(This story was published in 2002).
By: Bill Konigsberg
I have a standard joke I use when speaking publicly about the issue of gays in sports. I used it at the GLAAD Media Awards, I’ve used it in numerous interviews and panel discussions. In fact, come to think of it, it’s probably time for me to shop for a new joke. It goes something like this.
“The issue of gays in sports is certainly an intriguing one,” I’ll say. “One of the things some professional athletes say they worry about is showering with a gay man. I can understand the concern, but there’s really not much to worry about. I’ve been in hundreds of locker rooms, as a reporter and otherwise. And I’ve only had sex in about 20 of them.”
This is where people laugh. Really hard. It’s really, really funny. If you are not laughing now it’s probably because you’re missing my hilarious comic timing. It’s killer stuff, really.
I mention this in response to one of the most absurd, insulting moments I’ve ever witnessed on television, on Tuesday night (Oct. 29, 2002). It happened at the end of the "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" segment on Esera Tuaolo, in which the former NFL defensive tackle comes out of the closet.
The segment itself was touching. I’m a pretty mushy guy, and I admit I was tearing up with pride, watching a beautiful man do an incredibly brave thing. I officially love Esera Tuaolo. We see a man conquer his demons, open up his life for total scrutiny, share with the world his family, a husband and two children. It was powerful stuff.
After the segment, Gumbel sat and talked with correspondent Bernard Goldberg, the yahoo who covered the story and interviewed Tuaolo. Gumbel asks Goldberg his thoughts about whether the NFL is a place where a player can ever be openly gay. I will try to paraphrase Goldberg’s response. It was something like this:
“Why no, Bryant. It’s not a good place for a gay man. You have to understand, being a pro football player is not like being an accountant. You don’t have to take your clothes off and shower with teammates as an accountant.”
Thank you, Bernard, for that scintillating insight.
What an absurd, reductive, silly argument. And frankly, I’m sick to death of it. In context, it was incredibly beside the point and insulting. We’d just heard a man speak of his thoughts of suicide, because of the incredibly hard atmosphere of pro football for a closeted gay man. We’d just heard Sterling Sharpe intimate that had Tuaolo come out on a Monday when they were teammates in Green Bay, he’d never have made it to the game on Sunday. It’s fairly clear that he means he’d have been injured, killed, booted off the team, or something like this.
So excuse me, Mr. Goldberg, for not thinking that the shower issue is to the point here. How about a comment about bravery, or the terrible atmosphere in pro sports for a gay man?
Why do we need to come back to this ridiculous argument, time and time again?
Goldberg questioned Tuaolo about this issue, and Esera said basically what I’ll say, that he was afraid in the locker room, and that he was doing his job, hence it never occurred to the man who told not a soul about his sexuality to come on to or ogle a teammate. Goldberg was incredulous, saying that if there were good looking women in a locker room and he was there, he’d look.
True, but that ignores the fact that it is socially acceptable to look at women in a locker room. If looking at women in a locker room meant losing your job, or subjecting yourself to horrible ridicule or possibly violence, I doubt he’d feel that way.
Locker Rooms Are Scary Places
Let me point out a few basic facts about gays in sports, as an observer, a person with some knowledge of the issues, and a man who has spent some time in pro sports locker rooms.
Gay men are not propositioning straight men in pro sports locker rooms. It ain’t happening. How many cases of gay male predatory behavior have we heard of from these locker rooms? Hundreds? A dozen a year? A dozen ever? How about none! Why? Because a professional sports locker room is a petrifying place for a gay man, closeted or not. No gay man in his right mind, or probably in his wrong mind, would think to act aggressively in such a circumstance.
Some players, such as former Packers safety LeRoy Butler and countless others, Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey included, mention their concern about showering with a gay man.
Newsflash: It’s already happened. I venture to guess that almost every pro athlete has, at one time or another, showered with a person who happens to be gay. And survived to tell of it. And why? Because gay men in the world of sports understand the precariousness of the situation. They want nothing more than to be accepted as part of a team, and shower rape, for instance, or excessive ogling of teammates, are not activities that lead to acceptance, or anything positive.
Please stop pretending that you, the straight player, are a victim here. You have the power. Not some gay player hiding and scared for his life.
Personally, I have been in locker room situations. I have seen numerous players naked. But honestly, I couldn’t tell you whom I’ve seen naked, because as a professional, I’m awfully busy when in a locker room. I’m busy doing my job, getting a story. I’m thinking of deadlines. Professional heterosexual female journalists will doubtless tell you the same thing.
Moreover, because being a gay person in sports makes me a minority, and not a well-liked one, I am self conscious. Even if I wanted to look, I’d never do it. I’m probably the least likely person to sneak a peek, because I don’t want to make others uncomfortable. Like the other gays in the room I am the one with my eyes on the ceiling, staring at the floor, averting my view any way possible as I do an interview with a naked player.
Take this information and multiply it by about 1,000 to get the idea of how a closeted gay player might feel. Come on to a teammate? Good grief, that’s never ever going to happen. And in the situation that it did, which I do not foresee, how hard would it be for someone to say, “No thanks, I’m not gay.” Not a difficult task. I’m happy to announce that the time when a pro player is going to have to carry mace in the locker room is not nearing.
I guarantee you gay athletes would gladly take almost any alternative to spending time in a locker room or shower, so long as they could do their jobs as players, feel like part of a team, and avoid nasty scrutiny. Every such player’s fear is to be singled out. Think of all the time that person has spent getting to where they are, an elite athlete. Do you think these people are just waiting for the right moment to act inappropriately with a teammate? All these years of effort to get to the top of their sport, and it’s all been a ruse to get in a position to shower with men and get their jollies? Not likely.
So why does this argument surface, again and again, by folks like Goldberg and others, who will say “I’m not homophobic, but I wouldn’t want to shower with a gay teammate?”
It surfaces because it’s easier than the truth. The truth for many of these people is that dealing with homosexuals in sports makes them uncomfortable. It’s a confusing issue, and it’s one that needs to be discussed and understood.
I’ll tell you what. Let’s advance the topic beyond the silliness of the shower episode, and I’ll happily tell you about the things that really concern me about being gay in sports. I’ll tell you about my fears of never truly fitting in, my concerns about violence, some crazy person harming me or my family because of who I am.
I’ll even open up to you and tell you about my own self doubt at moments, about feeling unsure that gays will ever be accepted, and therefore the corresponding worry that maybe I’m wrong, that as much as it feels like this is who I am, maybe I’ve made some decision somewhere along the way and it was the wrong one. I don’t think this all the time, but sometimes, as I lay in bed awake at night pondering the universe, these thoughts cross my mind. They’re difficult and not things I like to talk about, but at least they’re more to the point when it comes to being gay in professional sports than they idea that I may attack you in the shower.