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The gay athlete 'distraction' myth: an excerpt from 'Fair Play'`

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Cyd Zeigler manages SB Nation blog Outsports, focusing on the intersection of sports and the LGBTQ community. Founded in 1999 the site has pioneered coverage of LGBTQ issues in sports and has fostered an inclusive community for sports fans. On June 7, Zeigler released his new book, “Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports."

You can order the book on Indiebound, or on Amazon. The following is an excerpt.

While the drumbeat about the “distraction” of a gay athlete continues, every shred of evidence, in conjunction with a gay athlete on a professional sports team, suggests a different scenario.

Few people realize the first openly gay male athlete entered American professional sports in 2005 when the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse drafted Dartmouth goalie Andrew Goldstein, who had shared his story publicly with Outsports and ESPN in the months leading up to the draft. Certainly the media coverage of MLL is barely even a fraction of that of the Big Five sports leagues. Still, Goldstein’s groundbreaking presence in the league was such a non-distraction that the Long Island Lizards acquired him a year later.

“It isn’t an issue with us,” said Lizards spokesperson Scott Neiss in 2005. “We’re a professional lacrosse team who drafted Andrew for his skills in the cage. His teammates are all professional about it, and he is treated like any other player by us.”

When the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins midway through the 2013–14 season, the “distraction” question was heavy on the minds of sports writers. The Nets responded by running off a 12–3 streak over the next month, beating the likes of the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls.

“This shows that ‘distraction’ is BS,” Collins told the New York Daily News at the time. It was validation for the center who had for a year privately bemoaned the distraction “BS” that had, whether he wanted to admit it or not, kept NBA teams away from signing him.

When Robbie Rogers was signed by Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, he had just come out publicly a few months earlier and quit the sport. When his signing was announced, media descended on the then–Home Depot Center for the team’s announcement. Rogers proved to be such a distraction that the team went to the playoffs that season and won the MLS Cup—with Rogers starting in the final—the next year.

The conversation around Sam has focused on the distraction of his new team like no other athlete. And it was all blown desperately out of proportion.

“Absolutely not,” Jeff Fisher told reporters when asked if Sam’s presence at the Rams facility had been a distraction to the team. “Let’s define distraction. There were a couple of extra cameras during early OTAs. There may have been an extra camera yesterday as rookies reported and went on the field the first time.”

A couple extra cameras. Scary.

When the Dallas Cowboys signed Sam after his release from the Rams, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett reiterated the sentiment.

How much did the distraction of Sam’s signing affect the Cowboys in the win-loss column? While he was on the team’s practice squad, they ran off a 6–1 record. Incidentally, the Cowboys lost their first two games after releasing Sam in October 2014, and the Rams started that season 1–4 after they cut Sam.

At the time Fisher made his comments, CBS Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and many others wrote stories specifically about the coach’s observation. The media is addicted to the story line of gay athletes being distractions, and many fans have bought into it, even if many others in sports realize what a red herring the discussion is.

*

As a result of the “distraction” myth, the Big Five professional sports leagues in America have taken the easy road on LGBT issues. The media, along with many LGBT activists in sports, have let them.

Each of the leagues now has some form of anti-discrimination policy that legally (but not practically) protects players and employees of different sexual orientations (though gender identity largely remains unprotected). They all have a relationship with some LGBT athlete or organization that lets them say, Look at how inclusive we are.

Yet none of them is executing what needs to be done to ensure gay athletes feel comfortable coming out to their teams or the public. They are doing enough to keep LGBT fans happy, with teams hosting “Pride” nights for the community and allowing logos to be painted in rainbow colors. As I said, a handful even tweeted support for same-sex marriage when the Supreme Court made marriage equality legal.

They are all doing something—none of them is doing everything.