Thursday, March 17, 2005

Come Out and Play Ball!!



The distracting steroid scandal presents a golden opportunity for a gay baseball player to come out of the closet


By Steve Charing


(published in Baltimore OUTloud and OUTSPORTS.com)

The greening of the grass and the budding on the trees, the talkative birds and the emergence of hibernating daffodils all signal the start of new baseball season. But the run-up to the first pitch ceremonies has been dominated by the revelations that major leaguers in uncertain numbers have used steroids.

The House Committee on Government Oversight did their thing with a theatrical hearing, which gave the appearance that if baseball doesn’t fix the steroid problem, Congress would act. Following the testimonies by the current and former players as well as representatives of Major League Baseball and the Players Association, it is assured that the cloud of steroids is going to hover over the baseball season that is about to launch.

With all the distraction of the steroids problem, it would seem that now may be the right time for one of the gay major leaguers to come out of the closet and, well, be a man. You ask why add more controversy to a season that will be remembered more for finger pointing and suspicion than any home run chase? Why upset the nation’s fans who are already disappointed in their heroes?

The answer is simple: being gay, being true to yourself, and being up front about it is in no way comparable to players who cheated using illegal substances to achieve individual records and then had become the beneficiaries of more lucrative contracts.

By contrasting the self-outing of a gay ballplayer with one who has been found to have used anabolic steroids, the outcome for the gay player in terms of acceptance appears to have a reasonable chance for success. Which is worse, a baseball player sleeping with another man when he goes home at night following a game or one who injects another’s butt with an illegal, banished and dangerous substance that artificially gives a player an advantage over the "play-by-the rules types"? Will the gay player "steal" the home run title simply for being gay? No. (But it would be nice though.)

Let’s be clear about it, there are gay players in the major leagues. Mark McGwire basically said as much during his sobbing testimony when he proudly proclaimed his own indifference to "sexual preference." Why would he make such a remark unless he knows of players whose sexual "preference" needs to be, um, ignored?

Set aside for a moment the controversial political discourse surrounding same-sex marriage, red states, blue states, religious extremists, etc. A professional athlete who openly admits he’s gay would send a colossal message to the denizens of the U.S. that it is OK to be gay and that he can perform in his job effectively. It would also set the stage for other athletes to do likewise.

As I’ve opined before, it would take Jackie Robinson-like courage to make such a move—as it was Robinson who broke the barrier of baseball’s institutional racism in 1947. Robinson specifically had the make-up in his heart and soul, not to mention guts, to withstand the threats and the taunts of teammates, opponents and fans all over. He not only endured he became a Hall of Famer.

No other male professional athlete has come out of the closet while he is actively playing. A couple of former baseball and football players have come out once they retired. Billy Bean (pictured) was the most recent baseball player who came out after his playing days ended. He remains a gay activist.

Baseball is ripe for it; it’s essentially a non-contact sport that focuses more on individual skills than teamwork. One can be gay and play shortstop while his homophobic left fielder can only look in on him with wonder between pitches. And hyped up fears of sexual assaults in the locker room and showers are pure nonsense, and most everyone knows that. Athletes aren’t that stupid.

Still, each baseball club undoubtedly has a John Rocker-type homophobe or three in its midst. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed by the team’s management and the other teammates. Cities such as Philadelphia and Toronto have already held "Gay Community Nights" at their ballparks, which is an excellent signal that they are interested in marketing and attracting gay and lesbian fans. Don’t expect similar events in the homophobic NBA though.

I used to believe that the risk of losing prospective endorsements would be a major impediment to a gay player’s coming out. I think differently now. Not that many players actually have major endorsement deals. Locally, we see the ubiquitous Cal Ripken pitching everything in sight. Of course, Rafael Palmiero (one of those accused of using steroids in the infamous Jose Canseco tell-all), had a national Viagra deal going. I believe he would have stood a greater chance of losing his endorsement contract if it came out that he used steroids than if he came out as gay. (That is not meant to imply he is gay; it is merely to demonstrate the point that certain advertisers would be more sensitive to drug abuse than sexual orientation—especially if the sponsor is Viagra.)

Most other ballplayers don’t have local endorsements in tow. Has anyone seen the telegenic Javy Lopez in many commercials? Or Larry Bigbie or Brian Roberts? Not hardly. Therefore, with such a low percentage of baseball players with endorsement deals, a player’s coming out of the closet would probably not affect his traditional endorsement prospects since it would be unlikely he would have been offered a deal even if he remained in the closet. Conversely, many gay-friendly companies like Ikea, Pier 1, or Southwest Airlines would literally jump at the chance to have an openly gay player push their products or services.

The main challenge would be dealing with the media and fans. Someone who is tough enough to withstand the taunting and threats would be the ideal candidate. It would also require someone who would have to be, at some level, at peace with himself that coming out would actually be a good thing for him. If he weren’t a star player to begin with—an icon—perhaps this revelation would cause people to look up at him. Clearly this would be a big leap—for the player and for the sport. While it is true that many Americans have problems with gays and lesbians, relatively few lack awareness thanks to the emergence of gay characters in our culture and other sources of information. It would not appear so alien as it might have in years past.

The time is right for a ballplayer to come out of the dugout and declare his true self to one and all. The pain baseball is experiencing because of the steroid scandal is far more acute than a player revealing a heretofore hidden part of his persona. The focus will not be on him because the steroids issue is a far greater threat to the game.

Come out and play ball!

No comments: