In the fight for human rights, professional team sports have long been seen as a tipping point for the greater national stage. If the icons of masculinity could be accepting, it would signal social progress.
We keep hearing that the first out player in the ‘Big 4’ professional sports is just around the corner, that millions of dollars in endorsements are coming his way, that the iconic “Jackie Robinson” status will be accorded to him. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if there was already planning underway for grand ticker-tape parades down the avenues of our nation’s gay Meccas.
All we need is for one heroic baseball, basketball, football or hockey player to see the writing on the wall and hold a news conference announcing his sexual orientation to the world.
In this age of gossip sites and social media, we’re desperately afraid the first out pro athlete will get dragged out of the closet by a scandal. Instead of a proud gay man declaring his truth to the world, he’ll be a disgraced athlete in damage control mode.
There have already been fits and starts down this road that left us cringing.
Former St. Louis Blues defenseman Mike Danton was assumed gay when he plotted to murder his agent, and FBI documents seemed to say the two were lovers. Former Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli had a man claiming to be his former lover – complete with ticket stubs and receipts – trying to out the Pro Bowl football player. Most recently, rumors swirled around Notre Dame standout Manti Te’o after he was exposed for lying about a fake girlfriend.
All of these athletes either refused to address the “gay angle” of the story or denied it outright. But whether these men are gay or not, their stories leave us very afraid for the athlete who becomes the first out pro because of a scandal. He would likely announce his sexual orientation to control the story and get ahead of it, not because he wanted to live his truth, hold his boyfriend’s hand in public, and give hope to so many young athletes struggling with who they are.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Charles Barkley famously said, "Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin' idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”
Sports have changed. The vast majority of athletes would support an openly gay teammate. Heck, a majority even support that gay teammate’s right to marry. Fans are ready. Leagues are ready. Big-time sponsors are ready. We are ready for that athlete to come out, and there’s a world of support out there.
But an athlete coming out in an ill-advised manner can do the same damage as him being outed by a jilted lover or by a police report for indecent exposure. There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” candidate to come out first; But the wrong timing or the wrong path can put pressure on the athlete and his team that can easily be avoided.
Some tips we’ve learned over the years:
Do it during the off-season. While the “right” time to come out is when that athlete is ready, some planning is key. Coming out to teammates or to the public in the middle of a season might make compelling TV, but it’s the biggest mistake an athlete could make. Coming out at the beginning of the off-season is ideal. It gives the media and teammates time to digest the news so, by the time training camp rolls around, it’s one day of questions from the media… then the team’s narrative returns to winning and losing, not sexual orientation.
Build a support group outside the team. There are many folks who have navigated these waters before, and who can help build a coalition of support. We’re both strong resources and have helped take many athletes in college and the pros out of the closet. And there are others just waiting to help. Finding some trustworthy supporters is huge; they can help smooth the waters and do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Recruit key allies on the team. Whether you’re Bill Belichick trying to implement a new system, or an athlete coming out of the closet, key allies on the team are necessary. Identifying two to three supportive team leaders can be a game-changer. These guys will be advocates and do some of the behind-the-scenes work with the team that only an ally can do. Ultimately, athletes will do what team leaders ask of them; Getting just a couple key guys in the locker room to offer their full support, and coming out to them before telling the rest of the team, is key.
Tell the team before you tell America. The biggest problem with being outed is teammates get blind-sided. They need to know before the rest of the world discovers they have a gay teammate. Don’t surprise the management, coaching staff or players on the team with a big public announcement; Tell all of them first.
Tell your truth and only your truth. Some people want the first out athlete to be a spokesperson for the movement. That can be an athlete’s role if he wants it, but it doesn’t have to be. All he can be expected to do is tell his truth and live his life. Sharing about a partner or personal struggles with sexual orientation – it’s all up to him. He can step out into the light as much as he’d like and guard what he needs to. It’s his journey and no one else’s.
Team executives, members of the media, agents, coaches and straight allies bear part of the responsibility for making sports an arena where gay athletes feel they can be themselves. Slowly, more and more of them are doing that job. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the gay athlete to take the plunge and map out a course, with the help of these folks, for his public journey. These tips will go a long way.
To be sure, some commentators, fellow players and observers will criticize the out athlete for risking team cohesion or for bringing their personal life to the game. Some fans will scream that sports is not a place for this discussion, and gay athletes should keep their personal lives to themselves.
But done right, their critiques will be hollow. Their arguments are old chestnuts that rely on homophobic stereotypes, and are just another way to reject and fail to respect someone’s life that is different from their own.
There will also be ardent supporters—The media will be overwhelmingly positive; Some fellow players, like the heroic Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings or Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, will be among the biggest cheerleaders; Like in the upcoming episode of USA Network’s Necessary Roughness, most of his teammates will support him. And millions of fans will show their support and respect.
Whether that first out athlete decides to do this next week or next year or three years from now can be up to him. But the longer he waits, the more likely it becomes that our “gay Jackie Robinson” might actually be the “George Michael of sports.”