A marginal former NFL player announced this week that he was gay, sparking new interest in the status of homosexuality in sports. Player reaction to the news was largely positive which represents a sea shift in player attitudes. Athletes at every level seem ready to support their teammates of a different sexual orientation. It wasn't always like this.
For most of the 40 years I've represented professional athletes, homosexuality has been a frightening taboo. This is the reason that virtually no team sport athletes have ever "come out" during their careers. At one point in the 90s when I was asked whether I would encourage a gay client to announce his sexual preference publicly, my response was "not on your life." I made the comment before Perestroika that someone could more easily announce they were a Communist than homosexual. I was protective of my clients and feared the harshness and prejudice of the locker room and the public. Frankly, no client ever admitted to me that they were gay.
I've always felt that there were less gays in professional sports than their percentage of the general population -- and here's my theory. When boys reach adolescence they start to define themselves by what it means to be a man. In the past that meant being heterosexual. Teenage boys have traditionally scorned gay teens. The locker rooms have been filled with cruel remarks towards gays and crude imitations of lisping, effeminate behavior. It had to be extremely uncomfortable for teens who were gay in that environment. Those gay teens chose to avoid the team sport dynamic in many cases. And those who chose to play those sports hid their sexual orientation well. Athletes in sports like ice-skating and diving felt freer to live without prejudice.
The times they are a changing. Every poll shows that there is a distinct age differential in attitudes towards gays. Younger people are dramatically more accepting of alternative lifestyles. This is a civil rights issue that is being raised some fifty years after the movement which freed Blacks and other minority groups from official discrimination. Years have passed since certain NBA players threatened to boycott if they were forced to play against HIV sufferer Magic Johnson. His dramatic announcement shattered stereotypes in respect to AIDS.
Team sport athletes seem much less judgmental than in years past. There are large numbers of born-again Christians who may have religious reservations, but they may be able to separate that from respect for a teammate. The NFL operates in many ways like an army without the risk of mortality. They train together, bleed together, and watch each others backs. The real test of acceptance of a teammate is reliability and courage under pressure, that is what earns respect in team sports. If a player gives the team a better chance to win, respect is earned notwithstanding private orientation. The military has now abolished "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and if soldiers in the same age group as athletes can accept diversity, so will athletes. The courage necessary for protecting our country is a higher standard than athletic performance.
Why is it important for gay athletes to be public about their sexual orientation? First, many athletes choose to keep their private lives private and no one is forcing this kind of revelation. Those of us who are straight give little thought to our orientation. Dating, marriage and other institutions reinforce heterosexual behavior. But to a gay teen who suffers depression and scorn from peers, public disclosure by an athlete gives them a role model and hope.
It would have been unthinkable for a President of the United States to endorse gay marriage until recently. That issue is much more divisive than an athlete admitting he is gay. The fear of the consequences of revealing different sexual orientation is now ready to fall. When the first professional athletes "come out" there will be major focus and publicity. In a few years it will be a non-event. I love sports because it teaches values like self-respect, self-discipline, teamwork and resilience. Adding tolerance to that list only enhances the character building opportunities for athletes.
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