Coming Out: The State of Homosexuality and Homophobia in Professional Sports

When you think of a professional athlete, what comes to mind?

I would argue the bare essentials are there: they’re strong, built perfectly for their respective sport, make a lot of money, sometimes put that money to good use (and sometimes don’t), and have an unrivaled dedication to and passion for what they do.

Let’s dig deeper. Would you say athletes are necessarily concerned with social issues? Is there evidence to support the stereotype that athletes are primarily anti-gay and therefore wouldn’t support a teammate of a different sexual orientation? Does a player’s sexual orientation even matter?

When Jason Collins made the announcement that he is gay, making him the first active player to come out, everything we thought we knew about those we see on the court, field, and ice was challenged.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Collins had this to say regarding his decision to come out:

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

It’s a conversation we’ve been flirting with for a long time, and that’s understandable: it’s a sensitive issue, and everyone, not just athletes, has a tendency to stick their foot in their mouth every now and then. One misquote or that’s-not-what-I-meant could spark an outrage, so it’s easy to see why some athletes aren’t bursting at the seams to discuss their views. Some are, however, and sometimes it’s exactly what you’d expect.

For example, in an interview with Artie Lange, San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver said he wouldn’t support having gay players on his team and would not welcome them in the NFL: “I don’t do the gay guys, man. I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”

Last July, former Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas posted a simple yet powerful statement on his Facebook page: “I stand with Chick-fil-A.” This post came in the midst of the fast food chain’s public relations nightmare after company president Dan Cathy came under fire for donating over $2 billion to anti-gay groups.

Furthermore, former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark Knudson wrote an Op-Ed piece for Mile High Sports, in which he said “…the best option for any homosexual athlete in a team sport [is] to keep his orientation private. He’s doing what’s best for himself by doing what’s best for the team.”

Knudson’s conclusion is similar to a lot of comment sections whenever an article is posted about an athlete’s sexuality. Statements like ‘why does it matter if a player is gay?’ or ‘a player’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, and he or she shouldn’t make a big fuss over it’ run rampant in these comment sections, and I wish I had enough time in ten decades to properly articulate why I feel an athlete’s coming out matters, but I think Jerry Blevins, pitcher for the Oakland A’s, said it best:

“I’m impressed. It takes such courage, especially in an environment of pro sports, to come out. I’m proud that I play sports in today’s era where somebody can be openly gay, and I’m excited for a future where kids that feel the same way that [Collins] does have someone to look up to and say, ‘I can be myself and I can also be a world class athlete.’”

Like Blevins said, Jason Collins is a role model. He’s someone young athletes struggling with their sexuality can look to for inspiration, and that’s why it matters. It’s unfair to disregard how anyone feels about their sexuality simply because we personally feel it doesn’t matter. Collins told Sports Illustrated it took “an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret”, and unfortunately we’ve been made painfully aware of what can happen when someone’s just not willing to internalize that kind of burden.

But enough of the negativity.

On April 11, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association formally announced their partnership with the You Can Play Project, which was founded by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, is “an advocacy organization that fights homophobia in sports.” Upon announcing the partnership, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said:

“Our motto is ‘Hockey Is For Everyone,’ and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way. While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players’ Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern also had positive things to say upon Jason Collins’ announcement, and the NBA Players Association released a statement in support of him, writing:

“As Jason wrote, pro basketball is a family, and he has and always will be our brother. The NBPA is dedicated to fighting for the best interests of and uniting all players regardless of race, creed, color, age, national origin, or sexual orientation. Today is another example that we are intent on continuing that work.”

This isn’t a conversation that’s going to disappear now that Jason Collins has come out. If anything, the conversation has only begun. However, if there’s anything we can take away from this, it’s that not all athletes are not the gay-hating neanderthals we’re meant to believe they are. And, as Outsports has shown us, Collins has at least 185 allies, all of which play professional sports for a living.

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