In many ways, sports are the last frontier for the homosexual community. We have openly gay politicians, actors, musicians, and CEOs. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 9 states and is supported by a majority of Americans. Gay men and women can now serve openly in the United States military without fear of losing their jobs and pensions. And yet for any number of reasons, the line has not been breached in the sports world.
To be clear, there have been openly gay athletes in a number of sports, both individual (Martina Navratilova) and team (Sheryl Swoopes). And obviously there have been closeted gay men in team sports throughout the years, some of whom came out after they retired (Esera Tuaolo, John Amaechi, Billy Bean), and others who continue to keep their sexuality a secret. But when it comes to the major team sports and leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL), there has yet to be a man who plays as a publicly open homosexual.1
In the last great Civil Rights battle over racial segregation, sports served as a driving force for the rest of American society. Men like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and of course Jackie Robinson dominated their respective sports, collectively serving as an impetus for change throughout the country. When Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the country was still seven years shy of Brown vs. Board of Ed and 17 years shy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So why is it that now, when homosexuals are finally starting to receive the same rights as the rest of Americans in so many other walks of life, are our playing fields and courts still absent of a man who is willing to admit to the world that he is gay?
It's not hard to identify the biggest reasons why this is the case — the first person who takes on this burden is going to have an indescribable level of scrutiny placed on him. Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe, who has established himself as the most vocal proponent of gay rights in the sports world over the past several months, put it simply: “It's hard enough to reach this level without any distractions,” he said in a FanHub interview. “It's going to take a very special person who thinks they can handle it and who can still play at a high level while dealing with that media exposure. Because it'll be a big deal.”
Particularly on that last point, there can be no argument. That first player will have literally every news outlet in the country covering him, and ESPN will probably have to create a new channel just to deal with the overflow (don't worry, you'll still be able to get wall-to-wall Tim Tebow coverage on ESPN 4). And on top of all the media coverage, he'll also have to deal with vitriolic opposing fan bases and perhaps even a few teammates who buy into the Tim Hardaway school of thought.
Along those same lines, there is no denying the fact that sports are a unique pocket of American society where aggression, machismo, and violence are handsomely rewarded. Not only are the qualities that make sports what they are inherently opposed to the personality of the average gay man, but in many ways they encourage an atmosphere of exclusivity. The testosterone-fueled mentality on the field, in the stands, and in the locker room is going to naturally lead to any man who possesses stereotypically gay or feminine qualities to be isolated and humiliated with regularity.
So really, who can blame a gay man for not wanting to expose himself to the world? Unlike the integration of black athletes into different sports, he can hide his true self from the public and even from his teammates, allowing him to do his job like everyone else without the added pressure that would come from outing himself.
The first openly gay athlete in one of the major American sports will have to be a prominent one whose athleticism can't be called into question by way of his sexuality.
For those reasons, the first openly gay athlete in one of the major American sports will have to be a prominent one — not necessarily a superstar like LeBron James, but at least an All-Star caliber player. It will have to be someone who possesses the necessary talent and mental toughness to succeed in the face of that enormous pressure, and one whose athleticism can't be called into question by way of his sexuality.
“If a punter or a kicker were to come out, people would be like, 'Oh it's a punter or it's a kicker, it's not a real player,' Or if it was a special teams guy or a backup receiver, it would be like 'Oh he's a backup, he's not a starter.'” says Kluwe. “But if it's a starting quarterback or a starting O-lineman. Or if it's someone like a Randy Moss or a Terrell Owens — someone who's visible and who plays at a very high level — if someone like that were to come out, people would say 'Oh, this is a very good football player who also happens to be gay.'”
In his book Man in the Middle, former NBA player John Amaechi relates a story from his time with the Utah Jazz in 2006, when then-owner Larry Miller (who owned the most movie theaters in Utah) went into the locker room to “assure” everyone that Brokeback Mountain would not be aired on any of his screens. Amaechi, who says that his sexuality was more or less a poorly-kept secret within the organization at the time, took it as a direct threat to his job security. And as a bench player who didn't get much playing time to begin with, it was a very real threat. Amaechi could be cut at any time and no one would bat an eye. Karl Malone would have been much tougher to discard had he been in the same situation.
On top of that, a gay player is going to have far less difficulty being accepted by his teammates if he helps them win games. In this respect, the sports world is not at all unlike the military. The prevailing stereotype for the armed service is very much the same as football — one that lends itself to aggressive and macho personalities.
But Matt Ufford, a sports writer for SB Nation and a former tank commander in the US Marine Corps, insists that even in that testosterone charged environment, the bottom line comes down to whether or not the job can get done. “Competence is key,” he says. Although he served during the days of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and thus never had any openly gay members in his unit, he mentioned at least one Marine with whom he served in Iraq who exhibited certain qualities which, under other circumstances, may have called his sexuality into question. But since he was a strong and reliable soldier, no one bothered to care.
That necessary skill level for the first gay athlete, however, makes it even less likely for someone to break that barrier. The odds of becoming a professional athlete are astronomical to start. There are a combined 3,586 players on the rosters of all MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL teams, and with the prominence of Canadian, European, and Latin American players among them, the number of Americans is closer to 2,000 — roughly 0.000006 percent of the U.S. population. So when you consider that maybe 10% of them are All-Star caliber, on top of the fact that even the most generous of modern estimates put the gay population at about 10% of the population, the statistical possibility of one of those people being in the highest echelon of athletes is miniscule — we're literally talking less than one out of a billion.
1 Former outfielder Glenn Burke was openly gay to his Dodgers and Athletics teammates from 1975-1979, but his homosexuality was not made public until after his retirement in 1982.
Fan Hub Action
Marcy Kelly June 12th
Wow! I must have listened to a completely differnt press conference. Oh, wait- you convinently left off all of the good things they just got…
Nathan Devine June 5th
The dude is nasty. The fastball is REAL heavy at 97-100. Steady improvement every year.
Jeanne-Marie Jansen Lowell May 23rd
Greatest relief pitcher EVER! Someday we can all tell our grandchildren we got to see him pitch. A true legend!
Charlie Lobosco May 23rd
Ask Craig; I’ll say it again; not the best relief pitcher ever; the best MLB player ever. Yes, that includes everyone.
Jim Lowell May 23rd
Great tribute to a great player, a great Yankee, and a great man.Thank you!
Frank Lowell May 23rd
Great job, Ryan! As a life-long Yankee hater since the 1950’s in the closing days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I can only sit back and…
Tiffany Riddle May 23rd
Love the article, and I completely agree!
Michael T Carr May 16th
Another good article, Craig Lowell.
June 18th, 2013 3:14 PM
ALL TIME FAVES
April 29th, 2013 12:20 PM
April 15th, 2013 11:56 AM
March 22nd, 2013 9:37 PM
April 30th, 2013 3:22 PM