Monday, February 26, 2007

Time to Step Up to the Plate

The climate is improving for a gay pro athlete to come out

By Steve Charing

The creaky sound of the closet door opening in pro male sports has been heard too infrequently over the past three decades. It started with pro football player David Kopay in 1975. Then the first major league baseball player to come out, Glenn Burke, did so in 1982. Ten years later another gridiron athlete, Roy Simmons, came out on the Phil Donahue Show.

Keeping the alternating leagues in tact, baseballer Billy Bean stepped out of the closet in 1999, and football player Esera Tuaolo followed suit in 2002. Of course, there was an official—not an athlete—baseball umpire Dave Pallone, who had come out in 1990.

Just a few weeks ago a new sport joined the all-too-modest line-up of pro athletes’ coming out: pro basketball in the person of John Amaechi. The reverberations beyond the creaky closet door from Amaechi’s disclosure are still being heard.

These now "out" pro sports figures—in varying degrees of celebrity and proficiency—have two things in common: they all went public after they retired, and they all announced their sexuality in advance of selling a book.

When Esera Tuaolo came out I praised him for his candor but questioned the usefulness of a retired athlete’s coming out. I said then, and others have repeated the refrain, that it would take "Jackie Robinson-like courage" for an active male player to disclose that he is gay in the testosterone-dominated arena of professional sports.

Sheryl Swoopes, an active female basketball star and three-time Most Valuable Player recipient in the WNBA, came out in 2005, which was seen as brave. The environment was more favorable for her to come out given that a significant portion of the WNBA fan base is comprised of lesbians. And while Swoopes received tremendous support from her team and fans, many gay activists were miffed when she disclosed that her sexuality was a choice.

Locker room reaction
For a male athlete to come out, however, the landscape could be more daunting. The first thing that comes to the mind of a gay athlete is the reaction in the locker room, which in the macho world of professional sports, is not likely to be gay friendly. According to John Amaechi, there are other gay players in the NBA who are terrified to come out because of their teammates’ potential backlash. You know, the shower argument.

Some pro athletes from the NBA and NHL have stated that they would support their teammates because that’s what teammates do. "Anybody who knows me knows I'm a guy who loves his teammates and if anything ever comes up like that, I don't look at that," said Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade. "I look at what guys can do for you on the court. And in the locker room you have great relationships with guys. I don't have any negative views." This was a typical of response from those supportive pros who wanted to weigh in on the record.

A Sports Illustrated survey conducted last year provides more insight. When players from the four major professional sports leagues—MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL—were asked it they would support an openly gay teammate, more than half in the NFL said they would; three out of five approved of a gay teammate in the NBA and Major League Baseball; and a whopping four out of five were supportive in the NHL. This spike in the NHL’s acceptance is most likely attributable to the fact that most of the players are Canadians and Europeans who are more apt to lack the sexual hang-ups of Americans.

Nonetheless, former NBA player Tim Hardaway was repulsed at the thought of a gay teammate and stated during an interview that, among other reasons for not wanting a gay teammate, he hates gays. He later apologized for his comments. The big question is: who more represents the locker room mindset—Wade or Hardaway?

Teammate support may be there, but what’s missing, however, is how these guys would respond when an opponent comes out. Would he be taunted, shunned, harassed, or just left alone?

Fan response
The second consideration for a gay athlete who is contemplating coming out is the reaction of fans. That is a tough one to gauge and may depend on the team’s locale and its social consciousness. On the surface a gay athlete may be better off coming out in New York than in Dallas, but no matter if a state is red or blue, every state has a mix of homophobes and progressives, thus the color purple.

Yet a gay athlete who is a strong performer and/or is popular with the fans will have a better chance of mitigating any backlash. Indeed, studies have already indicated that fans appear to be OK with an openly gay player. According to an online survey by Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive conducted in 2002, two out of three fans said they would not change their opinions of favorite male or female professional athletes should they come out.

Consequently, four out of five said other fans would have a problem.

Over the past several years, there have been "gay night" events at several baseball parks recognizing the significance of the gay dollar and that being inclusive is good business. And just recently, there was a landmark Pride Night with the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL.

Endorsement concerns
The third consideration is the potential loss of endorsements if a player comes out, especially when corporations are under extreme pressure from so-called morality groups. But when Sheryl Swoopes came out, Nike did not drop an existing endorsement deal, and she picked up another one as well.

While some see a risk, others see a windfall. "From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective," said the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that'll put money in your pocket. On the flip side, if you're the idiot who condemns somebody because they're gay, then you're going to be ostracized, you're going to be picketed and you're going to ruin whatever marketing endorsements you have."

The times, they are a-changin’
The world has evolved dramatically since the day Jackie Robinson endured taunts and death threats from fans and ostracism by teammates and opponents alike. The country wasn’t ready for integration during Robinson’s gallant breaking of the color barrier 60 years ago. Attitude towards gay acceptance is improving albeit slowly. Cultural exposure to gays and lesbians, including more positive portrayals of gays in television and movies, and political debates that push for equality, have contributed to the positive trends.

But the best evidence of a more accepting sports world occurred following Tim Hardaway’s homophobic remarks. Swiftly and unequivocally, NBA Commissioner David Stern rebuked Hardaway and cancelled Hardaway’s representing the NBA during the all-star weekend, and he lost an endorsement, too. Moreover, the Continental Basketball Association terminated Hardaway’s role with the league. These actions sent a powerful message that homophobia—not homosexuality—is a taboo.

Coming out in the world of sports may be a struggle. But the outcome is likely to be successful given that times are changing and intolerance will not be tolerated.

1 comment:

Rob Lance said...

Steve -

Good article. I think one of the points you make is that everyone is starting to see that when a non-retired pro athlete come out these days, it's less and less of a big deal. Endorsements are not being lost and the clout of the "morality" groups is starting to diminish. The majority of the other teammates seem to be supportive.

I also believe that Tim Haddaway actually did us a favor with his homophobic ranting.

But it's time not only for the athletes to step up, but for other "celebrities" in other areas. We need a mass coming-out!

Thanks, Rob