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Are Fans Ready to Accept an Openly Gay Player in MLB?

(This story was published in 2002).

These articles originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on June 7. The paper's Turn 2 in Sports on Fridays is devoted to a topic and gays in sports was chosen this day. An Internet poll for the paper found 51% saying fans would accept an openly gay player and 49% saying they would not.

YES

By Jim Buzinski

American sports fans cheer for wife beaters, alcoholics, crack heads and pot heads, drunk drivers and all manner of assorted thugs. They won't, however, cheer for an openly gay athlete.

This is the conventional wisdom we've heard the past two weeks since Mike Piazza proclaimed his heterosexuality to the world. Society just isn't ready, goes the mantra. I say that's bunk.

There is a simple answer to the question of whether sports fans are ready: Who cares? If a male athlete on a pro sports team sport publicly comes out as gay, fans will be forced to deal with it, like it or not. He won't need their permission ahead of time. I think most fans will accept it and move on rather quickly.

Fans aren't as homophobic as everybody thinks. Many assume that Joe Sixpack Couch Potato would get his bloodlust up if a gay player came out. This does not square with a poll taken for ESPN on May 30 and 31, 2001, (margin of error 4.5%), which found that fans seem pretty tolerant.

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%

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. Discomfort, however, does not mean hostility.

The attitudes expressed in this poll were reinforced by ESPN.com, which ran a package of stories on gays in sports a year ago. ``Of the 874 letters received, 75% said they would support a gay athlete, 22% said they would not and 3% percent did not offer an opinion,'' the Web site reported.

Of course there would be hecklers flapping their gums at an out jock, but athletes deal with verbal fan abuse all of the time (just ask Jason Kidd). It comes with the territory. But there would also be a countervailing reaction to any fan who got too abusive; he'd likely be roundly booed by other fans, and maybe cold-cocked by the gay guy sitting next to him. Overt homophobia isn't tolerated in American urban areas, where the vast majority of pro sports franchises are located.

Collectively, fans (and I include myself) take a black-and-white view of sports: Our players are the good guys, the opposing players are the bad guys. In a fan's eyes, a player can be just about anything off the field as long as he performs on the field. Don't ask don't tell? More like, Just Win, Baby!

NO

By Chris Rose

We're a society of morons.

I would love to believe that as a society, our sports fans would be mature enough to handle an openly gay player in baseball. But there's no indication we're even close to being there.

I mean, all you have to do is look at what happened to Jason Kidd and his family last week in Boston. He's being called a wife-beater--we're a year-plus removed from the incident and they're still yelling at him--and his wife and family are right there in the stands. They've mended the problems in their relationship. They've been upfront. They've gone about it the right way. And look how they're treated.

I don't mean to single out the people of Boston. It happens everywhere. Look at John Rocker. His 1999 comments to "Sports Illustrated" we're made almost five months before the season--and he's still dealing with it everywhere he goes.

Then it becomes a distraction for the entire team, so much so it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the organization.

Each city, players have to answer questions. They're distracted, then say, "I can't concentrate on baseball, this is driving me nuts."

It's just a handful of fans, but that's all it takes. On the road, these people can be ruthless. And at home, the minute this guy's not driving in runs or goes into a slump, he's going to hear it there, too.

I grew up watching baseball in a stadium that was huge in Cleveland. Even there, you knew the players could hear you.

This country has had trouble embracing the gay issue. When you're with a bunch of guys, what's the worst thing you can hear? "You're (gay.)"

We're better than we were 10-15 years ago. Is it good? No. I've heard players saying having a gay teammate wouldn't be a problem. I don't believe it.

Athletics, after all, are a bastion of manlihood. I mean, look how sensitive an issue this became recently even though nothing was revealed.

The baseball clubhouse is about as closed a fraternity as you get. What's the first thing these guys said when this became a hot issue? "I'm not gay." Immediately they went into a defensive mode.

I don't see there being an openly gay baseball player any time in the near future. The person is going to have to have a Jackie Robinson-type demeanor. Not that strong, but he is going to have to deal with similar issues.

It's going to have to be a star player. There's a lot more catcalls and boos for a guy who's hitting .220 than for the guy who's hitting .320. That's just the way we are.