Guest Blogger

What It Means to Be Out In the World of Sports

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 21, 2010 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: coming out of the closet, homophobia in sports, out athletes

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alexia Krause is a lifelong fan of sports and fitness. She is a passionate writer of issues close to her, including mixed martial arts.

sexy-MMA-fighter.jpgIt can be extremely difficult for anyone to announce their sexuality in a public forum, much more so when that forum is the historically unfriendly-towards-LGBT sports spotlight. We need to support these decisions to help change the modern climate of sports precisely because it is such a grueling task to come out.

There have been some incredibly courageous athletes over the past few decades. Obviously each sport has its own distinct type of fan-base with varying degrees of acceptance. Tennis, for example, has seen openly gay athletes as far back as 30 years ago, when Martina Navratilova came out as bisexual in 1980.

While this was a groundbreaking decision for her, it was a bittersweet one as well. Martina was dropped by many of her sponsors soon following her announcement, despite being one of the best players to ever grace the courts. Since that announcement, Navratilova has gone on to become one of the most famous and outspoken gay athletes in the world.

Today tennis is a much more welcoming arena for the LGBT community, but that might have a role to do with the type of sport it is. Played in singles or doubles, the peer influences of tennis do not compare to team sports like football or basketball.

Team Sports

In 2007, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out. Despite the fact that the announcement was made post-retirement, Amaechi nonetheless shook the very foundation of the basketball world. Being the first in anything has its benefits, as well as its price to pay.

The benefits were seen throughout world, as Amaechi pioneered the way for professional and amateur athletes playing basketball abroad in countries across the world. The price he paid was the discrimination he felt from his former teammates and even the late Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller.

Other firsts in the team sports category include former NFL running back David Kopay, who came out in 1977, and the Major League Baseball's Glenn Burke, who also came out in the 70's. Things were arguably much different back then, and their willingness to openly discuss a private matter has made it easier for other athletes to follow suit.

"What John [Amaechi] did is amazing... He does not know how many lives he's saved by speaking the truth," said NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who came out in 2002. "Living with all that stress and that depression, all you deal with as a closeted person, when you come out you really truly free yourself. When I came out, it felt like I was getting out of prison."

Mixed Martial Arts

Recently, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson traded his MMA Gloves for a Mohawk for the recent release of the A-Team movie. When asked how he felt about making the switch from fighter to actor, he made some offensive comments which infuriated both the Hollywood and martial arts industries.

He has since backtracked and offered the following explanation on his website, "I am a black man from Memphis Tennessee who grew up in the south where I faced discrimination my whole life. I know very well how it feels for someone to judge you for something you have no control over so having gone through that I know how it feels. I took a vow that I didn't even have to say that I would never discriminate against anybody for anything other that how they treat me or others around them. So not only DO I NOT HATE gay people, I actually accept them for who and what they are."

Ben Fowlkes, one of MMA's most affective sports writers, wrote a succinct analysis of homophobia in MMA. In it, he cites a statement the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation released in response to Jackson's gaffe, "I read the response from GLAAD, which quite rightly pointed out the irony of Jackson equating gay with soft at a time when gays are struggling for the ability to serve openly in our nation's military."

Also striving to quash stereotypes is the not-so-silver tongued UFC President Dana White, who has stated that if a mixed martial arts fighter came out.

"I honestly think it would have no impact whatsoever, with not only our fighters, but our fan base," White stated. "The guys in the UFC, everybody's so cool, there's great sportsmanship, everybody's so respectful. It wouldn't be a big deal to me, and most of the guys I know in this sport, it wouldn't be a big deal to them either."

That's a refreshing thing to hear, especially since a year earlier, in 2008, MMA fighter Shad Smith became the first openly gay person competing in combat sports. Smith outed himself in an interview which was published in the New York Times, which pioneered the way for others much like Navratilova and Amaechi did before him.

As a society, it is important for us to embrace these athletes and the weighty decisions they have made. Sports should be about athletic competition and camaraderie, and nothing else. Ironically, we need to promote what is usually a very personal matter- sexual orientation- in order to eliminate prejudice so the global sports arena can be a more understanding and accepting venue.

(Picture via Flickr)

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I remember when I was still competing in the mod and late 80s other competitors would occasionally give me funny looks or ignore me. Only once did another competitor actually complain to the officials. He complained that I should be disqualified since he knew for a fact and could prove that I had been on a dance floor in a local gay bar half of the previous night. He thought that gay people should not be allowed to compete in the tournament and insisted that I prove that I was sober.
The upshot was that the judges denied his request and as chance would have it he and I were randomly selected as opponents for the first fight of the day. He decided to try to fight nasty, I got disqualified for excessive use of force. But next time he fought me at a tournament he fought clean and remained begrudgingly appropriate.