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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Friday, April 25, 2008

Looking for the First Out

New baseball season revives hope that a gay player will come out.

by Steve Charing

WHEN THE WASHINGTON Nationals unveiled their new fabulous ballpark, it revived my annual hope to see a gay major leaguer step out of the closet and onto the field. Although no professional male athlete from the top four team sports has yet to come out while actively playing, I think we’ve progressed to the point that this possibility is real.
Of course, I am making the assumption that there is a gay, closeted major leaguer out there among the 750 players. But if that assumption is true, will the consequences of a heroic disclosure on his own terms be as dire as some fear?
Despite the gay bashing from the political right following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, acceptance of gays and lesbians has increased according to a number of recent polls. This accepting environment should make things easier than in the past for a baseball player to come out.

Major league games are played in cities in the U.S. (and Toronto) that, for the most part, boast large and vibrant gay LGBT communities. Gay groups in Boston, Chicago (White Sox and Cubs), Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C. helped to establish "Gay Days" or "Nights Out" at their respective ball parks in 2007. And in previous years such events were held in Arlington (Texas), Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York (Mets) and Oakland. Aside from the predictable scattered boos by some fans, no major incidents had been reported.

THE BACKLASH FROM teammates and opponents is a legitimate concern, however. Although a Sports Illustrated survey taken a couple of years ago showed that 60 percent of major league baseball players would support an openly gay teammate, I believe the a gay player’s fear of a negative locker room reaction is the number one impediment to his coming out. Esera Tuaolo, a former pro football player who came out in 2002 after he retired, said as much.

A lot of male bonding takes place among teammates—in the locker room and on the road—and this type of disclosure could be unsettling to some. You know, the shower argument. Add that to the basic homophobia that is spread around many jock types, and the response could be combustible.

When professional basketball player John Amaechi came out after he retired, he told how gay players in the NBA were terrified to come out because of the potential backlash by their teammates. Yet when former NBA player Tim Hardaway made virulently anti-gay remarks following Amaechi’s announcement, NBA Commissioner David Stern quickly rebuked him, demonstrating that anti-gay epithets are not welcome. Moreover, other players did not join Hardaway with anti-gay comments, at least publicly.

In fact, some spoke out in Amaechi’s defense. "I look at what guys can do for you on the court," said Miami Heat all-star Dwayne Wade. "And in the locker room you have great relationships with guys. I don't have any negative views."

BECAUSE MOST MAJOR league baseball cities have sizable gay populations with straight co-workers, friends and families allied with gays, the management and owners of teams would not likely tolerate anti-gay fervor levied against one of the players lest they offend a significant portion of the market. From a business angle, especially in the current era, discrimination isn’t the pathway to an improved bottom line.

And coming out may not hurt the player’s bottom line either. "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 Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. "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."

To take that big step it would indeed require the courage of Jackie Robinson who endured a barrage of taunts and threats when he broke the game’s color barrier in 1947. A gay baseball player would also be subjected to hostility, although I believe only for the short term.

Of course, being a fan favorite to begin with should mitigate any animosity. Once the fans embrace a gay ballplayer, the media and teammates will follow.

Such a phenomenon could happen soon, and it will be a major league step forward for the LGBT community as well as for America.

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