In 1998, this article was one of the first to take a realistic look at gays in sports and how or when the first current professional player might come out. Now, sports circles are wild with speculation about the private sex life of St. Louis Blues hockey player Mike Danton and his agent, Dave Frost. How far will this story go? Some are already claiming that the player and agent were gay lovers. According to law enforcement sources, Frost was the target of Danton's murder-for-hire plot.
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Suffer In Silence
Even the Military and the Catholic Church Have Addressed the Issue, but Not Men’s Professional Sports, the Last Bastion of Intolerance
By Julian Rubinstein
In June, a group of gay activists and theorists, perhaps buoyed by polls showing an increasing trend toward the acceptance of “alternative lifestyles,” contemplated a new era: Post-gay, a time of looking beyond gender identity politics and its inherent struggles for rights and acceptance.
Here’s hoping they weren’t sports fans. Despite the populist appeal , and ostensitbly 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.
Dave Kopay hoped he’d be a trailblazer but no one followed. Still he felt he had no choice: “Do you know what it‚s like to live a double-life like that?”
Of the 3,850 professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey players in North America, exactly none are openly gay. That conspicuous level of representation is matched by the non-existence of an openly gay coach, assistant coach, manager, general manager or owner. And it is worth noting that sportswriters, who depend on those people to do their jobs, have almost the same undetectable number of out gays. “Do you know what it’s like to live a double-life like that?” says Dave Kopay, a former NFL running back, who, in 1975, became the first pro player to publicly disclose his homosexuality after his 10-year career had ended. “I was in such a depression I was thinking about ending it all.”
There is a small movement afoot for change, led by pro-gay activists and avidly followed by a handful of sports journalists. But it is nothing more than a hopeless game of sexual identity hide and seek with both parties banging the drum slowsly to the mantra, Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are. The activists, desperate for a model to break the effeminate gay stereotype, are needling players to come out by ignorantly downplaying the risk involved. Spotlight-seeking sportswriters and broadcasters are covertly hunting for a gay player who will agree to let them be the first to break the big story.
It is true: A number of professional athletes—some of them household names—are gay. (Does this surprise you?) But that is not the big story. The big story is that homophobia in the deified, money-soaked world of male pro team sports is so rampant it is a matter of course. “Athletics is the backbone of male machismo,” Texas Rangers third baseman Todd Zeile told the Miami Herald in July. “Overt homosexuality nis not accepted in this arena, not even in 1998.”
Agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents some of the biggest names in professional sports including Steve Young and Troy Aikman, says the consequences of an athlete coming out are career-threatening. “Frankly, I think it would be easier for me to place a quarterback on a professional team who has been arrested and served time for armed robbery than an openly gay quarterback,” he tells me.
“If an owner, a manager or a coach knows a guy in his locker room is gay, he’s out of there,” Barry Switzer tells me.
The problem is so pervasive that even in sports’ highest echelons, no one is willing to apologize, much less speak out. Take the case of Reggie White, the Green Bay Packers defensive end who made such a stink over the summer, claiming homosexuality was immoral, that, to much of America, he became a lock for offensive player of the year. Yet his remarks, made before the Wisconsin legislature and backed up on full-page advertisements in The New York Times and USA Today (paid for by Christian groups and featuring him in uniform), drew a collective shrug from league officials. The ads ruffled some feathers at the NFL offices—because White had not asked fro permission to be photographed in his uniform. His comments, the league said, were not for them to judge. (There are no easily comparable incidents in the NFL, but the NBA was quick to act when Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman made disparaging comments about Mormons during the 1997 NBA Finals in Utah, fining him $50,000. When asked what it would do if faced with the White situation, the NBA declined comment.)
Asked whether he considered homophobia a problem in the NFL, Gene Upshaw, a 16-year NFL veteran who played with Kopay and is now president of the NFL Players Association (the players’ union) said: “No. We’ve never thought it was an issue that needed to be addressed.”
We thought it was worth a closer look, and broached the topic with the ownbers or general managers of all 89 NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball teams, asking them to answer four questions related to how their team would react if a player came out as gay. (See chart.) Six teams responded, a tally that did not surprise Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of sports in Society at Northeastern University (Mass.) “Homophobia is a huge issue in pro sports that nobody wants to deal with,” he tells me.
The avoidance was telling. While most teams offered lame excuses (such as, the NBA lockout precludes them from responding—a pure fabrication; or that their policy dictates that they can’t respond to polls) one baseball media director was direct. “I’m sorry,” he told me, “but there’s nothing I’m going to be able to do. I can’t think of a single person in the organization I could get to respond to this.” The response of another media director, from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, was even more edifying. Despite the fact that we were not asking for an interview, he twice explained that owner/general manager Art Modell wouldn’t take part because he “doesn’t respond to every interview request.” When it was suggested that “perhaps that’s not the not the real reason” Modell wouldn’t answer, he seethed, sternly muttering, “I’ll remember that.” I had just been blackballed from an NFL team because of my association with the verboten subject.
Will it ever change? Since Kopay came out 23 years ago, only two other American male pro team sports athletes—Glenn Burke, who died of AIDS in 1995 after a four-year Major League Baseball career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s, and Roy Simmons, a former New York Giants offensive lineman—have publicly declared their homosexuality, both after their careers ended. “I used to think [change] was around the corner,” Kopay says. “Obviously, I was wrong.”
One hopeful sign lies in the experience of Ian Roberts, a professional rugby player in Australia who is apparently the only current male team sport player who is an out gay, having decided in 1995 that it was worth the risk to quit living a lie. Roberts, who plays for the North Queensland Cowboys, receives occasional taunts from fans, but reportedly has several lucrative endorsement contracts, and no regrets. “I get strangers stopping me in the street and thanking me for helping to change public perceptions about them or their gay children,” he said recently. “It’s immensely gratifying.”
But for an American player trying to break the testoerone-clad barrier, the stakes remain high. Though companies such as Reebok and Nike say that the sexual orientation of their athlete endorsers is irrelevant, agent Steinberg doesn’t buy it. “There’s no precedent,” he tells me, adding that there are other ways sponsors could find to drop the contract of a player who came out. For lesser players who don’t stand to lose as much in endorsement potential, the risk is greater because they are more dispensable to their teams. “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,” I’m told by Barry Switzer, who coached the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory in 1996 before being fired after last season’s lackluster performance.
It will likely take a figure of Jackie Robinson proportions to really begin to change attitudes. But author Dan Woog, whose book Jocks tells the stories of gay high school and college athletes today, offers perhaps the best analysis of how the assault may begin. “What I found is that virtually every high school in American today, from the one-room schoolhouses in the sticks to the inner cities, has at least one openly gay student,” Woog tells me. “Some of them are athletes. I’m convinced that what’s going to happen is one of these kids is going to come through the ranks and he’s going to get into the pros and it wont’ be that big an issue.”
Now that would be the beginning of a new era. Call it post-Kopay.
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