Dominated by testosterone and machismo, professional sports are defined by images of virile straight men, but buried in locker rooms throughout the country is a hidden "third rail" of sports: the closeted gay pro athlete. With 2012's political momentum, pop culture trends and sports news like soccer's Robbie Rogers coming out, now is the time for a gay player in one of America's four major team sports to step out of the closet and onto the field.
As over 100 million fans watched Super Bowl XLVII, there were two gay stories in the media. Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a vocal activist for gay rights since 2009, continued his advocacy by leveraging the media surrounding the Super Bowl to raise awareness for LGBT equality. On the other side of the field, in a publicity fumble, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver was taped in an interview saying, "We don't got no gay people on the team. You know, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. ... Nah, can't be ... in the locker room." The team immediately condemned the player's words, but the fumble continued as 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga denied having participated in the NFL's first video for the It Gets Better project, which supports LGBT youth, many of whom are bullied. Who would have thought that the 49ers' return to the Super Bowl, after an 18-year drought, would find them doing damage control around homophobia? And how ironic, given San Francisco's gay-friendly reputation!
In the Red Zone: America Is Ready
PR expert Howard Bragman and writer Cyd Ziegler recently asserted that a professional athlete's coming out will be a tipping point. They state that once the icons of masculinity demonstrate acceptance, "it would signal social progress." Cyd and Howard aren't giving themselves, as vanguards, or American society enough credit. Progress is five consecutive national polls, from March 2011 to November 2012, indicating that a majority of Americans favors marriage equality. Progress is marriage equality in nine states and the District of Columbia. Progress is a national election in which three states passed marriage equality, 114 openly gay candidates were elected to state or local office, seven state legislatures gained their first LGBT lawmaker, and 41 states now having an openly gay elected official. Progress is President Obama supporting marriage equality and reaffirming that support in his second inaugural address. Progress is an ESPN survey showing that 59.3 percent of professional athletes support marriage equality.
Progress isn't just political. In corporate America, a record number of corporations give partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships, and LGBT employees fill senior executive ranks at countless Fortune 500 companies. Leading brands have become some of the strongest backers of LGBT rights, including Apple, Google, Starbucks, Nike, General Mills and Goldman Sachs. In entertainment, last season saw the highest percentage of gay characters on television, with 50 on network shows and 61 on cable. These characters include openly gay high schoolers on Glee and Degrassi and Modern Family's Cam and Mitchell. This season, USA's Necessary Roughness highlighted a gay quarterback's coming-out storyline. And recent high-profile coming-out announcements included Anderson Cooper, Frank Ocean, Jodie Foster and Clive Davis.
Given the confluence of political, corporate and cultural trends, we have crossed the tipping point. No longer is it time for an athlete to catalyze acceptance. Instead, now is an opportunity for a courageous and opportunistic athlete to ride this momentum to the role of American hero.
Why Now? The Play Clock in Sports Is Winding Down...
Given the changing political landscape and major shifts in social attitudes, America is ready. Among public intellectuals, coming out confers social capital. It is an act of courage that is met with media acclaim. This is the so-called "golden era" of coming out, and professional sports remain the last holdout. The discussion about gay athletes is decades old. Many retired players have come out, starting with Dave Kopay in 1975. Roy Simmons came out in 1992, Esera Tuaolo in 2002 and Wade Davis and Kwamme Harris over the last year. Baseball has Billy Bean, basketball John Amechi. Outside the four major team sports, U.S. soccer star Robbie Rogers came out this week, announcing his retirement at the same time. And many female athletes have been out for decades.
In college sports, acceptance has come faster. Ten years ago, a college jock coming out was big. Brian Sims, tackle and captain at Bloomsburg University, made news when he came out in 2000. He leveraged his recognition, relationships and advocacy work to win a seat in the Pennsylvania legislature last November. Today, being out as a college football player is not easy, but it is also less newsworthy. ESPN reported in 2009 that 49.4 percent of college football players said they had a gay teammate; in the PAC-10 (now PAC-12), that number was 70 percent.
Winning Is Never Easy
Coming out is scary and anxiety-inducing in the best of circumstances. It could be a mental, psychological or emotional distraction for a professional athlete and team. But it also brings relief, allowing the athlete to meaningfully elevate every aspect of his life, including his level of play.
What will the locker room be like? Are more professional athletes like Culliver than Ayanbadejo? A hostile locker-room atmosphere was depicted in last week's Necessary Roughness, with players mocking gay stereotypes; Chris Kluwe called the portrayal accurate. Nevertheless, as I pointed out earlier, marriage equality polls favorably among athletes. More likely, most players, like most Americans, aren't aware of, don't care about or don't think about the sexual orientation of their co-workers. These players are young, and locker rooms have long been home to mockery and explicit sexual jokes. While we tend to think of professional athletes as adults -- contemporaries of the audience -- these players are young adults. The NFL's average age is 26. Perhaps they lack emotional maturity, but they are also part of a generation raised to believe in tolerance and equality. Most importantly, they are trained to be teammates. And just as troops follow their generals and officers into battle, when coaches and team captains vocally support the openly gay players, the locker-room mentally will begin to shift toward acceptance.
Allies are already in place to support this hypothetical player. NFL players Chris Kluwe, Connor Barwin and Brendon Ayanbadejo and legends Scott Fujita, Michael Strahan and Michael Irvin are all allies. Last week in the NBA, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant proved a supporter, chiding fans for anti-gay tweets. League executives are also supporters. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue both have gay family and are supporters. The NFL Players Association, like all player unions, is unwavering in its loyalty to its members. This hypothetical athlete will be fortified at all levels.
The media world, particularly sports radio, may be brutal. Ratings rule. And smaller or more conservative markets will be harsher. Fringe commentators may decry how the "gay agenda" has infiltrated America's pastime. Religious fervor will fuel the criticism. But for every person who publicly criticizes this courageous star, 10 will cheer. On the national stage, the media will embrace this player. From Ellen and Oprah to sport journalists Erin Andrews and Jared Max, the taste makers will be supportive. Social media will explode with messages of love and thanks for demonstrating courage and inspiration.
But If You Don't Do It, Someone Else Will
No one wants to see the LGBT movement, the gay athlete in question or the sports league to which he belongs burdened by scandal. As Ziegler and Bragman wrote, "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." The preferred alternative is for a professional athlete to proactively come out; such a positive affirmation advances professional sports, the leagues, the teams, the player and the LGBT movement. This scenario allows the player to control his story. Moreover, a strategic coming out managed by the right business team enables a lifetime of revenue opportunities. In a world that is competitive for endorsement deals, this player will stand alone. He'll enjoy a book deal and a speaking tour. That intellectual property can be leveraged into long career: $25,000 a month in speaking fees for a decade is $3 million. This is not a revenue stream that a player can count on if he is outted by scandal or waits until retirement to be brave.
Awaiting an MVP
This will be the top news headline for months. The first gay professional athlete will be a role model, like it or not. If this player refuses to define himself and drive the conversation, he will fall victim to the narrative of whoever speaks loudest. Professional sports are woven into the fabric of our national history. This player, claiming a footnote in that history, will defy stereotypes. More important, he will inspire millions. Moments after the story breaks, his inbox will be flooded with emails, messages and tweets from kids who have been bullied and high school quarterbacks scared to tell their parents. Parents seeking common ground with a gay child will buy this player's jersey; they will send a photo and a thank-you note for helping them confront their prejudice. He will earn a lifetime of rewards and joy from forever making the world a better place. And now is the time.