The ongoing legal battles currently in Washington D.C. at the highest levels of our court system provides for a unique atmosphere stirring in sports leagues. More and more talk about players having the ability, based on a friendly atmosphere and chance to be accepted, to come out and be an openly gay player. Equality is at the forefront and sports is a new place to take this discussion. Prior to today, there was not a single player in the major four american professional sports that was openly gay. Now, Jason Collins, a journeyman center in the NBA has publicly come out through SI.com. You can see their article here He didn’t mince words in the co-authored piece, with Frank Lidz, when the first line reads, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
It would clearly give the LGBT community unprecedented amount of exposure because of the high regard sports holds in our society. Hell, I waste a lot of time writing about things that don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, and I couldn’t enjoy it more. Jason Collins has an opportunity to become the next Jackie Robinson in the truest sense of the phrase. Breaking down a new barrier in sports and ushering in an era that will hopefully become neutral toward sexual orientation much like it has toward race. That is not to say that prejudice will ever disappear entirely, inside or outside of sports, but it is a fantastic stepping stone toward such an ideal.
Atmosphere Around Sports
American professional team sports now has but ONE athlete that is openly gay during their playing career. From the outside we can only get a glimpse into the possible atmosphere that a gay player could face in professional sports, both from teammates and fans alike. ESPN The Magazine did a poll of 110 random players in the MLB and found that only 5% of players polled admit to knowing a gay player. Predictably, the other 95% were split 50/50 between saying they do not think a gay player in the locker room would be a problem in the modern MLB and saying that it would not be a problem for them, but would likely be a problem for others on the team.
One NFL player in particular has shown us a darker side that I am certain any player considering coming out is fearful of. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was quoted as saying, “No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they got to get up out of here if they do,” and in reference to whether or not it should be kept a secret, “Yeah, come out 10 years later after that.” The audio and story on this can be found at Yahoo! Sports here, by Martin Rogers.
The NFL is not the only league to have players showing some form of a strong opposition to the possibility of a gay teammate. Late in the 2012 MLB season, former Toronto Blue Jays and current Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended 3 games for a slur present on his eye black. You can see it here on the left and can see it enlarged if you click on the photograph. The new vogue thing in recent years in sports is to display a message on your fake eye black stickers, and Escobar unfortunately used this to display the message, “tu ere maricon.” The most common translation is, “you are a faggot.” For purposes of full disclosure, this is seen as normal in many Latin American players vocabulary and many claim it holds no literal meaning to the gay community anymore. However, that argument doesn’t hold in this day and age as it is the same argument people like to attempt with their desire to use the words “gay” or “retarded” in a derogatory or negative way.
Upon news of a professional football player considering coming out breaking on Twitter and social media sites, Chris Clemons, defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, had a few things to say about it on Twitter himself. To give this proper context, because I absolutely despise misquotes or lack of context in quotes, Clemons does seem to have a different point to make than there should not be openly gay players. His point seems to be legitimately related only to how it affects the football team. HOWEVER, that doesn’t make the statements harmless and it still gives us a useful look into the dynamics of the locker room. Excuse some of the grammar and spelling…
@ryanjamesdio it doesn't matter how good they are. That will immediately separate a lockerroom and divide a team.
— Chris Clemons (@chrisclemons91) March 26, 2013
@Jack_Humphreys4 I'm not against anyone but I think it's a selfish act. They just trying to make themselves bigger than the team.
— Chris Clemons (@chrisclemons91) March 26, 2013
Football reasons are not good enough reasons to delay a movement in sports to allow players the freedom to be who they are.
Again, Clemons’ comments come on the heels of news that an NFL player (or 4 as of this writing) is/are contemplating coming out of the closet. There have been several reports in regards to this by respected journalists coming from different sources. No one has, nor should they, name the player that is contemplating coming out. But it is surprising that nothing has leaked as of yet based on the way modern news breaks and leaks in an instant. Mike Freeman has reported in his piece that, “This player’s true concern, I’m told, is not the reaction inside an NFL locker room but outside of it. The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out.” Telling indeed.
All of these past problems and fears in the NFL and MLB contexts show just how powerful and potentially risky Jason Collins coming it really is.
Openly Gay Former Professional Athletes/Executives
To say there has never been an openly gay professional team sport athlete, before today, during their actual playing career seems oddly specific. That is because there are several examples of former players that have come out since their days as team sport athletes as well as openly gay athletes in more singular sports. Billie Jean King may be the single most famous athlete to ever confirm that they are gay. King was forced out of the closet because of a bitter divorce in 1981 and likely wouldn’t have continued playing prior to confirming reports that she was in fact gay. However, because of the divorce and need for an income, she continued her playing career in tennis until the end of the 1983 tennis season.
My wheelhouse, the front office of teams, has also become present in the conversation of gay individuals being involved in sports and being unafraid. The former president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns and current president of the Golden State Warriors, Rick Welts, is openly gay and the NBA players he was associated with embraced it. He is also active with the You Can Play campaign, a group fighting for the eradication of homophobia in sports. Welts is the first openly gay executive in sports and could be an important ally for any player considering this decision.
The NFL has been extremely closed off to the gay community, likely because of stereotypes on both sides. Stereotypes against players and coaches possible acceptance of an openly gay teammate and stereotypes against gay athletes coexisting with their teammates. However, former offensive tackle and first round draft pick in 2003, Kwame Harris, confirmed rumors that he was gay on March 29th, 2013. He was forced into the spot light like Billie Jean King was when reports of a domestic disturbance arrest were made public. He had an altercation with a boyfriend at the time of the arrest in 2012 and once this information went public, he decided to come out publicly. CNN did an interview and piece on him that can be found on YouTube here.
One professional athlete that may still have a chance at competing in his sport and being openly gay is Robbie Rogers. Still just 25 years old, he has decided to retire from soccer after 6 years of professional competition in leagues all across the United States and Europe. His retirement was announced on his website/blog in a post on February 23, 2013 and can be found here. He still has a chance to return to the game he loves if he ever wants to, but as of now he has decided to show who he really is and put his playing career behind him. I can’t possibly say it better than he does, so please read the actual post, but as he said, “Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay…Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football.” It seems that Mr. Rogers (Sorry…I had to, it is a joke that usually only gets used AGAINST me) subscribes to the belief of the unnamed player in the NFL and is unwilling to risk it. That is a decision only he can make for himself and I have no quarrel with it, but I do hope that the player in the NFL chooses to break through the barrier in sports along with Jason Collins.
These are all people that Jason Collins possibly has or can look to for strength in the coming weeks no matter what the outcome is. I sincerely hope that this goes as smoothly as a modern society should allow it to, but we all know the hate that is present around the world. We have seen the way some react to certain gay rights legislation, along with the way some people choose to speak their minds on this issue. Collins would do well to seek out the group of NFL players and provide them with strength as they can also do for him.
Some teams are doing their part, the San Francisco 49ers were the first team to support the It Gets Better Project, an anti-bullying organization targeted at LGBT teens. Several other teams in different leagues have thrown their support into the ring, several players are openly supportive of the LGBT community and the culture in sports is evolving. We, the fans, must do our part as well. A player’s primary fear should not be of what those who should be supporting him will do. I’ve never claimed to be the perfect advocate for such an agenda. I have a poor choice in words far too often and I don’t have a wealth of experience in the area. But I do know that no person should have to hide who they are because of fear of the repercussions.
I commend Jason Collins for the big step he took today and hope that we will soon see more and more people feel strong enough to join him at the forefront. There are players that will see it as an unnecessary step because to publicize it is to create it as an issue and I respect that stance just as much as I respect anyone that takes the plunge that Jason Collins has. The important thing is to allow for players in all sports to feel comfortable with themselves as a gay athlete. Whether those players want to tell the world who they are or if they just want to be able to be who they are without having to address it at all, we will all benefit from their actions. Good on you Jason Collins, I hope you hear from the best of us as fans and that your next organization is one filled with players that are smart enough to look at your contributions as an athlete and accept and applaud you for who you are and what you’re doing.