Have we reached a tipping point in the gays in sports debate? Will we be seeing an openly gay pro athlete soon? Will it be that big a deal?
I have been thinking about this a lot in the aftermath of a wild eight weeks that saw an unprecedented level of attention to the subject of gays in sports. I called May the gayest sports month ever, and we have documented 27 people coming out in sports this year.
The mainstream media has made the issue prominent, with one event melding into another. Rick Welts came out as a gay NBA exec, bookended by Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah both getting caught saying “faggot” on national TV. This led to a mish-mash of articles and commentary that touched on the overall level of homophobia in the NBA and in sports in general. Throw in the racial angle, and there was a lot to chew on.
Cyd and I spent a much time being interviewed by journalists of all stripes. I even spent a recent afternoon with a crew from Brazilian TV for a piece that has yet to air. That’s how interesting the media find this subject.
Homophobia is no longer cool. When Kobe Bryant, one of the most famous athletes on the planet, can’t get away with an anti-gay slur, it tells you something has changed. When Noah made his “faggot” comment a month after Kobe, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon on ESPN’s “PTI” show said he should be fined more than Bryant (he wasn’t). “PTI” is a purveyor of sports media conventional wisdom, so to get that show to ask for a harsher penalty on Noah says something.
The San Francisco Giants release an “It Gets Better” video, prompting the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox to announce they’ll do the same. I predict that soon enough these videos by teams will be greeted by an appreciative yawn since there will be so many of them. Yet, it wasn’t too long ago that baseball teams holding “gay days” was considered controversial. Now we have players actively urging tolerance and acceptance of gay people.
Throw in high profile athletes coming out for gay marriage, and being pro-gay in sports is no longer perceived as some sort of outlier.
With all that said, we still don’t have an openly gay pro team sport athlete. While I think recent events have made it easier for someone to come out, I still don’t think it’s easy. Coming out is an intensely personal decision and factors specific to that person are the biggest reason for deciding when to make it public. Yet the groundwork is being laid.
I have told many an interviewer that the first publicly gay pro jock will face a blizzard of media attention and then relatively quickly we’ll move on to something else. People will realize it’s no big deal and that the games will still go on.
As I was writing this, I came across a column in ESPN the Magazine by Steve Buckley, the Boston Herald columnist who came out as gay earlier this year. It’s as if Buckley and I were sharing the same thoughts. Buckley argues that since so many people now know someone who is gay, an out gay athlete will not seem strange. He writes:
After my own coming-out column appeared in the Boston Herald in January, a steady stream of friends and colleagues started telling me about the gay people in their lives. One sportswriter I've been sitting next to in press boxes for 20 years has a gay brother; another has a lesbian sister. One old-timer relayed a tragic story of a nephew who died of AIDS. As for the sports people I've written about over the years, dozens began writing to me. Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis sent a supportive text the morning my column appeared, as did second baseman Dustin Pedroia. When I saw Youkilis at spring training and thanked him for the kind words, he replied, "It's not that big a deal, man. Nobody cares about that stuff anymore."
Will it be different when a shortstop or a quarterback or a shooting guard comes out? Well, yes, but only to the degree that some people still obsess about naked men in locker rooms and the macho clubhouse culture. Our first out player will sit before the cameras and patiently answer every imaginable question, including, "How does it feel to be the gay Jackie Robinson?" But eventually we'll return to regularly scheduled programming as more players come out and more Youks tell us it's not a big deal.
I hope and trust that Buckley is right. I think that progress in this area has been 2 steps forward and 1 step back, but the trendline is definitely in the right direction.
I will go back to my original questions and ask what you think. I would especially love hearing from athletes, gay or straight, closeted or not. Is it easier now to come out in sports? How big of a deal will it be? Has the culture changed? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?