, Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics, made it known discretely to teammates that he was gay, although the public didn't hear his story until after his career ended.

Playing from 1976-1979, Burke alleged that he suffered various degrees of injustice at the hands of fellow players and management throughout the course of his career, eventually resulting in his retirement from the game he loved. A few years later, in a 1982 Inside Sports article, Glenn disclosed the nature of his sexuality to the sporting public.

Top levels of European football, or soccer, as we know it in the United States, still have only one player known to have declared his homosexuality publicly.

Justin Fashanu, a veteran with nearly 20 years as a professional, admitted in a 1990 edition of The Sun, that he was in fact, gay. Fashanu also intimated that his admission was met with harsh resistance in many quarters of the footballing world. Sadly, after legal issues stemming from allegations of sexual assault, Fashanu ended his own life at the age of 37.

It is certainly understandable why more athletes are reluctant to come forth regarding their sexuality. The acknowledgement could be a death-blow to their career and livelihood, making their lives considerably more difficult when they previously led a comfortable existence, quietly living their life, while concealing the nature of their sexuality. I cannot say that I would want to take that drastic step if I were in their shoes.

In performing research for this piece, I looked into quite a bit of commentary from many perspectives regarding the issue. Seemingly, much of the concern over homosexuality in sports focuses on locker room discomfort. Contrary to ill-informed popular fears, gay people are not sexually attracted to everyone of the same sex or just waiting for that opportunity to pounce and turn their straight counterparts into homosexuals.

That's not how things work.

According to comments from LeBron James, the issue is primarily one of trust, as he stated, "with teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates—we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."

One can understand the need to trust one's teammates, but it still remains to be seen whether men's sports can be as open and accepting, as some of their players have professed to be. I have no reason to doubt LeBron, but I do wonder if it came down to it, if "trust" is honestly the most significant factor determining how he would feel about a gay teammate.

What LeBron and other athletes like him seem to fail to realize, is that a lot of the issue stems from their own insecurities and the culture of the sports world applies pressure to gay athletes in a way they cannot understand. To view someone as "untrustworthy" for hiding their sexuality in culture that actively oppresses it, misses the point entirely. If someone as high profile as LeBron were to actively acknowledge and support a gay teammate, it could do wonders to transform the culture of the locker room, enabling such players to simply be who they are, without the fear of someday being discovered.

Aside from misplaced fears that a gay teammate may see them in the shower, it is difficult to perceive where the actual issue lies. Honestly, I never needed to know intimate details of my former teammates' sex lives, whatever their sexual persuasion may have been. Nothing about homosexuality precludes one from athletic prowess or the ability to be a quality team member.

The opportunity exists for a pioneering gay athlete to lead the charge for his homosexual brethren and "come out of the closet" during his active sporting career. It will likely take a special individual, endowed with a particular fortitude, to take such a bold step into heretofore uncharted territory.

Any such admission shall likely meet with resistance from certain segments within whichever league it happens to occur. A trailblazing athlete must be prepared to face potentially staunch opposition, if not open hostility, to the acknowledgement of his homosexuality, even in this day and age.

Society has progressed considerably since 1947, when Jackie Robinson was first breaking the "color barrier" for African Americans in Major League Baseball. It has been well documented that Jackie encountered discrimination and derision from an unprepared public during his ground-breaking entry into an all-white league, shortly after the conclusion of World War II.

Surely American prejudices have receded since the 1940's though; haven't they?

In the case of John Amaechi, the NBA's first gay player, he did encounter some resistance to his admission, such as the highly publicized comments of former NBA star Tim Hardaway, on Miami's WAXY-AM radio, in which he stated that he "hates gay people."

Hardaway subsequently apologized, but he had already made his stance abundantly clear. Slightly surprisingly however, Amaechi received far more supportive words from many around the league at the time.

One does not have to be gay to empathize with the plight of homosexuals who feel that societal intolerance prevents them from being free to live their lives openly and honestly. Having gay friends, family members, and various acquaintances, I have witnessed how living a "closeted" life can impact people.

Should gay people not be afforded the same freedoms as my heterosexual friends and I?

No one is forcing anyone to lovingly embrace homosexuality against their will, and it is understandable that long-held social prejudices take time to overcome. But simply consider, is it right to expect particular people to constantly suppress the core nature of their very being?

Whether society, or more specifically, the mainstream men's sporting world, is ready to accept openly gay athletes is still partially shrouded in mystery. On the surface, it seems that our culture is progressing in certain regards, but honestly, it is still difficult to gauge the willingness of the sporting public, athletes, team executives and advertisers to embrace gay athletes and simply let them be who they are, with the only true concern being how they produce in their respective sport.

The responsibility cannot be laid on the shoulders of the gay athletes, it is not their responsibility to make the culture open and accepting for them. It is the duty of all of us to let go of our prejudice and preconceived notions in order to make it acceptable for people to feel free to open and honest, unafraid of repercussions for being true to who they are.

One thing is certain though; with the increased profile of homosexuals in our mainstream culture and in light of the intense battles over gay marriage raging nationwide, the question is more likely "when" rather than "if" we will see openly gay athletes in professional sports.

Surely, the day of discovery is not very far off.