Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A 2013 Look at Gays in Sports

By Brad Oremland

In the early 20th century, racial discrimination was every bit as prevalent in sports as it was in the rest of society. Segregation in baseball is most notorious, but nowhere was the issue more apparent than in boxing. Black champions like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali played vital roles in the evolution of attitudes toward minority athletes and civil rights.

Gay rights continues to be a divisive topic, but the movement is going in the same direction. The more time passes, the more everyone tends to see gays simply as people, rather than as different. Robbie Rogers played professional soccer in MLS and for several clubs in Europe. Last month, he simultaneously announced that he was gay and that he was retiring from the sport. Public support for Rogers has been something like unanimous, and the Seattle Sounders recorded a video of players and coaches voicing their support.

For years, lesbians have been largely accepted in women's competitions. I think there's less pressure and judgment from their peers, and on a sociologic level it makes sense that lesbians might be drawn to sports. There's also less pressure from the media, because women's sports don't draw the same spotlight as football and baseball and men's basketball.

But I also wonder if society doesn't tend to be more accepting of lesbians than of gay men. Even big stars like Martina Navratilova, who came out decades ago, never had to face the same bigotry that is likely to accompany the first openly gay player in the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball. Many NFL fans still consider it the height of wit to call the Cowboys' quarterback Tony Homo. I don't even know what to think of the Manti Te'o dead-girlfriend-who-turned-out-to-be-an-alive-guy saga.

Women's sports continue to be a mostly welcoming arena for gay participants and fans. Last week, openly lesbian Liz Carmouche, who wears a rainbow mouthpiece, fought in the first-ever UFC women's bout. If Ultimate Fighting fans can accept Carmouche — and her back-and-forth battle with Ronda Rousey drew cheers from a crowd that had booed the previous match — then that's surely a positive sign for widespread acceptance of lesbians in sports.

The bigger question concerns acceptance of men in high-profile team sports: the NFL, NBA, and MLB. I believe all three leagues are quickly becoming more accepting of gays and the idea of gay teammates, but I also suspect we have a few more years before anyone in one of those leagues deliberately comes out as gay. As Outsports' Cyd Zeigler wrote recently, "To the closeted athlete, the voice of Chris Culliver is right now far louder than that of Chris Kluwe."

Culliver, a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, drew national attention for homophobic comments the week before the Super Bowl. This week, he visited the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention in the gay community, and tweeted a photo of himself at its Los Angeles headquarters. Five years ago, five-time NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway went public with some of the ugliest anti-gay comments on record from any athlete: "I hate gay people ... I am homophobic." Today, Hardaway is an active advocate for gay rights. He also works with the Trevor Project, and he stood up for gay rights in his home city of El Paso, speaking out against the recall of politicians who supported domestic partner benefits.

In the NFL, Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe are tireless, high-profile advocates for gay rights. But for every athlete who speaks out in support of gay rights, the isolated comments in the other direction speak 10 times more loudly for closeted athletes. And even if players are confident of support from their teams, they might be discouraged by the media attention that will almost certainly surround the first openly gay athlete in a high-profile sports league. MLB's color barrier was broken by one of the greatest players in history, Jackie Robinson. I suspect some gay athletes feel they can't be the first to go public, because they feel the gay rights movement needs its own Jackie Robinson — a player so exceptional that he defies efforts to belittle him.

This week, the NFL Combine made news when it was reported that at least one team asked a prospect, "Do you like girls?" That's disconcerting, because for all the players and coaches who are ready to accept a gay teammate, all the executives and managers who would welcome gay athletes, all the fans who only care whether or not you can play, and all the journalists who would love to support a gay athlete, even with all those people prepared to offer support, the major sports leagues in the United States still project an air of homophobia. When scouts at the Combine ask players whether they're gay, it's hard to view the question as benign.

The gay rights movement is growing quickly in this country, and sports are no exception. One of the greatest stimulants for gay acceptance has been people coming out of the closet. Everyone knows someone who is openly gay, whether it's a family member, friend, or just someone they see on tv. We like these people, and we don't see them as bad or scary; we want good things for them. When gay athletes begin coming out, I suspect it will quickly become a trend: the more who open up, the easier it will get for others to do the same.

But it's hard to be the first. I believe widespread acceptance will come before athletes deliberately out themselves, and I don't think it will happen in 2013, and probably not in 2014.

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