Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Pink Elephant

It's the gigantic pink elephant in the room.

It's what everyone who watches sports has thought about at one time or another. Or probably joked about with a friend. Or cursed an opposing player. But probably never thought about it seriously.

Of all the men playing professional sports—of which there are thousands—some of them have to be gay.

Which ones?

Unless you are the president of Iran and believe that "There are no homosexuals in our society," you have to believe that some of the athletes we watch everyday are homosexual. However, excepting those in non-mainstream sports—such as Olympic Diving or Ice Skating—or those athletes who have retired from sports, no one has admitted publicly that he is gay.

Not one man in the major sports.

Of the more than 11,000 participants in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only one was out of the closet. One.

In 2001, 73% of the United States general public stated that they know someone who is homosexual, which is up drastically from 1983 when only 24% affirmed that statement. Which means both that homosexuals feel more comfortable coming out of the closet, and society as a whole feels more accepting of homosexuality.

Why not in sports?

Now, it doesn't matter to this sports fan who Pedro Martinez, Patrick Willis or Peja Stojakovic sleeps with. Not one iota. And supposedly, in our society—a society that has elected a black President—we have become more tolerant, more accepting of different lifestyles. Not the case in sports.

If anything, the sports world is less tolerant, with the athletes taking great care to foster an image of if not outright skirt-chasing, at the least straight as an arrow.

This week, a driver for New York Knick Eddy Curry came out with the allegations that Curry is not only racist and violent, but had propositioned him for homosexual sex. While the allegations are unproven, the latter provides food for thought. If true, it is obvious that Curry has been deep in the closet to protect himself. If false, it is obvious that the person making the claims is hitting Curry where he believes he is the most sensitive.

In 2005, when a web site made an obvious practical joke stating that Michael Vick was gay (“I love playing professional football and rough physical contact on the field, however, I enjoy male contact off the field as well," the joke went), Michael Vick immediately called into an Atlanta radio program to deny the story.

“I won’t even feed into that,” Vick told hosts of the “Frank Ski Morning Show.” “Everybody who knows me, knows how I get down. It’s not even an issue.” Which of course, begs the question, if it's not an issue, why call in? Mike Piazza did the same, calling an out-of-the-blue press conference simply to state "I'm not gay."

Perhaps its because of reasons like this. In 1995, 29-year-old Swedish hockey player Peter Karlsson died after being stabbed 64 times by a 19-year-old neo-Nazi because Karlsson had been out about his homosexuality. Karlsson's murderer claimed that Karlsson had tried to initiate a relationship. So naturally, he stabbed him 64 times.

Much less life-threatening and much more common, are slurs fans use against hated rivals. "Jeter's a fag!" "Isiah's a homo!" as well as the anti Jeff Gordon web site, Fans Against Gordon (acronym, FAG) are just a few examples where fans use accusations of homosexuality as a weapon against athletes they hate.

However, it isn't only public opinion and threats that might keep an athlete in the closet. Another problem is his teammates: As Sports illustrated reported:

Examples of athletes showing hostility toward gays are many and varied, from running back Garrison Hearst's declaring, "I don't want any faggots on my team" to Allen Iverson's rapping about "faggot tendencies" to Sterling Sharpe's telling HBO that his former Seattle Seahawks teammate Esera Tuaolo was wise to have concealed his homosexuality while he was an active player. "Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices, he'd have never gotten to the other team," Sharpe said.

Just 2 years ago, Tim Hardaway, in response to John Amechi's post-career book about being gay in the NBA, said this:

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

As shocking as that might have been, here was the response of people on web site message boards, defending Hardaway's comments.

"Homosexuality is no more a Lifestyle than pedophilia or beastiality [sic]. It's a sickness and people need to face up to that reality."

And another (unedited):

His candor draw a lot of criticism, event the NBA distanced themselves from him and also ejected him from the AllStar Game Festivities! The sad part about this is that, I feel where is is coming from 100%. Are gays so powerful and influencial now that heteroes have to watch what they say about them when asked?

Sorry, but I don't equate being Gay to Civil Rights, Gender Rights and Religious Freedom. It appears that mainstream society has now fully embraced gay culture.

And another (unedited):

Well, to me, homosexuality is right up there with other sexuality illnesses like beastiality, child molestation, man-boy love, etc.... They all sick and need jesus and a jail cell. But I think he fell on the sword when he said "I hate gays".

There is no way you can get grown as men, athletes at that, to share a lockerroom with a faggot. They may not admit it on T.V., but that's reality. When I'm handling my biz in the lockerroom, I don't want to have some fag staring at me lusting and all that. ...nasty!

Hell, most women love guys, but they don't want them in the bathroom with them either. It's not cool.

You said one thing that rings true; gays have some incredible power today. Very Very sad.

Which brings up another aspect to the situation. All of the above quotes defending Tim Hardaway's words came from an African-American message board called www.afrochat.net. Many studies, such as the one quoted here from a study at Texas A&M using data complied in a 2004 General Social Survey, show that on average, African-Americans "have more negative attitudes toward homosexuality than their White counterparts." The study shows also that women are found to be much more tolerant than men. As written in Slate magazine, just after the election of Barack Obama to President, and quoting the LA Times, African-Americans, unlike their white counterparts—who were almost split down the middle in California—voted about 70% in favor of Prop 8 which banned gay marriage in the state of California. William Saletan goes on to write in Slate, "In Florida, Black support for Florida's ballot measure against gay marriage ran 11 percent higher than white support and 7 points higher than Latino support." Saletan then quotes a black man who voted for Prop 8. "'I was born black. I can't change that,' one California man explained after voting for Proposition 8. 'They weren't born gay; they chose it.'"

Taking the above data and combining it with the fact that there are a large number of African-Americans in professional sports—65% of the NFL and 80% percent of the NBA—you begin to see a reason why gay athletes might be apprehensive about coming out while playing.

Of course, African-American prejudices are nowhere near the only reason for the reluctance of gay athletes to risk exposure. Rather, the attitude depicted in the statement, "They weren't born gay; they chose it," might not be just that black voter's opinion, but the attitude towards homosexuality in the lockerroom as well—namely that it is a chosen "weakness." And in the lockerroom, "weakness" is not permitted, and camaraderie means standing shoulder to shoulder and falling in line.

Julian Robertson, on his web site, julainrobertson.com wrote an apt description of the attitude of sports towards homosexuality.

Despite the populist appeal, and ostensibly inoffensive nature, men’s professional team sports quietly remains one of the last bastions of intolerance in this country. While even the military and the Catholic church have addressed the gay issue, albeit unsuccessfully, men’s pro sports are so far from a dialogue on the topic it may actually be setting the modern standard for homophobia.

Men's sports is a place for Alpha Males or, as Bob Costas put it, "a powerful culture of hyper-heterosexuality." As former Texas Ranger Todd Zeile told the Miami Herald in 1998: "Athletics is the backbone of male machismo. Overt homosexuality is not accepted in this arena, not even in 1998."

Nor in 2009. While it seems that perhaps a good number of athletes might have trouble accepting a gay teammate, would fans? Aside from knife-wielding Nazis, would fans really mind a gay athlete? Since there is no gay athlete in mainstream men's sports, we can't know for sure fans' response, however, the evidence at hand suggests they might. When posed the following in a 2005 Sports Illustrated poll, "Americans would be less proud of an Olympics gold winning athlete if he/she were gay and 'out'", 41% of the participants voted yes to 32% no. Uber sports agent Leigh Steinberg said this about accepting a gay player in the NFL, "Frankly, I'd think it would be easier for me to place a quarterback on a professional team who had been arrested and served time for armed robbery than an openly gay quarterback."

One explanation for the reluctance to accept the gay athlete comes from Eric Anderson, author of the 2005 book In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity, and an assistant professor of coaching education at England’s University of Bath. In an interview with MSNBC.com, Anderson said, all athletes have been "indoctrinated since they were very, very young to meet certain mandates." One of those mandates being, "you can’t walk out of line with the other men. And men don’t talk about having sex with other men. It’s not perceived as being one of the boys. That’s why [many gay] athletes fail to come out of the closet even after retiring." And that’s why the idea of homosexuality as a problem because it’s a "distraction" doesn’t hold water to Anderson. "If team sports doesn’t want to deal with distractions, then they should get rid of people with arrests, violence against women and chemical enhancement."

So, what will it take for a homosexual athlete to come out? Bob Costas had this to say in an interview with afterelton.com, about the fact that there are no "out" athletes in the major professional sports.

You figure that some of them may believe that it would impact their marketability and endorsement opportunities. Which is A) sad if that’s true. And B) sad also that even if it is true that some people aren’t willing to run that risk to take a more honest and principled stand. So it’s on both those levels.

Costas also felt that the first gay athlete probably wouldn't be in football—"I think football would be the hardest because that’s the most hyper macho culture with its own mythologies attached to it."

Also, the first publicly gay athlete, most likely, wouldn't be a marginal player, as evidenced by this comment from former Dallas Cowboy coach Barry Switzer. "Especially with a marginal player, if an owner, a manager or a coach knows a guy in his locker room is gay, he’s out of there."

Julian Robertson said it would... "likely take a figure of Jackie Robinson proportions to really begin to change attitudes," meaning not just any old athlete, but a supreme talent. Salon.com's King Kaufman wrote in 2002: "

I predict the major leaguer who breaks the lavender barrier will be a pretty big star, someone who can be confident that his teammates will stick with him despite any misgivings they might have. As Phillies manager Larry Bowa pointed out Tuesday, "If he hits .340 it probably would be easier than if he hits .220." If Sammy Sosa says, "I'm queer," the Chicago Cubs suddenly become a very gay-friendly bunch.

Great. Now all we need is an incredibly brave soul, who has Hall of Fame talent, to prove to not only his teammates, not to mention to the front office and fans, that he deserves to be there, but also to the Garrison Hearsts, Tim Hardaways as well as the Todd Jones, John Rockers, Martina Hingis and Terrell Owens of the world.

Kaufman continues: "And 100, or 50, or let's be optimistic and say 20 years from now, we'll look up from our bar-stool game of naming an all-time all-gay team -- Carstairs at short! No, McGillicutty! -- and have to remind ourselves why it was such a brave thing to do when that first player came out of the closet."

While it seems rather pie in the sky to say 20 years from now it'll be no big deal to have out and prominent gay athletes, one can hope. In the meantime, the statistics of today tell us that though America is becoming more open, we aren't ready yet. In fact, we're not even ready to talk about it. In that SI.com poll mentioned from a few years ago, they posed the following: "What America needs now is an open discussion about homosexuality and sports." 52% of America voted no.

And so, homosexuality in professional sports remains the gigantic pink elephant in the room—the thing that nobody talks about. It's possible that people don't discuss it or acknowledge it not because it doesn't matter, but because it matters too much.

In any case, they should. The Pink Elephant isn't going away.

2 comments:

Travis said...

I don't have anything to add, but great post, man.

P-Cat said...

Thanks, man.