Gay athletes: The impact of coming out

14 Jan

One of the topics rarely spoken of in sports is homosexuality. Sure people seem to bring it up in regards to things like ice skating or womens golf but when it comes to the biggies like baseball, football, or almost anything mainstream it is almost as if everyone wants to believe all athletes are straight. I’ve always thought of that as living in never never land, we all know there are plenty of gays in major sports, we just don’t tend to know until after they retire.

Let’s start with taking a look at the major sports, countless athletes come out once they leave the league, the NFL more so than any sport. That’s right, statistically speaking the NFL has more athletes come out that are gay than any sport aside from ice skating. It’s not just Esera Tualo, but Ed Gallagher, Corey Johnson, Dwight Slater, Aylssa Wykes, Dave Kopay and Jerry Smith to name a few, it’s believed to be that about 5% or more of the current players are gay. Kopay formerly a running back and Smith an All-Star tight end with the Redskins were even lovers. Still even when this is common knowledge players stay in the closet.

In baseball and the NBA the numbers are likely around the same percentage as the NFL. Some do come out, thiose that did however like the NFL have been retired, in their final year and unnoticed (Billy Beane) or saw their careers end rather quickly. It’s not just speculation either. Lets take a look at what has actually happened to an athlete that did come out, but only after his career began circling the drain amid a slew of rumors concerning his sexuality.

Glenn Burke (The believed inventor of the high five in sports) was believed to have been traded by the Dodgers for being gay even though he was young and considered a better than average talent on a World Series team. He was even tabbed as being the next Willie Mays with speed, power, five .300 plus seasons in the minors, and great defensive skills. His teammates felt he was not just on the way to being a star but a superstar. He was however very close to Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda’s gay son, something it is believed outed him and began the spiral as Lasorda to this day refuses to acknowledge his son is gay even though “Spunky” as he is called is out.

The A’s gambled on him but eventually released him. The rumors of his sexuality made life for him seem unbearable. He was forced into a position to play a game he loved, or love who he loved and ultimately it was too much. His career ended at 26 and in 1995 he died alone in San Francisco of AIDS. How eager would you be to come out?

There’s always speculation that athletes don’t come out because they fear losing endorsements, those post playing day jobs as coaches, scouts, commentators and the like, or the fear nobody will want them and their career will end prematurely. They would become the center of a press circus and be a distraction to the team perhaps and that would be a fair reason on some level to stay closeted in some minds. Those are all valid concerns, very few gay athletes, especially in mens sports have come out and been accepted. It is the exception rather than the rule, and as yet, at least in America, no real superstar has done so. Are we to believe there has never been a star gay athlete, or that they just don’t want to rock the boat? Maybe it’s because 76% of fans polled said that they would be less of a fan of a certain athlete if the player were gay. Who knows?

I offer my own opinion and take it for what it is worth. I am a transsexual woman, but in college I was man and an athlete, a very good one in a large Division I program. As a freshman I came out over the Christmas break. It didn’t take long for word to get around and the change was nearly immediate. When I entered the locker room or shower it emptied as if Typhoid Mary had just entered. When we traveled I always had a vacancy next to me. Trips were long and quiet. I always had my own room as whoever was assigned to split a hotel room chose to sleep on the floor of someone elses rather than be known as the guy that stayed under the same ceiling as me overnight. Eventually a slight two day type soreness led to the end of my collegiate career. My coach encouraged me to take as much time as I needed, even if it was the full season.

I could read between the lines and stayed on the sidelines, in fact completely away from the team at my coaches urging. My scholarship was not renewed. Coaches throughout the state knew about me by then, people do talk and one coach I called concerning a transfer told me “I will not have you shame my program like you’ve done over there.” It didn’t always happen that way, nor does it happen that way all the time in college, nowadays especially, that was just my experience.

If you really want to know what I honestly think about gays in sports, we are everywhere. Yes even in Nascar (Billy Innes) but the prevailing attitude, especially in sports like the NBA which by poll has the worst attitude concerning homosexual athletes by far, is to just pretend we don’t exist and we will all go away. Openly hostile attitudes make the prospect of coming out so unsavory a thought and with all the money at stake, many gay athletes bow down to the altar of the dollar and subjugate their very identity to get along and go along. In their shoes I might do the same.

As Tim Hardaway, former NBA star once said, “You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people…” He apologized only after being forced to by the league commissioner. Maybe it is Garrison Hearst (Former NFL running back) type sentiments of not wanting “faggots in my locker room.” These are not the only athletes willing to speak openly against gay athletes by far, just the most distateful caught on tape.

Will somone come out before their career is over or in their final years when they are almost forgotten anyway? Most people including myself believe so. The best guess is it will be an average type player with no endorsements to lose, not making millions, who seizes the opportunity to use coming out to cash in on a book or movie deal. Is that the best reason to come out? In my mind no, but so long as someone does it I won’t complain. Just be ready for the door to swing wide open one day, there are a lot of us in there dying to come out.

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