Pro Sports and the Gay Athlete

In a world where ‘Will and Grace’ is must see TV and straight yuppies want a Queer Eye, for creature comforts, George W. Bush coasted to victory this week on a shameless wave of anti-Gay bigotry. With John ‘The Altar Boy’ Kerry offering no resistance,–and mainstream Gay Rights groups covering for their candidate–Bush waved the Same-Sex marriage fear flag unchallenged and rallied his right wing base to the polls.

But this same week, a new survey came out suggesting that one of the great citadels of homophobia, American Men’s Sports, was starting to crack. In a Major League Baseball study sponsored by the Tribune Company, a shocking 74% of players said they would accept having a gay teammate. Former New York Met and Yankee All-Star Robin Ventura commented, “I’m sure I’ve had one at some point.”

Texas Rangers pitcher Doug Brocail chimed in, “I had [a Gay teammate], Billy Bean, and I didn’t have a problem with it.” (After retiring, Bean famously wrote a book about his experiences as a closeted gay athlete titled Going the Other Way,.)

The comments by the players also mirror those spoken by former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine. “I think most clubhouses could handle it,” said Valentine. “They’re mature people who understand all the situations we live with in our society and this is obviously one of them. … It’s just time to catch up and I think it can be done seamlessly if it’s the right person or people. … Let’s get rid of the whispers and let’s be real about this. … There will be some distractions and we’ll have to get through with them.”

These are welcome numbers because we still have never seen an active player in the Big Three, men’s sports–Baseball, Basketball, or Football — come out of the closet. It’s no wonder why, as players–most of whom come from poor to working class backgrounds–would risk financial, if not physical, ruin.

Gay former NFL tackle Esera Tuaolo wrote after he retired, “The one thing I could never do was talk about it. Never. No one in the NFL wanted to hear it, and if anyone did hear it, that would be the end for me. I’d wind up cut or injured. I was sure that if a GM didn’t get rid of me for the sake of team chemistry, another player would intentionally hurt me, to keep up the image. Because the NFL is a super macho culture. It’s a place for gladiators. And gladiators aren’t supposed to be gay.”

It,s difficult to imagine a more oppressive atmosphere. Anti-gay slurs can seem as ingrained in pro sports as racism was fifty years ago. Players routinely get away with blithe homophobic comments. Most recently, it was All-Pro receiver–and All-World Mouth–Terrell Owens “accusing his former Quarterback Jeff Garcia of being Gay saying, “Like my boy tells me: If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat.”

Other examples abound. Jeremy Shockey, the gimpy part-time Giants Tight End, and full-time jackass, called Coach Bill Parcells a ‘Homo’ and said he “wouldn’t stand” for a Gay Teammate.

John Smoltz the Atlanta Braves pitcher–whose two favorite movies (seriously) are The Passion of the Christ, and Dumb and Dumber,–gave his view of gay marriage to the Associated Press with a pithy, “What’s next? Marrying animals?”

But it was another Braves pitcher that laid down the homophobic gauntlet by which all slurs are measured. John Rocker bleated in 1999, “Imagine having to take the 7 train to (Shea Stadium in New York) looking like you’re (in) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.

Players like Mets future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, quicksilver Falcons Quarterback Michael Vick, and recent Terrell Owens target, Garcia, have all felt the need to hold press conferences just to tell us that they are not Gay.

If a Gay athlete did come forward while still in uniform, the impact would be seismic. As former Vikings receiver–and Esera Tuaolo teammate–Cris Carter said, “Once you put a human face on the situation, it’s hard to maintain those stereotypes. There is no doubt many on the team would try to run a gay player off, but I also believe the majority would support his right to be a member of the team.”

The Advocate Magazine, in an interview with Tuaolo asked him why he didn’t take the opportunity to be “the Gay community’s Jackie Robinson.” But Jackie Robinson did not appear in a vacuum ready to take abuse, steal bases, and win our hearts. He emerged after years of agitation against Baseball,s color ban by the Black and Communist Press in the United States. He also had a base of support in every city of Black Americans returning from World War II and demanding a share of the democracy they were supposedly fighting for overseas.

Similarly today, we cannot make demands of Gay athletes to come out and risk their necks unless we are willing to hit the streets and do the same. Bush and Kerry have unleashed a homophobic backlash on this country. If we aren’t willing to stand up right now for our Gay brothers and sisters, then we shouldn’t expect an athlete to do it for us. Many of us want a Gay Jackie Robinson but we have no right to ask Tuaolo or anyone else to be the Gay Emmett Till.

DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out, What’s My Name, Fool: sports and resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books) comes out in spring 2005. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com.

Contact the author at editor@pgpost.com


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DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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