Friday, March 2, 2007

When Professional Athletes Come Out: News or No News?

Over the last few years several ex-professional male athletes have come out publicly: MLB player, Billy Bean, NFL player, Esera Tuaolo and recently, NBA player, John Amaechi, On the women’s side, Sheryl Swoopes, a WNBA MVP and LPGA Hall of Famer, Rosie Jones came out late in their careers, but while they were still actively competing. The venerable Martina Navratilova competed as open lesbian for most of her career. Amelie Mauresmo is still competing in professional tennis and is at the top of her game.

A flurry of media attention and commentary follow each of these coming out announcements. Active players’ reactions range from stupid or bigoted to unfazed and supportive. Fans also weigh in with a similar range of hostility to admiration. As I have followed each of these coming out stories and the responses to them, I’ve noticed some themes that might be fun to explore a little more deeply.

Response 1 (To Sheryl Swoopes Coming Out): “This is not news. Everyone knows they are all lesbians anyway.”

Flat out: It’s ridiculous to say that it is not news when a star African-American athlete, arguably the best female basketball player in the world, comes out following an MVP year. It’s not as if there are huge numbers of openly lesbian professional athletes. This response also reflects a lack of understanding of how hostile the environment in women’s sports can be for lesbians. Look no further than Penn State and the women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for the most current example. For people who believe that women’s sports are a happy haven for lesbians, you only need to scratch the surface to find a persistent discomfort with openly lesbian coaches and athletes.

The word “lesbian” has a long history in women’s sport as a whispered innuendo, an accusation, a threat and a stereotype that is unfortunately alive and well. The smirking undertone of “everyone knows they are all lesbians anyway” is based on this history. In a homophobic sports world, the word “lesbian” is an epithet deployed to keep all women in their place, to warn high school recruits and their parents about the “immoral lifestyle” of rival coaches, to incite fears of sexual predation in the locker room and to dismiss unmarried women coaches with short hair cuts. This still happens. We are not talking about history here. Ask the three parents who wrote to me in the last two months looking for help because their lesbian daughters were being harassed by homophobic coaches.

When an actual lesbian athlete who is still competing does come out, it is definitely news. It is an act of courage and it challenges the scary myths about lesbians in sport. Lesbian athletes like Sheryl Swoopes, Rosie Jones, Martina Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo and Billie Jean King have always been an integral part of women’s sport. Because fear of discrimination, harassment and public hostility has kept most lesbians locked tightly in the closet, the myths about them have thrived. The more lesbian athletes and coaches who come out, the more difficult it will be to sustain the myth of the lesbian bogeywoman that has haunted women’s sports. As more heterosexual women in sport understand how the lesbian label is used to intimidate them and limit all women’s sport as well as to discriminate against lesbians, the less power the lesbian stereotype will have.

Response 1A (Closely follows Response 1): “It will only be newsworthy when a male professional athlete comes out.”

This is just another version of “women’s sports don’t matter.” It reflects the perspective that important things only occur in men’s sports. Women’s sports are dismissed as unimportant, even when it comes to lesbian athletes coming out. True, anti-gay hostility manifests itself differently in men’s and women’s sports. It’s also true that there are no openly gay male professional athletes. However, it really makes me angry when male sports writers (and even some gay male sports advocates) discount the significance of lesbian athletes coming out because they cannot see beyond their own sexist sports perspectives.

Response 2: (On speculations about why there are no active male professional team sport athletes who are out) “The climate on men’s professional team sports is too hostile for a gay man to come out while he is still actively competing.”

This response has been accepted as common wisdom for way too long. Even gay former pro athletes like Billy Bean and Esera Tuaolo have expressed this view. Some straight athletes like Lebron James, Tim Hardaway, Garrison Hearst and Jeremy Shockey have publicly expressed their hostility to having gay teammates and I am sure there are others who share this perspective. However, I believe that increasing numbers of professional team sport athletes, coaches and league commissioners do not agree with these knuckleheads. Most of the response to ex-NBA player John Amaechi’s coming out is much more positive. NBA Commissioner David Stern, Boston Celtic coach Doc Rivers, New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and NBA player Grant Hill and ex-player Charles Barkley applauded Amaechi for coming out and expressed their support and acceptance for gay athletes. These attitudes are the future of professional men’s sports. Hardaway and company are the past. I just don’t believe it is helpful to keep harping on how it would be impossible for a gay man to come out while still competing. Get over it, grow up, move into the 21st century.

Here is some more evidence that the times they are a changin’ - The NFL invited Esera Tuaolo to speak to NFL rookies this year. The San Francisco Giants hired a diversity consultant to work with players after a homophobic team training video came to light. Two years ago members of the Boston Red Sox appeared on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Valentine publicly honored his two mothers. Star pro athletes like Johnny Damon, Mike Mussina and Shaquille O’Neal express their support for having gay teammates.

Of course, there will always be a minority of jerks like Hardaway or Shockey, but times are changing, even in the testosterone fueled macho world of men’s professional team sports. The days are past when male pro athletes can glibly call anyone they don’t like or don’t respect a “faggot” or proclaim their hatred of gay people without public censure. Comments like these sound more and more extreme and the guys making them look like the bozos they are. This is a good thing.

Response 3: “It isn’t the hostility in the locker room that keeps gay male athletes in the closet; it is fear of hostile fan reaction.”

Frank DeFord made this point in an NPR editorial recently. He claimed that the prospect of facing boozed up idiots in the stands hurling anti-gay epithets at an openly gay athlete every time he makes an error, drops a pass or misses a bucket is the real reason gay athletes wait until they retire to come out. He may have a point. The first few pro male athletes to come out while still playing probably will have to endure some fan taunting, hostility and even threats. However, a 2005 NBC/USA Network poll indicates that this fan reaction might be less common than DeFord thinks. Seventy-six percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “I would be less of a fan of a particular athlete if I knew that he or she was gay.” Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is ok for male athletes to participate in sports even if they are openly gay.” These poll results indicate that, though a minority of fans are not yet willing to accept a gay male professional athlete, a clear majority are. This is good news.

Response 4: (Following a retired gay male professional team sports athlete coming out): “This isn’t news. Things will only begin to change when an active gay male team sport athlete comes out, especially if that athlete is a star player.”

I was most surprised at ESPN columnist, LZ Granderson’s reaction to John Amaechi’s coming out. Granderson is gay himself, so I expected more. His dismissal of “another ex-athlete” coming out and writing a book about his experience ignores the importance of any male pro athlete coming out, even retired ones. We are still talking courageous pioneers when we can count the number of out gay male professional ex-athletes on one hand. Visible out gay athletes are important role models. They embody possibility, hope and courage, especially to closeted boys and young men who struggle to feel good about themselves in the face of hostility in their schools and families. It isn’t just about a book deal, LZ, it’s also about saving lives.

There is no doubt that having a star NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB player come out would be a gigantic media event and would probably shock many fans and some players (I suspect many athletes already know who is gay and just don’t talk about it). Homophobic sports fans would be presented with a huge contradiction: a guy who has demonstrated his competitive toughness and attained the highest levels of achievement in the macho world of men’s sports – a guy whose jersey and number fans proudly wear - is gay. I can’t wait. Deal with it.

However, I do not agree that having a star male pro athlete come out is what it will take to begin to eliminate homophobia in men’s sports. I believe change is already happening and is coming, not from the top, but from the grass roots. High school and college gay athletes are leading the way out of the closet, not the pros. Athletes like high school football captain, Corey Johnson, Dartmouth All-American lacrosse goalie, Andy Goldstein and many other anonymous players are already competing as out gay men. Their teammates and coaches, for the most part, have absorbed this information and moved on. This support from coaches, teammates, and families is what will eventually drive the remaining Tim Hardaways of men’s pro sports to the bigotry closet where they belong. This trend in men’s sports is more significant and changes athletics more than one star pro athlete coming out ever could, no matter how visible he is. The young men playing in high schools and colleges with and against gay athletes are the future pro athletes, sports fans, fathers and coaches. As they move into these roles, men’s sports will change. Maybe change will not happen as soon as I want it to, but it has already begun. The challenge now is for current professional athletes to keep up.


safemeds said...

I dont see anything wrong with coming out, what matters is if you are a great athlete or not, people dont care that much about sexuality, only if you are good or not.

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