Memo to the next person who says they know of a closeted gay pro athlete who is considering coming out – put up or shut up. Name the person or just don't talk about it. If you want to go public with having the "inside scoop," own it and go all the way with a name. Otherwise, you're just wasting everybody's time.
In the past two weeks, sports websites have been abuzz over two stories: The first came from NFL writer Mike Freeman, who said that there is a gay NFL player seriously considering coming out. The ante was upped tenfold on Friday when NFL player and gay rights ally Brendon Ayanbadejo told the Baltimore Sun that there were up to four players "being talked to right now and they're trying to be organized so they can come out on the same day together."
Ayanbadejo's scoop blew up on websites everywhere. SBN got a ridiculous 3,156 comments for its version of the story and Outsports was contacted by journalists scrambling to find out who the four might be and what the timetable was for them coming out (news to us, we told everyone). There was only one problem – Ayanbadejo was winging it, and he backtracked later Friday, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper:
No, actually, what it is is, is there are organizations I'm in contact with, and there are individuals I'm in contact with and collectively we know of some gay players. And these players, some of them are anonymous, some of them we know who they are, but their identity is super secret and nobody wants to reveal who they are, and some of them don't want to reveal who they are, rightfully so because it's entirely up to them what they are going to do.
What we want to facilitate is getting them all together so they can lean on each other, so they can have a support group. And potentially it's possible, it's fathomable, that they could possibly do something together, break a story together.
"Potentially. Possible. Fathomable." How's that for a bunch of qualifiers? It's a lot less dramatic than a tale of four gay NFL players ready to come out together. But since Ayanbadejo was on CNN on a Friday night at 8pm, my guess is that most people never saw him walking back what he told the Sun. This was Ayanbadejo's second misstep in 24 hours. The night before, he said he was misquoted by a Newsday reporter claiming the Baltimore Ravens released him in part for being a public gay rights advocate. "Yellow journalism," Ayanbadejo called it, but in light of his overselling the "four players are coming out angle," I doubt it was a misquote but a reaction after the Ravens pushed back.
Ayanbadejo has been awesome on the gay issue and is a great ally, but he needs to realize he's a public figure and be precise in his words. The same goes for anyone tempted to tell us of an anonymous player ready to come out. It does nothing to help a closeted athlete.
That's why I said put up or shut up since I'm confident no one will ever put up. For starters, people like Freeman and Ayanbadejo are on the right side of the issue and realize how irresponsible an outing would be. Besides, they might not actually know of a gay player. And if someone did out an athlete, there would be hell to pay. Patrick Burke runs the "You Can Play Project," initially focused on the NHL but expanding into other sports. "Will continue YCP's policy of never commenting on any LGBT athletes we may be in touch with, for any reason," Burke tweeted the other day. It's a smart move and one others would do well to emulate.
At Outsports, Cyd and I hear of these kinds of reports all the time, yet never run with them. There's no point – it's the sports equivalent of "vaporware." And these kinds of stories predate Outsports. Back in 1984, a rumor swept the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles – two high-profile American athletes were going to come out together. It never happened (one version I was told was that sponsors put the kibosh on it). One Olympian eventually did come out – diver Greg Louganis – but that was more than 10 years after the '84 Games.
I'm cool with all sorts of speculation stories – such as, how would an out player be treated by the media, fans or his teammates? What sport is the most likely to see an out player? How can leagues best prepare for a coming out by a player? Those all broaden the debate and allow for a diverse range of opinion.
Speculation that Player X will be coming out, in contrast, becomes nothing more than a guessing game and raises everyone's hopes that an announcement is forthcoming. It also has a negative effect, as gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis said: "I think it makes them hyper vigilant, that if there's anything out there, maybe a picture on Facebook, that someone can read as gay, you immediately get afraid." The last thing we need is someone to dive deeper into the closet fearing his name will be leaked prematurely.
Here's the deal to all those tempted to promote an impending coming out – speak up for the rights of gay athletes to play openly. Speak out against bigotry and homophobia. But let the gay athlete speak for himself when he's good and ready.