Norm Kent

Athletes Come Out

Filed By Norm Kent | October 01, 2012 11:45 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Bullying in Sports, David Kopay, homophobia in sports, MLB, NFL, Out Athletes

baseball.jpgIn 1975, David Kopay, three years after retiring from professional football, acknowledged in a Washington Star interview that he was a gay man. It was unprecedented.

At the time, 37 years ago, NFL players and actors or celebrities just did not 'come out', certainly not frequently. Kopay's lone voice resonated nationally, but it did not tear walls down. Unfortunately, homophobia in sports still exists today just as it did yesterday.

It takes courageous people to stand naked against the cannon in order to stop the hate which has come our way. David Kopay was such a man. The LGBT community has celebrated him for it, but like Dave Pallone, the professional MLB umpire who came after him, progress has been painfully slow, not encouragingly steady.

Last week, the revelation of a major league baseball player who published a gay slur on his eye black made international headlines. The athlete, Yunel Escobar, received a suspension from the Toronto Blue Jays. In past years, other athletes and coaches who have denigrated gay fans have also been met with sanctions and fines. The world is waking up. Not just the public, but management, has come to recognize that it is not socially acceptable or professionally tolerable to continue bullying and name-calling.

Gay fans have money too, and outreach matters. This is why a San Francisco Giants coach, Roger McDowell, was once sent for sensitivity training after berating gays with public slurs. It's why the NBA fined Kobe Bryant a cool 50 grand for calling a ref who made a bad call a 'faggot.' It's no longer cool to be 'macho' and presume gay men are not.

Earlier this month, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker, said that he supports gay marriage, and stirred controversy. Some moron in the Maryland legislature tried to censure him. But it was the legislator who met with approbation, disdain and contrition. How about that for a turn around?

Hudson Taylor is the founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, a group promoting acceptance of gay men and women in the world of sports. A straight man that now coaches wrestling at Columbia University, Hudson has said "Homophobic language is the tool used to diminish a player's masculinity."

Few people cover the issue better than, run and managed by Cyd Zeigler, whose stories shed light every day on the widespread, but ever so discreet, world within which gay athletes keep their sexual orientation hidden. Zeigler acknowledges that the fear of the unknown has inhibited the forthrightness he would like to see come forth.

Professional sports are still a bastion of unrelenting homophobia, an arena where talented athletes still fight and resist openness about sexuality. It is obvious, if not transparent, that hundreds, if not thousands, of professional athletes have been gay. No one reveals it while they are playing. An athlete's job is to play a game well on the field, not to talk about whom they are doing off of it.

Billy Bean, a gay South Florida real estate agent, who has recently relocated to Southern California, where he played professional baseball for teams such as the Dodgers, recently said it best: "Unless your primary goal as an athlete is to be an ambassador for gay rights, you're bound to pause before creating such a distraction."

Nevertheless, sooner, rather than later, a star professional athlete on a major team sport in a major league city will open up about his personal life. As more and more stories emerge about homosexuality and sports, the revelation is inevitable.

Athletes like to stay focused on the game at hand rather than a social cause that needs an advocate. They don't want their identity to become a distraction and inhibit a stellar performance. In that respect, we have a lot of Anderson Coopers at shortstop or on the defensive line. At the right time, in the right place, they will find their moment.

Kevin McClatchy did so two weeks ago on the op-ed page of the New York Times. When he was named the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 33 in 1994, he was one of the youngest executives in the sport. Now the chairman of a Board, which publishes more than two dozen newspapers, including the Miami Herald, he shared with Times columnist Frank Bruni intimate details of his personal, homosexual life, concealed for decades as a 'community icon.'

"I think, with everybody, there's a time that feels right, and for me this was a time. My hope is that it's going to be able to help younger kids that want to get into professional sports and feel there are still great barriers. But I think, more important than that, it needs to create a dialogue about major league sports and sort of the void obviously that exists.

Rick Welts graced the front page of the New York Times last year, when, as the president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, revealed he's gay. His revelation came with the tale that his relationship of 14 years was coming apart because his partner rejected continuing a shadowed life.

"This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits," said Welts, at the time. "Nobody's comfortable in engaging in a conversation." But to paraphrase a popular axiom, if not now, when? If not you, who?

The world is evolving, and the time has come where the first out athlete will be met with praise for his courage rather than a bean ball meant for his head.

Having spent most of my adult life on playing fields, interacting with athletes, I have concluded that all they really care about is winning - and playing with teammates who bust their tail and give their all to make it happen. Whose tail they are busting with no one will ever care about if you throw the winning pass or get the walk off base hit.

On a personal note, fifteen years ago, in 1997, I remember getting the game-winning hit in the Fort Lauderdale softball league playoffs, a two-run single in extra innings that beat, of all teams, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.

Celebrating at first base with our players, I turned to our team's homophobic starting shortstop, who hated my guts, and I knew it - I turned to him, and said, "Pretty good for a faggot, huh?"

It was a special moment I relish even today. It will be that kind of moment for the first gay player who crosses the end zone while wearing a helmet with an HRC logo on it.

Editors' Note: This post has been corrected. Brendon Ayanbadejo was originally misidentified as Chris Kluwe. Yunel Escobar was suspended by his team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and not the MLB.

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