The longtime trainer for pro football's San Francisco 49ers has come out publicly in a magazine article in which he describes an environment where his homosexuality was tolerated if not accepted by many players, but where others sometimes humiliated him.
Lindsy McLean, 65, the team's highly respected head trainer for 24 years until retiring in 2003, tells his story to Chris Bull in the Feb. 16 issue of "ESPN The Magazine." The moving 3,000-word article, "The Healer," tells how McLean straddled the ultra-macho world of a pro football locker room and the private life he led as a church-going gay man with his partner of 20 years, George Paiva.
McLean's sexual orientation was an open secret within the organization and with most of the media covering the team, starting as far back as 1982 when he took Paiva to the team's Christmas party. McLean soon became a target.
"At first he pretended not to hear," Bull writes. "When a defensive back refused to allow him to tape a pulled groin muscle, he simply told an assistant to ‘take care of that guy.' When he had to summon a player from the shower for treatment, he made a point of keeping his head down or staring at the wall. He made sure guys were covered in the training room. He rarely socialized with players, even though his relationships with them were almost always good.
"Much of the time, the players treated him like an eccentric uncle. ... But the unfriendly incidents kept him on edge. At the very least, as when an injured All-Pro guard grumbled within earshot, ‘That faggot trainer's not taking care of me,' they wrecked his day. At worst, they left McLean feeling physically intimidated."
The worst instance of harassment came at the hands of a player described as a "350-pound lineman ... a starter in this year's Super Bowl." While a member of the 49ers in the early ‘90s, this lineman would chase McLean around, "grab him from behind, push him against a locker and simulate rape. Get over here, bitch. I know what you want. The lineman ... reprised his act whenever he could; even after he was traded to another team, he'd sneak up on McLean in the locker room or alongside the team bus."
"Kirk Reynolds, the 49ers' media relations director, witnessed one such scene. ‘There were coaches there, wives, sponsors, players, and we were all standing around waiting for the bus,' he recalls. ‘At first I thought the guy was joking. But it became clear it was something else. It was disturbing and bizarre.' McLean felt paralyzed. ‘I thought he'd get his jollies and stop,' he says. ‘But he never did. The guy is huge. What was I going to do?' "
(The player in question is Ted Washington, a former 49er who was a key member of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl-winning team. The Boston Globe was rebuffed in its attempts to contact Washington, but the player's agent, Angelo Wright, confirmed to the paper that the unidentified player was in fact Washington. Wright was upset that Washington was the only player easily identifiable. "Lindsy's just trying to sell some books," Wright told the Globe in a Feb. 15 story. "He's pointing Ted out so he can sell more books. It's an NFL locker room. It is what it is. It's the last bastion of male dominance. He probably was the target of harassment. He's trying to single out Ted Washington. Call everybody out. Charles Haley, Larry Roberts, Kevin Fagan. Don't single one guy out. There were a lot worse stories to tell about that team in the '80s than he cares to talk about. I'm not saying it was right or wrong, but in a locker room scene, what do you expect? Whatever. Everybody harassed him.")
One gets very angry reading the accounts of how Washington harassed McLean. Here we have a player, no longer with the team, abusing a member of the 49ers family and no one does anything about it. All these big, tough football players turned into a bunch of pansies when they could have stood for something important. Or else they condoned the intimidation because the target was gay. It's a sad commentary on how far we have to go in confronting homophobia in the locker room. Wright's attempt to defend his client is feeble, and for the record, McLean is not writing a book nor is he trying to profit from telling his story.
But there are some small victories in this story, times when McLean stood up for himself. "In 1997, a local TV station aired a Christmastime report on the Metropolitan Community Church," Bull writes. "McLean, as usual, was in the congregation. A player sauntered into the training room the next day, chirping about the ‘fag church,' clearly hoping to embarrass the head trainer. ‘I saw you on TV last night, McLean,' the guy said in a singsong voice. ‘I saw you!'
"McLean had heard enough. ‘You saw me,' he shot back. ‘So what?' No response. ‘And I never heard another antigay comment from him after that,' McLean says. ‘He knew he couldn't get to me anymore. He knew I knew who I was.' "
A fascinating passage is the interplay between McLean and running back Garrison Hearst, who became infamous in 2002 for saying he didn't want any "faggots" as teammates. McLean worked hard with Hearst after the player suffered a devastating injury in a 1999 playoff game and came to admire the player's will in getting himself back in football shape. Hearst was also appreciative of McLean.
" 'Lindsy's cool, man, very cool,' Hearst says. ‘He's been here so long, other trainers ask him stuff. He's the head trainer, and that's the only way I ever looked at him. He gets his players back into action.' But Hearst can't bring himself to say the word gay. ‘His personal habit is his personal habit,' Hearst says. ‘It don't matter to me.' "
After Hearst's "faggot" comments brought terrific heat on the 49ers, the ever-loyal McLean offered to team owner John York to come out publicly and defend the organization. York's response: "First of all, this doesn't change my impression of you one bit. Second, this offer is beyond the call of duty."
McLean absolves Hearst for his comments, telling Bull that "Garrison didn't know what he was talking about. That doesn't make him a bad person." Tackle Bryant Young has this take: "It says a lot about Lindsy's professionalism that he didn't let it change his relationship with Garrison. It must have hurt. But he dismissed it and moved on."
We also learn of McLean's long association with Bill Walsh, the legendary coach who took the 49ers to three Super Bowl wins and is now the team's consultant. Walsh, who hired him from the University of Michigan in 1979, told the trainer that his son, Steve Walsh, died of AIDS in 2002, a revelation that shocked McLean. As a retirement gift, Walsh gave McLean and Paiva a trip to Hawaii. But Walsh is also troubled by the abuse McLean received and that he kept to himself.
"I'm sure bad things like that happened," Walsh said. "There's no way I would have known these things because he was so private. If he'd come to me, he knows all hell would have broken loose. I suppose that's why he never told me."
McLean has decided to not become a spokesman for gay issues and contemplates retiring to Palm Springs. He remains connected to the 49ers in some ways, and the team called him instrumental this past fall in establishing the "49ers Courage House," a facility that provides care for abused children.
Even if he goes into a life of quiet retirement, McLean is to be commended for sharing his important story. He has opened a window into a part of the sports world seldom glimpsed by the public. That of a highly trained professional doing his job, yet subject to slights, taunts and abuse simply for who he is.