Note: Before I even begin this piece I would like to acknowledge the fact that this may be seen as a point of contention. I would like to say that I in no way mean any offense to anyone and apologize in advance if I do so.
In the United States today we are currently witnessing a new civil rights movement. Although it is not as well publicized as the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, the LGBT community is going through the process of dealing with what many feel are injustices presented toward them in modern society. With the increasing awareness and acceptance of homosexuality in today’s world there is still one area where there is yet to be an openly gay icon: the world of American sports. There have been openly gay athletes in some of the major fringe sports, but nothing in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB. Some of the inquiry is whether these sports simply don’t have many gay athletes and it is not really an issue, but that would be a pretty naïve view of the situation. From a numbers standpoint, the odds of having not a single gay athlete in any of these sports is astronomically low, and several players have come out as gay after their playing careers. So it begs the question, why are these athletes choosing not to be honest with the public about their sexuality? And what would America do if a player did come out as gay while still playing?
I think the most important thing to do here is first, is to look at what the public response to athletes is in non-major sports that are openly homosexual. Megan Rapinoe one of the major contributors to the US women’s soccer team recently has come out, much to the support of the public. When asked why she chose to come out in an interview with Out Magazine she simply stated she had never been asked by the media before and would have been fine coming out at any time during her playing career. There has only been public support in the general media for Rapinoe, and any scrutiny of her sexuality has been kept behind closed doors if there is any at all.
In addition to Rapinoe, UFC fighter Liz Carmouche told the public she was a lesbian during the normal pre-fight media interviews that accompanied her title fight with Ronda Rousey. It seemed to only be a small blip on the media radar. Some of that probably had to do with the fact that it was a UFC fight, and those don’t garner a huge amount of media attention as it is, but also the fact that no one involved with the fight seemed to mind at all. Rousey said it was fine with her and she felt completely comfortable fighting Carmouche, as she should.
The larger surprise actually came for UFC president Dana White, who has been criticized at times of misogyny and homophobia. White simply came out and said “Most of the guys that are in this sport are really good people, I honestly don’t see a situation where that would happen, but if it did, I’d fix it.” One can only assume Whites fixing of the situation would be to fire the offender (he has been known for fire people for a lot less).
So if we look at two pretty significant sports figures that have come out to positive feedback from the public why haven’t we seen a major athlete be open about their homosexuality? Unfortunately, the stigma of gay males and gay females differ pretty radically, especially when it comes to sports. Rapinoe summed it up in her interview pretty well saying “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out. In female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It’s very open and widely supported. For males, it’s not that way at all. It’s sad.” Homosexual females tend to fly under that radar of public criticism, but there seems to be a universal understanding that a gay male wouldn’t be overlooked.
In the history of the NFL only five players have come out as gay David Kopay, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo, Wade Davis and as of last week Kwame Harris. It is also worth noting that none of these players felt comfortable coming out until after they left the sport. There hasn’t been a single openly gay male actively playing a major sport in American history. According to CBS’s Mike Freeman there is an active player in the NFL that is considering opening up about his sexuality. With this idea it’s hard not to wonder what the public reaction would be. I can only assume the LGBT community would be avid in their support and at the most he would be a Jackie Robinson type historical player.
In his interview with Freeman the unnamed player said public ridicule was his biggest concern regarding whether or not to come out. He appears to be under the impression the issues within the locker room would be dealt with quickly if they unfortunately came up, which seems surprisingly optimistic see as the 49ers Chris Culliver made some anti-gay remarks in Superbowl media week, and this week Chris Clemons said a gay player coming out would be “selfish” and “putting himself above the team”. What really worries the unnamed player is what will happen when upwards of 60,000 people gather in a stadium and a mob mentality of drinking and heckling kicks in. Obviously this person doesn’t want to have to face the verbal abuse and sexual abuse that might ensue from telling the world about his sexuality. Heckling is a pretty common thing in sports, but usually it is pretty vague and keeps to “you suck” or “you’re a bum”, but the idea that someone will be harassed for being gay is not out of the question by any means. It is a sorry situation when someone feels that they have to hide who they are because of what other people might think, but that is the nature of sports and life in the public eye.
It would be nice to see the world become accepting of a homosexual athlete, but I don’t think we are quite ready. The media firestorm that ensued after Kwame Harris was outed to do a fight with his ex-boyfriend in the football community was large, and I can only image what would happen if an active player came out. The fact that it still takes a supreme court to decide gays can marry, and in many states it’s still seen as outlandish doesn’t bode well for someone who has to travel the nation and play in front of thousands of people. The tides are changing for gay athletes, and changing quickly, but I still don’t think that America would be ready to embrace a gay athlete, but some people didn’t think the country was ready for Jackie Robinson either, and he became a legend. It’s sad that I even feel compelled to write this article, as I hope that sexual orientation would be a non-issue, but I still think there are too many people who can’t accept homosexuals especially in the public eye. Hopefully someone gathers to courage to come out, and I wish him the best of luck. I just hope they know how to deal with the abuse they will have to take.