In the last few weeks, the topic of homosexuality in sports has come up with unusual frequency. Last week, Sean Avery of the New York Rangers participated in an advertisement advocating same-sex marriage equality. Over the weekend, Phoenix Suns Team President Sam Welt came out as gay. Inspired by Welt's statement, Will Sheridan announced that he had been a gay man throughout his entire collegiate basketball career at nationally-ranked Villanova.
Naturally, on the roundtable discussion shows, the talk was once again focused on the question of if sports – both in the locker room as well as in the stands – are ready to have an openly gay player.
In the past, closeted gay players have played on teams in several of the major sports. Baseball has seen Glenn Burke of the L.A. Dodgers in the 1970s and Billy Bean, a journeyman second baseman with the Tigers, Dodgers and Padres from 1987-95, come out after their playing days were done. In basketball, John Amaechi of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz came out after his playing career had ended. Most certainly, the law of averages means there’s at least a handful of active players currently in the closet.
Those same roundtable discussion shows concluded that if we are going to see an openly gay man on a roster, it won’t happen like Jackie Robinson joining a team, but more likely through a closeted player being outed via social digital media. So, the question will likely turn to how well we as fans will accept finding out a player we’ve been rooting for has been gay all along.
Efforts to “out” a player have already been made, too. Back in 2002, a New York gossip column alleged that a “prominent Met” was seen at a gay club, leading many to suspect that then-Met Mike Piazza was a “catcher” in more ways than one. Eventually, he had to hold a press conference to formally deny those rumors.
If it is confirmed that there is an openly-gay player on a roster, the social ramifications will be huge.
Since gay activists have compared their efforts to the racial civil rights movement of the mid-to-late 20th Century, I’ll use that as a model of how we discriminate against a social category without giving them the chance to show they belong.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the ranks to become the first African-American in the major leagues during the modern era. However, his inclusion led to organized and unofficial discrimination from opposing players and fans. That racism lasted far beyond his career, as it took until 1958 for the Boston Red Sox to become the last team to integrate. Want more? Ask Hank Aaron about the thousands of death threats he received as he approached Babe Ruth’s career home run record nearly a generation later.
In football, blacks were accepted at roughly the same rate...as long as they weren’t in an on-field leadership position. It took until the late 1980’s and Doug Williams’ Super Bowl XXIII victory in 1988 before it was accepted a black man could lead a team as a quarterback.
Currently, the only generally-accepted gay man in sports is Freddie Mercury, who fans sing along with during celebrations when “We Are the Champions” comes on (We don’t really sing along with “We Will Rock You,” and the drumbeat was by drummer Roger Taylor, who was in love with his car).
So even though a gay man might be accepted on a roster by some fans and even his teammates, it’s likely that his acceptance by the majority of fans won’t happen for at least a generation.
I also foresee the same brands of discrimination African-Americans faced as a reaction to a major athlete coming out of the closet. As racist organizations openly protested racial integration, I can easily see groups like the Westboro (Kans.) Baptist Church taking their “God Hates Fags” signs from military funerals to the more visible sports venues. That’s not to mention the slurs that the player will likely hear from opponents and opposing fans.
Consider that Avery, who (better have) enjoyed relationships with Elisha Cuthbert and Rachel Hunter, was just advocating a gay-rights issue, and still faced backlash and controversy.
Sadly, the discrimination an openly gay player faces could be fueled by one of the big reasons people enjoy sports in the first place: It’s supposed to provide an escape from everyday life. At our jobs, at home, and on the news, we see aspects of society that we tolerate without accepting openly. We see sports as insulated from the realities of the outside world. Those who may not be sympathetic to the gay rights effort will inevitably see an openly gay athlete as a violation of that social comfort zone.
Professional sports have successfully handled sensitive social issues in the past. We’ve seen racism eradicated on the field (In coaching and the front office this is still up for debate, but on the field, race is rarely an issue). We’ve seen economics, the over-saturation of media coverage, economic disparity, and crime and other scandals regularly come up on the sports page, but the industry presses on.
In essence, seeing social issues on the sports page forces us examine the nature of our own fandom. You might be the world's most forgiving person, thinking, “I don’t care what they do with their free time as long as they produce on the field.” That's all well and good, but does it mean you consider Barry Bonds a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
If you don't, then you have to admit what happens off the field matters. But, what matters, and how much? “Well, obviously a man’s sex life has nothing to do with what happens on the field,” you might argue. Right, just like the sex life of former Cleveland Indian Rick Manning cheating with teammate Dennis Eckersley’s wife had no effect on that locker room. Or, look back to the debate over the captaincy of the 1998 U.S. World Cup soccer team.
If a player on your favorite team turned out to be gay, would it make you less of a fan even if he led the league in ERA or touchdowns? Would it stop you from being a fan, no matter what his performance on the playing field was like?
There used to be the perception that the race of a player made him inferior. Similarly, fans and players currently use gay slurs to demean other players or fans. In the macho world of men’s sports, the stereotype of homosexuality being somehow less "manly" would definitely rear its head.
However, not every gay man is the stereotypical feminine “queen” caricature. Just as Robinson was a well-educated and articulate black man, in contrast with the stereotype of the day, whoever blazes the trail for gay athletes will also have to face the task of either behaving outside the stereotypes attached to his categorical group, or letting his play force the acceptance of certain stereotyped characteristics, much like Muhammad Ali, who never steered away from controversy.
With history showing us that Burke, Bean and Amaechi were able to have successful careers while in the closet, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll see an openly gay player. The answer is not to deny the inevitable, but to learn how to deal with it before we're forced to adapt.