Coming Out In The Locker Room

How many men in professional sports are gay? And will it change the game?

Unless you’ve been completely offline this week, Sports Illustrated recently released an article from the May 6, 2013 print issue highlighting NBA center Jason Collins making history as the first openly gay—and active—male athlete in professional U.S. sports. The Twitterverse was awash with supportive messages. NBA Commissioner David Stern offered his support (via USA Today reporter Jeff Zillgitt) by stating, "We are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue." Support continued to flow in from Collin’s teammates, other NBA players, and a multitude of celebrities—Spike Lee to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Chelsea Clinton and many others offered their complete support.

Comments and thoughts from the rest of the Socialsphere were largely positive, and I’m not surprised. In truth, this was a moment that has been anticipated for some time — not specifically from Collins or the NBA, but the coming-out of an active player in professional sports.

Gays in professional sports coming out via the media has been happening for years—albeit very, very slowly. Martina Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon singles champion and the winningest player in tennis history, was famously outed in a New York Daily News article in 1981. That article caused sponsors to cancel contracts and—born in Czechoslovakia—Martina worried that it might undercut her chances of permanent American citizenship. In contrast, Brittney Griner, the newest member of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, came out a couple of weeks ago, along with a number of pro athletes over the past few years: Other recent coming-out stories: Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (the team's coach Pia Sundhage is a lesbian, as is fellow soccer player Lori Lindsey), Fallon Fox (mixed martial artist and UFC-hopeful), Vicky Galindo (professional softball player), and Liz Carmouche (UFC athlete).

Despite this trend, none of these athletes has received the fervor that Collins’ story has. The reason: Collins is a man, while these openly-gay athletes are all women.

While there has been a large amount preemptive support for any active gay male player who would want to come out —Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told TMZ that he would “be honored” if the first gay player was on his team—no gay male athlete took the plunge until Collins. Several male athletes have come out over the years — among them the NFL's Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo, the NBA's John Amaechi, Major League Baseball's Billy Bean, and Olympians Greg Louganis and Johnny Weir—but these athletes came out only after retiring. In this respect, Collins is in a league of his own as the first self-outed gay pro athlete who is still actively playing.

Given the lack of media interest on the part of self-identified gay women in sports (sans Ms. Navratilova), and the fervor of attention being placed on the male athletes—from the retired to Mr. Collins—this seems not to be a “gay” thing or a “sports” thing. This seems to be a man thing. We all know there are gay men in sports; we just don’t talk about it. We seem to be comfortable embracing a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy in sports, with many men seemingly thinking: “It’s okay that I see my favorite quarterback smack his tight end on his tight end while on the field… just don’t tell me he really means it.”

The reasons for this from a social standpoint are more disturbing. With women entering the workforce, taking on traditionally male roles of Provider and achieving  a much greater sense of quality, men don’t have a sense of what “masculine” means anymore. They have lost their traditional role, and instead of looking internally for a renewed/rebuilt sense of masculinity, many men identify externally—oftentimes placing their sense of masculinity squarely on the shoulder pads of other men performing aggressive, masculine activities… like sports. These are the reasons men wear other mens’ names on their backs on sports jerseys and cheer for “their” teams with other men. It’s tribal, aggressive, and warrioristic. But if something happens to upset that tribe—like a one of the players identifying as gay—not only does their external perception of men become confused, their internal sense of masculinity becomes out of balance—incongruous with what they think they are as men. Meaning: They identify with these athletes as what “masculine” mean, so it leads to a subconscious thought of, “I wanted to be like [male athlete], and I have his jersey. I rooted for him every weekend for years. Now, I find out he’s gay. Does that mean I’m gay? How could he betray me this way and make me gay?”

As for the gay athletes themselves, why do these men wait to claim the reality of their sexuality? Why wait until a career is over, spending time and energy outwardly lying to people you spend hours and hours every day, living a personal life that is shrouded in secrecy, perhaps lies to cover the truth?  The reason is very straightforward: Acceptance. There’s a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance is defined as “a permissive attitude” toward something. Acceptance is to just let the something be, and they don’t want to take the chance of being tolerated.

As of late, there has been a surge of interest on the part of the media regarding gay athletes—particularly to identify them and report on who’s who and why. This perpetual quest by sports reporters and investigative journalists not withstanding, these reporters need to be careful with who they out. The headlines they are chasing aren’t just about the athletes themselves, they are also about the men who admire and worship these athletes and their abilities. Unfortunately, many men (and women) are still living in a shortsighted world, where “gay” equates to “weak”… and these sports fans might not be ready for a harsh truth: There are more gay men and women in professional sports than you think, and what we see today is really just the beginning. Gary J. Gates, a Senior Research Fellow at The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy and author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, estimates that one in 10 men are gay or have same-sex attraction. Given that there are 1,696 men in the NFL and 1,280 in Major League Baseball, that’s just shy of 300 gay athletes in those two sports alone. As of yet, we don’t know who they are… but hang on a second…

Kudos to Jason Collins for embracing who he is and staying true to himself—as a man, as a player, and as a member of the LGBT community. Hopefully, the notion of “gay athlete” will quickly become a moniker of the past, and the men and women who play will once again be just “professional athletes”. Until then, sports fans need to brace themselves for a coming out party.