Pro sports are finally ready for a gay athlete

Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo supports same-sex marriage

I’ve heard from a lot of people surprised by Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe’s open letter defending another NFL player for his pro-same-sex-marriage position. An NFL player? Who’s pro-gay? And will say the word “cockmonster” in public? No, it’s not possible! Well...Yes, it is – and it’s been going on for years.

The truth is, few professional athletes talk much about any political issues. Men like Muhammad Ali, who took strong positions on the day’s hot-button issues, now wait until retirement to get political. Even after retirement, most stay away from seemingly divisive issues.

Yet the stereotype of professional athletes as homophobic is as outdated as the stereotype of gay men as theater queens. Men like Kluwe are becoming the norm, not the exception. Take this comment from Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson, who told me he's tired of the stereotype:

“People look at us and they think we’re just big jocks,” he said. “They don’t look at us as far as us being smart. We’re not just here because we play football and have talent. We had to work to get this far.”

And Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson:

“They just look at us as sometimes not being human beings, understanding that we have feelings, we have emotions with our family members sometimes who practice that lifestyle. But at the end of the day, you treat those people based on your personal experiences with them.”

The sports world is changing on this issue, and it’s changing fast. Actually, it probably changed a few years ago and our eyes are just opening to it. In the last year, I’ve personally spoken to over two dozen current and former professional athletes. Every single one of them has told me they would not care if a teammate were openly gay.

Some, like Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and former NBA player Cedric Ceballos, say they have knowingly had an openly gay teammate.

Many of them, like former Tennessee Titan Jevon Kearse and former Green Bay Packer Ahman Green, say they have gay family members.

Michael Irvin on the cover of Out magazine

Current athletes like Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo and Houston Texan Connor Barwin express a hope for full marriage equality.

Even deeply religious athletes, like NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin and former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, have said incredibly gay-positive things.

This didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of years of working in this area and in the gay-rights movement in general. Millions of people coming out of the closet in recent years have shifted the conversation. Straight allies have given other athletes permission to support their gay teammates. Media coverage of the issue has transformed how people talk about gays in sports.

The work being done by You Can Play, It Gets Better, GLAAD, Athlete Ally, Outsports and others are transforming the image of the professional sports world from a dark, homophobic corner of society into a bright beacon of hope for gay people everywhere. These organizations exist to make themselves irrelevant, and they're doing a great job. So when a professional athlete declares his support for gay teammates and the media doesn’t cover it with front-page hype (like they would have two years ago), it’s the biggest compliment in the world (though, it’s a compliment we don’t want too much of).

While it’s becoming non-news to have professional athletes support gay issues, there’s still an environment of disquiet about the issue. The reason? No active gay pro athlete has validated the apparent shift.

In the last few days I’ve been asked by everyone from the New York Times to NPR why, with all of this apparent change in sports, is there still not an active out athlete? The answer is desperately simple.

I liken it to your backyard. During the daytime, you spend time there grilling on the barbecue, pushing the kids on a swing, cutting the grass. It’s your home, your sanctuary. But no matter how many times you’ve been back there, when it’s the middle of the night and you hear whispers in the darkness and you cannot see your hand in front of your face…there’s an element of fear that plays with your mind.

It is the fear of the unknown.

No matter how many athletes voice their support, no matter how many media outlets cover the issue positively, no matter how many companies express their support for gay athletes, there is still this irrational fear because no one has done it before.

Like the familiar backyard at night, the fear is unfounded.

Consider the arguments we hear….

“His teammates won’t accept him.”

  • In 2006, Sports Illustrated asked 1,400 pro athletes if they would welcome a gay teammate. Only 32% said they would not welcome that player. And that was six years ago.
  • Since then, an untold number of current and former professional athletes have expressed support for a gay teammate. My best estimate would put it in the hundreds.

“Fans won’t support him.”

“He’ll lose potential endorsement deals.”

  • The list of companies that have had an endorsement deal with an openly gay athlete, or sponsored a gay sporting event or gay cause, is too long to list here. Some of them include: Nike, Gatorade, Coors, Coca-Cola, Guinness, Kraft, American Airlines, HBO, Delta, Prudential, Bud Light, Walt Disney Company, Allstate Insurance, IBM, Citibank, Microsoft and Starbucks.
  • Dallas Mavericks owner and entrepreneur Mark Cuban famously said: “From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective.”
  • When Sheryl Swoopes and John Amaechi came out of the closet, they both gained endorsement deals.

“The media will attack him.”

  • This is probably the most ludicrous rationalization I’ve heard. In case after case, media outlets like ESPN, Deadspin, SB Nation, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and others have painted gay athletes in a positive light and homophobic athletes in a negative light.
  • At the same time, it’s the media that keeps spinning this idea of how difficult it will be for an athlete to come out. They push this idea with no evidence whatsoever.

When I hear “experts” say “we all know how hard it would really be for a pro athlete to come out,” I regularly challenge the person who says it. What evidence do they have of this? The answer is always the same: “Just a feeling.” All of the evidence in the world says the athlete wouldn’t just be fine – they’d benefit from coming out.

John Amaechi

The more time that passes, the more I think the coming out of John Amaechi was far more important to the movement than ever given credit. Because his coming out inspired Tim Hardaway to say, “I hate gay people,” the moment drew a clear line in the sand. And when people heard Hardaway’s reaction, it offered a landmark opportunity for people to say, “No matter how I feel about somebody being gay, I don’t agree with that guy.”

It was also the first time that athletes were asked to comment on the issue en masse. And what some of the biggest stars in the sport had to say was overwhelmingly supportive:

  • Shaquille O’Neal: “I was always taught as a youngster to never judge people, so I never judge people and to each their own.”
  • Dwayne Wade: "Anybody who knows me knows I'm a guy who loves his teammates and if anything ever comes up like that, I don't look at that. I look at what guys can do for you on the court. And in the locker room you have great relationships with guys. I don't have any negative views."
  • Doc Rivers: “[Amaechi]'s better than a good kid; he's a fantastic kid. John Amaechi, when I was coaching him, was a great kid. He did as much charity work as anybody in our city, and he's still doing it. That's what I wish we focused on. Unfortunately, we're talking about his sexual orientation, which I couldn't care a flying flip about."
  • Isiah Thomas: "If [there was an openly gay player] in my locker room, we won't have a problem with it. I can't speak for somebody else's locker room, but if it's in mine, we won't have a problem. I'll make damn sure there's no problem.”

Keep in mind, all of these comments are over six years old.

That week – between Amaechi’s revelation and Hardaway’s reaction – cemented a dynamic that has existed in sports ever since: It’s more acceptable to be homosexual than it is to be homophobic.

The pro sports world has transformed. Gone are the days when athletes need to hide their sexual orientation. A world in which teammates exclude a gay athlete is behind us.

What we need now is one athlete to come out into the dark backyard for a party. A big coming-out party. He’ll validate the transformation that has taken place in sports over the last six years. And it’ll be fun. Trust me – I’ve got a really strong flashlight.

PHOTO OF AYANBADEJO: Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

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