By Frank Marrocco, Ph.D.
Well, not quite. However, the groundwork is being laid for an active member of a major American sports team to come out and survive the act professionally. This is excellent news for the promotion of positive self-regard among LGBT people, especially LGBT youth.
Men’s professional sports stand as the last high profile bastion of an old heterocentric order that employed homophobia as an organizing principle.
But society is shifting. President Obama has made equality for LGBT people a priority. And the liberalization of other professions with high visibility, most notably politics and entertainment, not to mention the military, is well underway. There is forward movement.
Only a handful of American male professional team athletes have ever come out, and nearly all after retirement. The laggard status of male professional sports may be the result of specific phenomena: sports careers are relatively brief, preparation is life-long, rewards are high, and the pressure toward conformity is strong.
Glenn Burke stands as a notable exception. Burke was a promising young baseball star when he came out – the first male pro sports player ever to do so - in 1977. Burke refused to hide his orientation and was rapidly run out of baseball. Burke, homeless and drug addicted, died in of AIDS in 1999.
On the other hand, those who have waited until retirement have generally been well received. Some have made significant contributions to the liberalization of men’s sports culture through publishing or public service (e.g., NFL players David Kopay, 1975; Roy Simmons 1992; Esera Tualo, 2002; and Wade Davis, 2012; Billy Bean, MLB 1999), and John Amechi (NBA, 2007).
Notwithstanding pro sports’ enduring conservatism on the issue, a major change in the culture is underway, a shift that may provide sufficient support for the first active player to come out.
Case in point: Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens and a fierce advocate for marriage equality, was thrust into the headlines last year when his donation of game tickets to Marylanders for Marriage Equality became the subject of a noisy complaint by state legislator Emmett C. Burns Jr.. Burns objected to the donation in a letter to Ravens owner Steve Biscotti, demanding Ayanbadejo be silenced. Remarkably, the Ravens organization stood behind the player, publicly rebuking Burns and declaring support of Ayanbadejo’s free speech rights. Voices of support for Ayanbadejo arose from players and fans across the country.
Chris Kluwe’s (kicker for the Minnesota Vikings) was among the loudest of these voices. When Kluwe, a bright and articulate social activist, heard of the flap in Maryland, he wrote a now famously scathing, profane, and well-crafted open letter to Burns. The letter instantly went viral, keeping the story alive in the press for weeks, likely contributing to the passage of Maryland’s marriage equality ballot measure on November 6.
In the last 2 years, members of multiple major league baseball teams and one NFL team have participated in a series of public service announcements (PSAs) on behalf of the “It Gets Better Project,” started as a response to a rash of LGBT teen suicides. The mission is to help LGBT teens survive alienation and bullying with a hopeful message about the future. The appearance of these, presumably heterosexual, athletes in PSAs sends a powerful message and points toward significant shift in professional sports culture.
Still quieter voices attest to an evolving culture of male professional sports. Outsports recently catalogued NFL players stating publicly that they would be comfortable playing alongside and sharing locker rooms with an out gay teammate. An ESPN survey found 59% of responding professional male athletes endorsed marriage equality. These players and their forthright communication mirror the changing social environment.
Three recent high profile events add to this picture of a shifting culture: Orlando Cruz became the first professional boxer ever to come out publicly; and two pro sports team owners, Rick Welts, CEO, Phoenix Suns, and Kevin McClatchy, former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, have both candidly disclosed their homosexuality. Taken together, these recent events signal a significant shift in the underlying culture of men’s professional sports.
These developments, as well as the eventual coming out of professional athletes, bode well for the self-esteem—and self-acceptance—of LGBT youth, both athletes and non-athletes
Unquestionably, “firsts” have outsized influence as role models, the magnitude of which is hard to quantify. Consider the impact of Jackie Robinson’s ascension to the major leagues in 1947 on the self-esteem of black youth in the US. And the coming out of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were both huge events for young women.
LGBT youth now have an abundance of positive role models across the spectrum, from major political figures like Barney Frank, Senator Tammy Baldwin, 7 members of the 113th Congress and countless state and local officials; TV news and media figures like Rachel Maddow, Dan Savage, Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell; performers and directors like Jodie Foster, Neil Patrick Harris, David Hyde Pierce, and Ricky Martin; TV show characters like Modern Family’s Mitchell & Cameron, and Six Feet Under’s David & Keith. The lists go on and on.
Men’s professional sports are next. And when this happens, we will all have reason to celebrate. Young gay males may well benefit most directly; the misguided notion that gay equates with femininity, an inability to compete in the rough-and-tumble world of pro team sport, will be thoroughly debunked. Who knows…the impact might well find its way into gym class--a long-time bastion of conventional masculine norms—and a more accepting environment will be created for all youth to enjoy the benefits of physical activity.
Frank Marrocco, PhD, psychologist and psychoanalyst, is Director of the LGBT Psychotherapy Service at the William Alanson White Institute where he also serves as Faculty and chairs the LGBT Study Group. He is in private practice in NYC.