clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Gay Baseball Saga: What We've Learned

We fear the worst; fans may not be so homophobic; the 'Net rules

(This story was published in June 2, 2001 and updated in July 26, 2001).

It's the story that will not die.

Three weeks have passed since the mainstream media got hold of the Out Magazine column where editor Brendan Lemontalked about his affair with a closeted major league baseball player.

While the coverage has slowed somewhat, it still has not ended. For example, in the past week both Fox (``The Last Word'' withJim Rome) and ESPN (``Outside the Lines'' with Bob Ley) devoted entire shows to the subject of gays in sports, a very rare occurence.

Here is what we have learned from all the coverage and what questions remain.

EVERYONE FEARS THE WORST

``Professional suicide'' pretty much sums up the consensus opinion of what would happen if a male pro team sports athlete came out of the closet (this recent discussion has all been about men and pro sports). Billy Bean, the openly gay ex-ballplayer who has gotten more air time recently than President Bush, repeats it regularly. Print columnists and on-air commentators, while consistently non-homophobic, concur. Seldom is heard an encouraging word.

What's interesting is that no one knows what would happen; everyone is only speculating based on their own perceptions and biases. Since it has never happened how can so many be so confident of how bad the result would be?

Bean has been a terrific spokesman for gay rights since coming out nearly three years ago. But it would be nice to hear him say it might be possible to be an openly gay athlete if the circumstances were right (unless he truly believes it's not possible under any circumstance). He generally seems to frame the question as if an athlete were being forced out; what if someone willingly wants to? On ESPN's ``Outside the Lines'' programmed he was challenged by former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who said it was time for an athlete to come out and that the public would be accepting. This point was echoed on Jim Rome's ``The Last Word'' by swimmer-turned-Fox commentator (and openly lesbian) Diana Nyad.

Bean came out almost by accident and not while playing. A Miami Herald reporter was writing a story about a restaurant Bean and his partner owned. The reporter knew about Bean's sexuality and discussed it with him while researching the story. She rightly made it the focus of her story and Bean was a bit nervous when he discovered this.

The reaction was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one-Bean's high school coach called to wish him well as did Brad Asmus, a major leaguer who was his roommate while both were on the Tigers. Asmus' comments, as reported by the Herald in 1999, are valuable because they explore many facets of the issue:

"If he had been openly gay, it would have been very difficult for him to play. There would have been a lot of fan and media scrutiny. I mean, he hasn't played baseball in four years and he's getting more attention now than during all the time he played. I think if a major league player is going to come out, it's going to have to be a superstar, somebody who can answer his critics with play in the field, who can have the focus be his abilities and not his sexual preference."

Bean has gone on to be a forceful advocate for gays and lesbians everywhere, and in his own case, the reaction was supportive and positive. Why does he think any active player would go through hell? I don't pretend to think that an athlete coming out would have a smooth ride. It all depends on who, when and how. No one is advocating outing. Someone brave enough to be the first would obviously know what he was getting into; it's all about choice. This is a far more nuanced view that simply predicting Armageddon.

FANS MIGHT NOT BE AS HOMOPHOBIC AS EVERYBODY THINKS

Brendan Lemon said his paramour ballplayer might have to fear being shot if he came out. Others have assumed that Joe Sixpack Couch Potato fan would get his bloodlust up if a gay player came out. This is the conventional wisdom.

How, then, does it square with a poll taken for ESPN on May 30 and 31 (margin of error 4.5%) , which found that fans seem pretty tolerant. (link)?

The poll asked: If a player on your favorite professional sports team announced he or she was gay or lesbian, how would this affect your attitude towards that player?

Turn against, somewhat turn 17.7%

No difference 62.9%

Much or somewhat bigger fan 19.4%

A second question:

If an openly gay or lesbian athlete endorsed a particular product, what effect would this have on your likelihood to buy that product?

Less likely to buy 17.5%

No effect 79.0%

More likely to buy 3.5%

Hmmm ... a substantial majority of fans in this survey would have no problem with an openly gay athlete. This turns the conventional wisdom on its ear.

However, a third question had this interesting twist:

Aside from your personal opinion, what do you think the public reaction would be if a Major League Baseball player announced he was gay?

Turn against/somewhat turn 67.4%

No difference 27.2%

Much or somewhat bigger fan 5.5%

It seems people are saying they'd have no trouble with a gay player but their neighbors would. This could mean one of two things: People are lying about their own tolerance, not wanting to admit a prejudice to a pollster; or people assume the worst about others and may be mistaken in that assumption.

I suspect it may be a bit of both. Society has grown increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, but this does not translate into being totally comfortable with it. ``We won't ask, you don't tell and we won't care'' may sum up the situation perfectly.

HOW WOULD PLAYERS REACT? IT WOULD BE NICE TO HEAR FROM THEM

In all the coverage I've seen (and it's been a lot) we've heard from very, very few players about how a gay teammate would be treated. ESPN's Bob Ley said his producers could not find any players on a given night willing to go on camera to discuss gays in sports (he added that all were willing to speculate off camera). How about trying harder? The Los Angeles Times was able to get three players to go on the record and mighty ESPN can't?

Jim Rome, who has been supportive, seems to have talked to only one player about it-Eric Davis, who expressed a great deal of consternation about the prospect of showering with a gay teammate. Since Davis is considered a ``good guy'' and positive role model, Rome assumes his reaction would spell trouble for a gay jock. After all, if the Eric Davis' of the world are troubled, what would the John Rockers' think?

To hold up one athlete's biases as representative of all is lazy journalism. In my research, I've found opinions all over the place, though few athletes have been questioned. David Cone, for example, said ``No, why should I?'' when asked if having an openly gay teammate would bother him. St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Mike Timlin when queried by ESPN.com on how he would feel about having a gay teammate, said: "I already have, knowingly, and it wasn't a problem.'' Other players support the view that coming out would be a big problem.

Timlin and Cone may be enlightened aberrations, but they do show that the locker room might not be the monolithic cluster of rabid homophobia being portrayed by the media. Times have changed and athletes are not immune. This was reflected in ``ESPN The Magazine's'' June issue where Oakland pitcher Barry Zito revealed that his favorite cartoon characters were ``Ace and Gary,'' ``The Ambiguously Gay Duo'' from Saturday Night Live.

IT DEPENDS ON WHAT `OUT' IS

What does it mean to be out? In this recent coverage it implies an athlete who has gone public in declaring his homosexuality. What has been missing is any discussion of how being out is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

There are professional athletes who are partially out--to lovers, maybe a friend or two, maybe their parents, maybe a teammate. They just see no need and no advantage to telling SportsCenter about it. Bean, for example, was very closeted, going so far as to miss the funeral of his then-lover to play in a game (a tragic moment that eventually convinced him he had to leave the game to be who he truly was).

The lack of perspective on the coming out process has been a big failing in the recent coverage. Stories abound in the non-jock world of people who lead double lives or tell some but not others about their sexuality. The lack of examination of this in the athletic world has led to an assumption on the parts of many commentators that a person is either totally out or totally in the closet.

THE INTERNET RULES

The Out Magazine piece would have come and gone almost unnoticed if not for MediaNews, the one Web site almost all journalists read. One link to Lemon's column got the ball rolling and it hasn't stopped. The story has been kept alive on sites like Outsports and on discussion boards, gay and straight. ESPN.com's terrific coverage showed the power of the Net to dissect an issue in myriad ways, from news coverage to first-person columns to reader letters. With links staying active, theoretically, forever, it's hard to keep something a one-day story.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: MISSING IN ACTION

The ``newspaper of record'' has apparently not devoted a single word to the issue (I searched their archives the past month and could find nothing). This is puzzling, considering that the Times has been fairly aggressive in covering the issue of homosexuality in sports. Within one seven-month span they ran two A1 stories on Bean and on Corey Johnson the gay high school football captain. It's not like they don't have the staff to cover it. The Times' shunning of this recent story despite the continued public and media interest is either arrogant or clueless or both.