(This story was published in 2006).
“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.”
Those words were spoken by Heath Ledger’s closeted character Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain.” They also could be spoken by closeted athletes everywhere.
“Brokeback Mountain,” the movie that it seems everyone is talking about, is first set in 1963 when Ennis meets Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The two Wyoming cowboys fall in love, but it’s a love that can never be fully realized. It ends in 1983. But as far as sports go, the movie could be set in 2006 and be just as relevant.
When it comes to sports, especially for elite male athletes in bigtime sports who happen to be gay, Brokeback’s themes of yearning, fear and forbidden love resonate strongly. We have come a long way in the acceptance of gays in society, but sports still remain the final closet and the door is still firmly shut.
As I watched “Brokeback Mountain,” much of the time with a lump in my throat, I flashed to contemporary sports and wondered how many closeted jocks were living their own version of Ennis and Jack.
It is still an amazing statistic -- There has never been a male athlete from a major pro team sport (NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball) who has come out while playing. The same is true of elite jocks at major college programs. We know they’re out there (no one disputes this), but they remain as closeted as Ennis.
“I am 29 years old and still in the closet and hiding who I truly am,” read one post on the Internet Movie Database, a major resource for film lovers. “I grew up in a small town where I was a star athlete, prom king in high school -- the All-American boy so to speak. I cannot come out to my family or friends for reasons of maybe losing all of them as well as my job.
“I once had a very special love in my life; he is dead now. He took his own life when he was only 23. He could not accept himself or could not trust others to accept who he was. I don't blame him for killing himself, I blame society! I miss him and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. I am trying to hold back the tears as I write this. We met in college and our story is very similar to the one in this movie as well.
“…When this movie finished, I walked to my car, drove down a dark alleyway, locked the doors and did what any other tough young cowboy did -- I cried. Some days I'm just barely hanging on but movies like this want to make me keep fighting. Thank you, “Brokeback Mountain.”
Athletes who have come out after their careers have ended have stories that are universal. The paranoia and fear of being discovered while competing. The ruses to convince teammates, coaches and family that they’re 100% heterosexual. The feeling that their performance on the field suffered because of the great psychic strain of being found out. It’s similar to when Ennis tells Jack a harrowing story of witnessing the aftermath of a gay rancher being killed when he was a young boy.
To Ennis, the stakes are too great to be open about who he is and who he loves, and gay athletes feel those same strains. They may not fear being lynched, but there is still physical fear nonetheless.
The Locker Room
Esera Tuaolo played nine years in the NFL as a defensive tackle, a tough position in a brutal game. He told me that when he saw "Brokeback Mountain," "I started bawling my eyes out because I saw so many similarities to my life. I just started feeling everything again and at some parts I just had to close my eyes. It's a very touching movie."
Tuaolo was in the closet the whole time as a player and in his searing, moving and honest upcoming book, “Alone in the Trenches,” (I have read an advance copy) he eloquently describes the trauma he endured trying to keep his secret.
“While I was with the [Minnesota] Vikings,” Tuaolo writes, “a rumor broke out that the Dallas Cowboys’ superstar quarterback Troy Aikman was gay. He’s not, but the rumor spread. The day I heard that, I walked into the locker room, panicked and afraid. I didn’t know what to expect, wasn’t sure what I would have to endure.”
Tuaolo was not out, yet he feared every day that someone might have spotted him in the rare times he frequented a gay bar, implausible as that might seem. He continues:
“Some of the players started saying nasty, graphic things about Troy and his sexual habits. I was going along with it, laughing with the others. The talk turned to speculation about other players. My stomach knotted. I hoped no one would point the finger at me.
“One of the tight ends on our team at the time was a cocky guy that others picked on -- they knew they could get a reaction out of him. [Defensive lineman] John Randle said to him, ‘You must be gay.’ The tight end freaked out. He attacked Randle. A brawl broke out in the locker room.
“These two big guys threw blows at one another. Everybody else tried to break it up, including me. … I felt the adrenaline surge of the fight. I also felt tremendous pain. That could have been me getting teased and in a fight. I was thinking, I am in such a fucked-up nightmare. I wish I could wake up.”
Countering the Rumors
Aikman’s story is illuminating. Rumors that he was gay surfaced in 1990s as he was leading the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles. They spread wide, even in the days before the Internet, and one account had his coach Barry Switzer making the allegation.
Aikman denied he was gay, but his PR team at the time went through some elaborate lengths to prove his heterosexual bona fides. It seems that every few months Aikman was linked to some actress or another. And in the strangest story I ever read in Sports Illustrated, the author detailed Aikman’s quest for love and how he just couldn’t find the right woman.
Titled “Mr. Lonelyhearts” (Jan. 15, 1996), the story was a 5,417-word personal ad, with a sub-headline that read: “SWM, TALL, HANDSOME, 29, PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER, SEEKS BEAUTIFUL, INTELLIGENT YOUNG WOMAN TO HELP DESIGN DREAM HOUSE AND CREATE FAMILY EQUIVALENT OF AMERICA'S TEAM. MUST LIKE QUIET EVENINGS AT HOME, EITHER CRUISING AMERICA ONLINE OR ADMIRING TROPICAL FISH TANK. MUST SPEND SUNDAYS IN CROWDED STADIUMS ROOTING FOR DALLAS COWBOYS. DISLIKE OF 49ERS AND REDSKINS A PLUS, BUT NOT REQUIRED.”
Aikman, we were told, would spend hours in AOL chat rooms, though it never specified if they were M for W (which was implied) or M for M (which is what I, and many other guys, hoped).
Aikman went on to a successful career in broadcasting, married and has two children. If there was ever any truth to the rumors, I doubt we’ll ever find out. Similarly, in “Brokeback Mountain,” both Jack and Ennis marry and raise kids, this in a time when two men living together simply was not done, especially in Wyoming. Despite Jack’s pleading, Ennis can’t break the grip of the culture of homophobia in which he was raised.
In sports, being labeled gay is perceived as tantamount to career suicide and athletes have gone out of their way to quash any rumor, as the Aikman case illustrates to the extreme. In 2002, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza took the unusual step of declaring his heterosexuality after a blind item appeared in a gossip column saying one of the Mets was gay. Piazza then became linked to beautiful women and got married in 2005 to an actress and former Playmate.
In 2004, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia announced he was not gay after being fingered as such by then teammate Terrell Owens. Garcia then dated two Playboy playmates back-to-back, further enhancing his straight credentials; the fact that Playmate 1 duked it out with Playmate 2 in a bar only got Garcia more attention to the type of relationship he was having.
Love and Death
In “Brokeback Mountain,” the idea of a savage death for men loving men hovers over the film, including a key scene near the end. The sports world is not immune to similar savagery. In 1962, boxer Emile Griffith beat his opponent Benny Paret to death in the ring in Madison Square Garden before a national TV audience. Paret had taunted Griffith for being a “maricon,” Spanish slang for faggot. "He called me a maricon. I knew maricon meant faggot. I wasn’t nobody’s faggot,” Griffith said. The slurs drove Griffith to a fury in the ring that ended with Paret slumped over the ropes and lapsing into a coma from which he never recovered.
There is no doubt that Griffith is a homosexual, though he steadfastly denied it for years; he developed a reputation as a lady’s man and once briefly married. A documentary last year about the Paret fight brought Griffith some attention and he offered to ride in New York’s gay pride parade. Griffith was in his prime in the same era when Jack and Ennis first meet in the movie, and Paret and Jack are both killed, in a universal sense, by homophobia.
David Kopay is a sports pioneer, the first NFL player to come out, a year after retiring. He saw “Brokeback Mountain” its first weekend in Los Angeles and told me how blown away and emotionally affected he was, and how the story resonated for him. As he watched Jack and Ennis deal with their love for each other on the screen, Kopay said he thought about his relationship with Jerry Smith, with whom he played with on the Washington Redskins in the early 1970s.
Smith died of AIDS in 1987 while never publicly admitting his homosexuality. To honor Smith’s desire for privacy, Kopay never mentioned him by name in his book, though he was a catalyst in Kopay’s coming out. Smith “was my first major [gay] experience and the first person I thought I could love,” Kopay said. Like Ennis and Jack, but for differing reasons, Dave and Jerry’s relationship was stillborn and Kopay sounds wistful when he recalls those days.
At the end of the film, after Jack has died, Ennis is alone with Jack’s shirt and his grief, with no one to share his loss with. It reminded me of a moving passage in Billy Bean’s book “Going the Other Way.”
Bean played Major League Baseball for nine years and came out after retiring in 1999. While in San Diego, Bean was living with another man, in a relationship that was clandestine and which Bean strove mightily to keep that way. His lover became ill and eventually died.
Numb with grief, but still hiding his private life, Bean honored a team commitment on the day of his lover’s death, something inconceivable for a straight athlete who just lost a spouse. “Once in a while, the team issues a statement that a player is excused … to attend to family matters,” Bean recounts in his book. “This had to be one of those situations. There was only one problem: How could I explain that my ‘family matter’ was the AIDS-related death of my male lover with whom I’d been living secretly?”
“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it” was Bean’s mantra and Tuaolo’s and that of any closeted athlete. Bean and Tuaolo finally had enough of the hiding and neither has ever regretted coming out. I hope that the movie inspires another mantra for anyone closeted, jock or not. It comes from someone who posted on the official "Brokeback" website: "I have been denying my sexuality for a long time. The movie has inspired me to face my true nature."