Publisher’s Editorial: Pro Sports Coming Out of the Closet

Kevin McClatchy

In 1975, David Kopay, three years after retiring from professional football, acknowledged in a Washington Star interview that he was a gay man. At the time, 37 years ago, he was the first NFL player to come out. His voice resonated nationally, but homophobia in sports still exists today as it did yesterday. It takes courageous people to stand naked against the cannon in order to stop the hate which has come our way. David Kopay was such a man.

Last week, we ran with the story of a major league baseball player who published a gay slur on his eye black. In past years, we have covered stories of major leaguers, coaches, and managers denigrating gay fans and people living with HIV. Thankfully, in the more enlightened world we live in, those derogatory remarks are often met with sanctions and suspensions.

Not just the public, but management, has come to recognize that it is not socially acceptable or professionally tolerable to countenance bullying and name calling. Gay fans have money too, and outreach matters. This is why a San Francisco Giants coach was sent for sensitivity training after berating gays with public slurs. It’s why the NBA fined Kobe Bryant a cool 50 grand for calling  a ref making a bad call a ‘faggot.’

This year, SFGN is partnering with the You Can Play Project and Florida Panthers to conduct a charitable fund raising night at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. We are not only going to have the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus sing the National Anthem, we are hoping to put a few thousand LGBT people in the stands. We matter, we count, and we are a part of the social fabric, not apart from it.

Two years ago, SFGN featured Hudson Taylor in a back page story. He is the founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, a group promoting acceptance of gay men and women in the world of sports. A straight man who now coaches wrestling at Columbia University, Hudson has said that “Homophobic language is the tool used to diminish a player’s masculinity.”

Few people cover the issue better than Outsports.com, run and managed by Cyd Zeigler, whose stories shed light every day on the widespread, but ever so discreet world within which gay athletes keep their sexual orientation hidden. Zeigler acknowledges that the fear of the unknown has inhibited the forthrightness he would like to see come forth.

Professional sports are still a bastion of unrelenting homophobia, an arena where talented athletes still fight and resist openness about sexuality. It is obvious, if not transparent, that hundreds, if not thousands, of professional athletes have been gay. No one reveals it while they are playing. An athlete’s job is to play a game well on the field, not to talk about who they are doing off of it.

Billy Bean, a gay South Florida real estate agent, who has recently relocated to Southern California, where he played professional baseball for teams such as the Dodgers, recently said it best: “Unless your primary goal as an athlete is to be an ambassador for gay rights, you’re bound to pause before creating such a distraction.”

Sooner, rather than later, a star professional athlete on a major team sport in a major league city will open up about his personal life. As more and more stories emerge about homosexuality and sports, the revelation is inevitable. Athletes like to stay focused on the game at hand rather than a social cause which needs an advocate. They don’t want their identity to become a distraction and inhibit a stellar performance. In that respect, we have a lot of Anderson Coopers at shortstop or on the defensive line. At the right time, in the right place, they will find their moment.

Kevin McClatchy did so last Saturday on the op-ed page of the New York Times. When he was named the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 33 in 1994, he was one of the youngest executives in the sport.  Now the chairman of a Board which publishes more than two dozen newspapers, including the Miami Herald, he shared with Times columnist Frank Bruni intimate details of his personal, homosexual life, concealed for decades as a ‘community icon.’

"I think, with everybody, there’s a time that feels right, and for me this was a time. My hope is that it’s going to be able to help younger kids that want to get into professional sports and feel there are still great barriers. But I think, more important than that, it needs to create a dialogue about major league sports and sort of the void obviously that exists.

Rick Welts graced the front page of the New York Times last year, when, as the president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns basketball, team, revealed he’s gay. His revelation came with the tale that his relationship of 14 years was coming apart because his partner rejected continuing a shadowed life.

“This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,” said Welts, at the time. “Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.”

If we are going to put an end to homophobia and bullying and brutalizing of young gay men and women, what better time than today, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to say “If not now, when?”

Earlier this month, Chris Kluwe, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker said that he supports gay marriage, and stirred controversy. Some moron in the Maryland legislature tried to censure him. But it was the legislator who met with approbation, disdain and contrition. The world is evolving, and the time has come where the first out athlete will be met with praise for his courage rather than a bean ball meant for his head.

Having spent most of my adult life on playing fields, interacting with athletes, I have concluded all they really care about is winning- and  playing with teammates who bust their tail and give their all to make it happen. Whose tail they are busting with no one will ever care about if you throw the winning pass or get the walk off base hit.


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