As the movement for marriage equality and gay liberation gains momentum, we should peer with heightened expectation toward the world of sports. Yes, sports. Every movement for civil rights over the past century has seen the struggle for equality reverberate in the often quite conservative arena of sports.
It’s impossible to think of the early days of the civil rights movement without considering Jackie Robinson, the African American player who broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Robinson was the original "pilgrim that walks in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."
We cannot consider the women’s rights movement without considering tennis star Billie Jean King. King was a voice for a feminism that demanded equal pay, more endorsements, better training and locker room facilities and basic respect. She was an activist and participant in the women’s movement for equal rights. In the words of Martina Navratilova, she "embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock."
In each of the above instances, there was a pattern. The athlete in question met resistance both in the stands and in the locker room. But the audacity of proximity broke down walls and made a substantial contribution to societal change. This is why Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, the second African American player, said to a writer, "Without the Brooklyn Dodgers, you don’t have Brown vs. Board of Education. … All I know is we were the first ones on the trains, we were the first ones down South not to go around the back of the restaurant, first ones in the hotels. We were like the teachers of the whole integration thing."
A gay professional athlete, with the courage to suffer, could roughly replicate this experience. The strongest weapon against homophobia is interaction with real, live gay people, not media caricatures. As Newsweek magazine wrote, "One reason that tolerance for gay marriage and civil unions may be on the rise is that a growing number of Americans say they know someone who’s gay. While in 1994, a Newsweek Poll found that only 53 percent of those questioned knew a gay or lesbian person, that figure today is 78 percent."
In other words, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but rather something more than tolerance: acceptance. A gay athlete would mean that every sports fan would in a way "know" a gay person smack, dab amid the testosterone-addled world of sports. In today’s sports world, gay athletes reside firmly in the closet. They attend underground parties and live in the social shadows.
They have been led to understand that for a man, being gay means being weak, and being perceived as "weak" on the playing field means being done. They also disproportionately come from poor or working-class backgrounds.
To risk their jobs is to risk their golden ticket. This is why the athletes who have come out of the closet have done so after they retire. Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay of the NFL, John Amaechi of the NBA, Billy Bean and the late Glenn Burke in Major League Baseball, all took this route. The reasons for staying in the closet are manifest.
The evangelical Christian organization Athletes in Action, with connections to groups that promote reparative therapy for gays and lesbians, holds sway in many locker rooms. Athletes commonly add "no homo" after compliments, as in "That’s a nice shirt – no homo." Yes, the locker room is not exactly what anyone would call a nurturing environment.
In sports such as football, one might expect there to be even threats of violence carried out in hard play on the field. But maybe the ride could be smoother than we all think.
Brian Sims, a former defensive tackle and captain of the
Not ideal, but there is clearly space to come out that Kopay in the 1970s, or even Tuaolo a decade ago, didn’t have. The movement outside the playing field means that a number of writers could be expected to write favorable pieces about the "gay Jackie Robinson."
Sizable percentages of players say they would accept a gay teammate. When Amaechi came out, then-New York Knicks coach, the much maligned Isiah Thomas, said to the press, "If (there was an openly gay player) in my locker room, we won’t have a problem with it. I can’t speak for somebody else’s locker room, but if it’s in mine, we won’t have a problem. I’ll make damn sure there’s no problem. … We’re a diverse society and we preach acceptance. We’re proud of diversity and no matter what your sexual preference may be … no one should be excluded."
The question now is: Who will it be? Who will rise to the moment and make the playing field all the more level?