If you listen to many in the sports media, gay athletes are a distraction to teams, particularly men's teams, that no coaching, strategy or athleticism can overcome. Gay athletes bring with them discomfort in the locker room, an army of nosy sports writers, and social media backlash that will overwhelm the twitter feeds of everyone on the team.
Then there's reality.
When Jason Collins was signed by the Brooklyn Nets, the predicted media storm hit. How did the Nets respond? The team went on a 12-3 run that catapulted them to the playoffs and won its first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors.
The Los Angeles Galaxy signed Robbie Rogers a couple months after he came out publicly, drawing huge national media attention. The Galaxy went on to the playoffs that season and won the MLS Cup the following season with Rogers starting(and nearly scoring in the early minutes of the match).
The latest is the Seton Hall Univ. men's basketball team and Derrick Gordon, who won the Big East tournament this weekend, knocking off Xavier and Villanova, the two top seeds in the conference, and locking in at least a decent seed in the NCAA tournament.
The story of Gordon and the Pirates is particularly telling. When Gordon signed with the school, Seton Hall was in the midst of a controversy over the firing of an out gay priest. Seton Hall is also a religious institution, leading many to wonder whether Gordon would be accepted by the team, coaches and fans (despite, of course, the team recruiting him in the first place).
Seton Hall's men's basketball team hasn't won the Big East or posted as good a record in almost 25 years. They haven't been to the NCAA tournament in a decade.
Following their huge win over Villanova, Fox Sports' Reid Forgrave reflected on Gordon the leader:
But in ways that can't be measured by numbers, Gordon has been the key difference between a team that collapsed last year and a team that won the Big East tournament this year: The experience that comes with five years in college basketball. The non-stop hustle to do things like pin a Josh Hart layup against the backboard on a second-half runout. The leadership that it takes to go into his team's huddle as Villanova was surging in that second half and say, simply, "We're not losing this game -- we've been in this situation before."
Leadership. Hustle. Determination. Experience.
That is what Gordon has brought to Seton Hall. No distraction. No locker room discomfort. No teammates or coaches worrying about his presence in a shower. Gordon has, by all accounts, demonstrated the very reasons he was brought to Seton Hall in his final year of eligibility. He is far more proud of being the first athlete to play in the NCAA tournament for three different schools than he is being the first publicly out gay player in the tournament.
Just like every other gay athlete, when it comes to his sport he is an athlete first.
Going forward, I'd like to propose a new dynamic in covering gay athletes. When a general manager talks about fearing the mythical "distraction" a gay athlete might bring, I'd like to see sports writers question and reject the concern. It is desperately unfounded on prejudice and ignorance.
And when a writer regurgitates the nonsense, I'd like to see every one of us point not to the "distractions" for which there is no record, but rather to the success that teams with Collins, Rogers and Gordon have experienced with these publicly out athletes.
The track record of gay athletes who come out publicly gets more clear with every person who joins the conversation: Gay athletes are winners. That's a fact.