The Gay Jackie Robinson: Who Will Be First?

Some pretty interesting nuggets about the whole “gays in sports” thing recently.

Mike Freeman at CBSsports.com reported that he’s been hearing rumblings about a current NFL player who is ready to come out and who plans to keep playing after doing so. If that were to happen, that player would be the first in one of the four major male team sports in America to play while being openly gay.

Meanwhile, over at USA Today, there’s a story about the vastly improved atmosphere at Major League Baseball. Many top players and managers are now on record saying that they would be supportive of a player coming out.

My friends Cyd and Jim over at outsports.com are up on these and all stories related to gays in sports. No one has covered this issue better than they have, and they continue to do so.

As someone who has been in and around the world of pro sports as a writer for more than a decade, all of this chatter is extremely heartening to me.

I remember back in 2002, when ESPN The Magazine got interested in this story. This was a year after my own coming out at ESPN.com. I was actually asked to consult for the magazine, asked to visit major league clubhouses and find out what was going on and whether a player was willing to come out. I am not making this up.

For a few months, I was paid to visit locker rooms and talk to players about gay issues. It never amounted to anything, once it became clear that it was challenging to get players to open up to an “outsider” about such issues. Without me becoming a regular in one clubhouse, unless I became a trusted friend over time, why would players trust and open up to me?

But before I stopped, I spoke to several players about this issue, including my friend Billy Bean’s former roommate, Brad Ausmus. Brad was a really nice guy, and I was appreciative of him taking the time to chat with me about what he perceived. He said he thought it would be a challenge, but that things were getting better.

Anyhow, I think I would have a far different experience going into locker rooms to talk about this subject today. Eleven years later, I think society has changed so much that I would have much less trouble broaching the subject. Might there be a Chris Culliver out there who would give me grief? (By the way, Chris has been volunteering for The Trevor Project, so he deserves some props for being open to learn from his own mistake). Sure. But the fact is, eleven years ago these two articles would have been impossible.

I think what’s going to happen is that someone will come out in the next year. After that, there will be a deluge of other players coming out in every sport. Once it is clear that the player is going to be supported by teammates and not skewered by the media or fans, others will follow.

Is there trouble for that player? Will there be homophobic remarks? Most certainly. A glance at the comments on the NFL article make it clear that there are still a lot of assholes out there who are deeply afraid of their own sexualities or deeply ignorant about the fact that gay people are exactly like straight people in almost every way. The latter — ignorance — is fixable. Fear, on the other hand, is almost impossible to combat.

But the overwhelming support of fans and teammates will overcome all that. The player will be fine, he’ll be free, and his impact on our society will be extraordinary. And that’s something a closeted gay player should realize.

Not everyone has such a golden opportunity to change the world.

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4 Responses to The Gay Jackie Robinson: Who Will Be First?

  1. bkonigsberg says:

    I have, yes. I think it’s terribly sad that he felt he had to retire right away…

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