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Is sports ready for a gay male athlete?


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Is sports ready for a gay male athlete?

Ian O'Connor / Special to FOXSports.com

Posted: 2 hours ago

He is surely out there, somewhere, wondering if the time and circumstances are right. A gay male playing a major team sport is most likely struggling with the notion of outing himself on a national stage. He is measuring the pros against the cons, weighing the redeeming social value of a public declaration against the depressing wave of abuse that might roll his way.

That athlete is waiting for a sign, a cue, that will draw him from the shadows of a locker room culture too often shaped by Jurassic codes. It's time for executives, coaches and teammates to help him. The decision by Sheryl Swoopes to reveal herself as a lesbian should inspire major sports leagues to invest more time and energy into the field of sexual tolerance.

The more major sports leagues educate their players on this issue, the more likely it is that a gay athlete will emerge from the closet as eagerly as Jackie Robinson pushed through the Dodgers' clubhouse door.

It will be a great day in sports, in all of America, when that male pioneer steps forward the way Robinson did more than 58 years ago, the way Swoopes did last week. But that day won't arrive until a gay man can be assured he won't be ostracized by members of his own organization, never mind opponents and fans.

That day won't arrive until a gay man on the verge of going public believes he won't be demoted, traded, or fired.

Right now, no homosexual man currently playing in Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, or the NHL can take an honest survey of the landscape and know for sure that he'll be supported by his own team and league. Take a look around:

Mike Piazza calls a news conference to quash rumors that he's gay. Sandy Koufax severs his ties with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Dodgers because Murdoch's paper, the New York Post, runs a blind gossip item suggesting Koufax is gay.

Jeremy Shockey calls Bill Parcells a "homo" in a magazine interview. Matt Millen calls Johnnie Morton a "faggot." Shockey says he "wouldn't, you know, stand for it" if he found out he had a gay teammate at the University of Miami. Garrison Hearst and Todd Jones join the boys-will-be-boors chorus, declaring in no uncertain terms that they don't want any gay players on their teams.

This is why former NFL players Esera Tuaolo and David Kopay waited until their careers were over before making their sexuality known.

"It's not the fans the gay player is probably worried about," said Yvette Christofilis, executive director of The Loft, a gay and lesbian community services center based in White Plains, N.Y. "If it was just the fans, more men and women would be coming out.

"I think it's the locker room, the organizations, the leaderships and the advertisers. I think most fans would applaud it."

Leagues and franchises are forever bringing in federal agents and counselors to warn players about the evils of gambling and drugs. They are forever preaching the need to practice responsible, safe sex. They are forever issuing alerts about the presence of the steroid police.

But the subject of homosexuality in sports remains taboo, even though statistics and common sense suggest there are gay players in almost every locker room. Don't ask, don't tell, is the prevailing law of the land.

Swoopes should be commended for her courage in coming out, but let's face it: lesbian athletes don't face the same hurdles as gay men. "People who are ignorant just assume that if you're playing sports as a woman, you're a lesbian," Christofilis said.

Sports have always revolved around the notions of masculinity and machismo, so the male athlete who comes out has more to lose than his female counterpart. He could lose significant endorsement income. He could lose his job.

"He will break down barriers," Christofilis said, "and he will be broken down with the barriers. He'll be buried with the barriers. For a man to come out while he's still playing, he'd probably have to be in a very dark spot where it's his only option."

That's a shame, but it doesn't have to be this way forever. The gay male athlete shouldn't have to run a constant fast break from his true identity. By implementing programs designed to broaden their players' minds, teams and leagues can signal to the gay male athlete that there's a comfortable room for him in their locker rooms.

Until that happens, expect all the groundbreaking to be done by female athletes who have far less at stake.

Ian O'Connor is the author of the book, "The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball" (Available at Amazon.com).


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