As a pro basketball player, I keep close tabs on the world of sports and its most important happenings. It's no surprise, then, that when former U.S. Men's National Team midfielder Robbie Rogers announced he was gay on February 15th -- before immediately stepping away from soccer at age 25 -- I followed with considerable interest. It was the same type of attention that I've recently paid to several related news items: 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver's anti-gay remarks during the week of the Super Bowl; ex-NFL offensive tackle Kwame Harris being outed by a past boyfriend who accused him of assault; NBA superstar Kobe Bryant chastising a fan on Twitter for using the word "gay" as an insult.
I've tracked these national stories from afar -- from Israel, where I'm playing my seventh season of pro hoops -- and they all struck a chord. Not because of the people involved or the games they play, but rather because of the larger issue these events highlight. It's an issue that lives and breathes in my workplace -- the locker room -- and it's one that speaks loudly about how we treat each other in America, on and off the court. It's the issue of what it will be like -- for the competitor, his peers, and the public -- when the first gay male athlete comes out of the closet while he's still competing in one of the United States' four major sports.
Given the current social climate in the U.S. (and the undeniable presence of gay athletes), an active, openly gay sportsman only seems like a matter of time, right? After all, sports have always been a microcosm of society, and the winds of change are blowing in America. Advancements in marriage equality and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" are prime examples that, albeit slowly, America is moving toward treating all men and women as if we're actually created equal, regardless of sexual orientation.
Despite these steps toward equality, the sports world (at least in relation to its male members) hasn't quite caught up yet. It's still its own high-profile ecosystem -- a notoriously macho and homophobic one, at that -- so the questions rightfully remain: Would an openly gay athlete be accepted by his peers? What about by fans? How would the dynamics in the locker room be affected? Would it be career suicide? Would it be worth the risk?
These are all important questions to consider, and they've been considered many times by many people. I'm certainly not the first to do it, but my perspective is a bit different than most. Unlike talking heads, sports pundits, and other media personnel, I'm not on the outside looking in on the athletes' world; I'm on the inside looking out.
I'm a ballplayer. I'm a pro. I've been in an NBA training camp and have competed in some of the top leagues overseas. I've spent a lot of time in NBA locker rooms. I've been on the bus. I've been on the plane. I've sat around the table. That doesn't mean that I have all the answers or that I can presume to summarize the sentiments of all athletes, because there are no easy answers to these questions and there is no consensus opinion on the subject. But, at the very least, it means that I truly understand what it's like to be an athlete in today's world, like only an athlete really can, and am therefore able to provide first-person insight that may help flesh out this controversial topic.
Based on these experiences, do I think an openly gay competitor would be accepted in the sports world? In a world where guys are tough, jokes are filthy, and "manliness" (among other things) is measured on a daily basis? Truthfully, it's an impossible question to answer. The only certainty in this situation is that it would be messy. It would be complex. It would be difficult. There would be moments of great understanding, compassion, and growth, juxtaposed with cruel instances of insensitivity, ignorance, and bigotry. Just like America is a melting pot of different people from different backgrounds, the sports world is also a quilted cast of characters from various ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Accordingly, there will never be complete harmony on any issue, especially one as divisive as this.
There are many athletes who, like me, could care less about your sexual orientation, as long as you can rebound the ball, field a grounder, protect the quarterback, or put the puck in the net. Others, however, would no doubt feel uncomfortable, or even threatened, by a gay player -- for their own personal reasons to which they're entitled -- and would most likely reject his presence as a result. At the end of the day, no one can know for sure whether the supporters would outweigh the detractors, or vice versa. Whatever the final destination for a gay athlete and his peers, the only real guarantee is that it would be an uphill battle to get there, with sizeable speed bumps along the way.
This goes double for fans. I'm sure that many would loudly celebrate the courage and bravery of an openly gay athlete, but would these accepting and appreciative allies be able to drown out the inevitable hoards of haters? You know them: they're the ones yelling gay slurs at the games; the ones making inappropriate gestures outside the team bus; the ones writing derogatory comments on the message boards. Anyone who has ever been to a sporting event knows that some fans will stop at nothing to taunt an opponent, so would a player's sexuality be considered off limits to paying customers on the road, or even off limits to his home fans, if he were playing poorly? I highly doubt it.
And what would it be like inside the locker room, the sacred and scantily-clad locale that's often the focal point of this particular debate? It's the male athlete's safe haven, the place where we walk around naked, clip our toenails, get dressed and undressed, eat sandwiches, shower together, tell crude stories, and do basically anything else that a man does in a place where he feels completely at ease. Would it be weird or disruptive to have a gay guy around? Some athletes would say yes (and might very well make their gay teammate's life difficult as a result), and though I understand this concern conceptually -- that the nudity might be uncomfortable -- I personally think that, in practice, it shouldn't make a difference. Why? Because we're not strangers together in the locker room -- we're teammates -- and because there is absolutely nothing sexual about this atmosphere, period.
To assume that a gay teammate would make things awkward in the locker room is to assume that he would survey his surroundings in sexual and unprofessional terms, instead of respecting the sanctity of his work environment, and that just seems incredibly presumptuous. It's almost making the assumption that a gay teammate, by virtue of being gay, would not be able to uphold the natural boundaries that exist between human beings in the workplace (teammates, specifically). For any gay professional athlete who has ostensibly spent years of his life in a locker room setting--and for any gay male in general, for that matter--that is an extremely unfair assumption to make.
I say this with confidence because I've shared intimate space with gay peers before: in college, when I lived on a hall -- and shared a bathroom -- with multiple gay classmates, there was never any hint of "inappropriate" behavior, of a sexual nature or otherwise. And why would there have been? They were simply good guys going about their business, like everyone else. If they had stepped out of line in a way that made others uncomfortable, it would not have been because they were gay. It would have been because they were jerks who had no concept of reasonable hallmate conduct. The same holds true in a locker room. As athletes, we should feel threatened or uneasy because someone doesn't know how to behave themselves, not because they are gay. The former is where the problems come from, not the latter, and there's no reason to think that a correlation exists between the two.
Obviously, I'd welcome a gay teammate without hesitation, but that stance doesn't make me a good person, just as feeling the opposite doesn't make others bad. It only means that we've had different life experiences and influences that have shaped our outlooks. In my career, most of my teammates have been good people at their cores, and I believe that even those with homophobic leanings could and perhaps would learn to accept a gay teammate if the circumstance arose. Some clearly wouldn't, but that's their prerogative.
Personally, I view this issue in no uncertain terms; namely -- to modify one of the most powerful statements in history that defined a different fight for justice -- that people should not be judged by the orientation of their sexuality, but by the content of their character. That is really what matters about a human being, isn't it? Just like what really matters about an athlete is his ability to play his sport, not his sexual preference.
I believe in these feelings -- my feelings -- but I acknowledge that in the greater context of pro sports, they mean very little. They are just one athlete's opinion. I'm not trying to convert others to my way of thinking, though I hope that these perspectives might somehow nudge the narrative toward a bit more decency in the sports world than currently exists. So that one day a distinction between "gay athlete" and "athlete" won't be necessary. But that, I'm afraid, is wishful thinking. Life is tough, and negativity and intolerance too often rule the day.
As a result, today's sports landscape appears to be treacherous terrain for an openly gay male athlete. That's probably why we don't have one yet, and frankly, I understand it. It's easy to be critical of closeted athletes who don't break the barrier, but that's ignoring what an extraordinarily difficult and potentially damaging undertaking it would be. It's an action that could possibly erase a lifelong dream in an instant (however unfortunate that reality might be), and that's a scary proposition for any person to face, especially without the widespread support of the world around you.
Still, no great change comes without struggle, so I think the day will eventually come. When it does, I'll applaud loudly and proudly. In the meantime, the less insensitivity and homophobia that fans display inside and outside arenas, the better. And the more sports stars with legitimate influence -- a group to which I cannot claim to belong -- who stand up for this cause, the better. Every time someone like Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets joins a gay rights support group (which he did recently), and every time prominent pros like Steve Nash, Chris Kluwe, and Brandon Ayanbadejo (to name a few) lend their support, it makes a strong statement to players and fans everywhere that helps soften the turf a little more.
Hopefully, by demonstrating that many athletes (and their fans) would indeed judge an openly gay sportsman by the content of his character and by the quality of his athletic prowess rather than by his sexual orientation, that closeted athlete might be encouraged to take the leap. Then, it might not feel like a free fall. Then, it might feel like people on all sides of the sports world would be ready to catch him.
Then, it might actually happen.