"TU ERES MARICON" was the phrase printed on Yunel Escobar's eye black that has upset so many, resulted in a three game suspension for the Blue Jays shortstop, and opened up discussion about the acceptance of gays in sports.
If you wanted to count on your fingers how many openly gay athletes there are in the NHL, MLB, NFL, or NBA you could do it while wearing mittens, there are none. With it being estimated that 10 percent of the population is gay, the fact that there is not one openly gay athlete in any of these leagues has led many to the conclusion that gay athletes in these sports are afraid of coming out.
John Amaechi is a former NBA player who waited until his career was over to come out and announce he is gay. When asked how come he didn't come out during his playing days and how he thought his teammates and the league would react to an openly gay player Amaechi stated "It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There'd be fear, then panic: they just wouldn't know how to handle it."
It's easy to say that Amaechi might have been underestimating the acceptance and culture of inclusion that could exist in the NBA if more players were to come out during their playing days, but following Amaechi's announcement comments by Tim Hardaway, once one of the league's top point guards, would show that there is at least a small minority of players in the NBA who would not be accepting of a gay teammate.
"First of all I wouldn't want him on my team," stated Hardaway. "Second of all, if he was on my team I would really distance myself from him because I don't think that's right and I don't think he should be in the locker room when we're in the locker room. Something has to give. If you have 12 other ball players in your locker room that's upset and can't concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it's going to be hard for your teammates to win and accept him as a teammate."
Hardaway was fired from the Continental Basketball League for his comments, as well as barred from representing the NBA in any capacity. After Hardaway's comments many other NBA players did come out and say Amaechi would have been accepted had he come out during his playing days however.
Possibly the best example of how difficult it can be for a gay athlete is the case of Ed Gallagher, an offensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh who attempted suicide 12 days after his first sexual experience with a man. Gallagher survived but was left a paraplegic. Years later Gallagher would say of his suicide attempt that he "had become unable to reconcile his image of himself as an athlete with gay urges." Later in life Gallagher would become an advocate for people living with disabilities and suicide prevention before dying of a heart condition in 2005.
All throughout my childhood some of my best moments were playing sports. Being a Canadian kid I played a lot of hockey, but also baseball and basketball and any other league my parents and I could find. I was lucky because I wanted to play on these teams, but many times kids don't really have a say in the matter and are afraid that not playing team sports would disappoint their parents or cause other kids to ostracize them. Many of the other kids I played with have grown up to be wonderful people, who have gay friends, and don't see someone's sexuality as being an issue. In the locker room as kids however, it was a different story. If you are a young male coming to terms with discovering that you are gay I can't think of a worse place in the world for you than in the locker room of an all male sports team, at least when I was growing up that was the case. While the players are probably actually not homophobic in any way, the language they use would make it hard for anyone to believe that. If you wanted to haze another teammate you called them the "F" word (the F word that has three letters, I don't know if I'm allowed to print the actual word, even in this context), or somehow implied that the person is gay, it was entirely the norm. If you wanted to rip on your friend in that environment you did so by belittling their masculinity, and insinuating that he might be gay was a fairly standard way to do that- oh, and guys that age rip on each other pretty much constantly.
I hope that isn't still the case today, but with all the reports in the last few years of gay teenagers being bullied I can't imagine that the locker room has suddenly become a safe haven for young gay males.
If I was gay, and discovering it at the same time that I was in those locker rooms and on those teams I don't know how I would have responded, I certainly know I wouldn't have felt comfortable talking about it to anyone on my team. That doesn't mean that a gay male wouldn't be accepted in that situation but it does mean it would be hard for them to initially feel as though they would be.
Unfortunately there are probably countless males all across North America who are in that situation right now. To fix this problem however, only two things need to happen:
1) There needs to be more openly gay athletes at the professional level in these sports.
2) There needs to be more straight players in these sports who publicly state they would welcome a gay teammate.
More openly gay athletes at the professional level would show kids at the youth level that gay athletes need to be welcomed in their locker room just like they are in the locker rooms of their role models, and it would help prove to young gay athletes that they can play these sports and be on these teams too.
For that to happen however, players in these leagues and the leagues themselves need to make it clear that players who choose to come out publicly would be welcomed as teammates and opponents.
Luckily there are organizations working towards making this happen. This year "You Can Play" (an organization started by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, the brother of Brendan Burke) launched several videos that consist of athletes giving variations on the main campaign message: "That players wouldn't care if a teammate is gay". The goal of the organization is to show that professional sports is ready for openly gay athletes. Athletes such as Dustin Brown, Steve Stamkos, Rob Gronkowski have all stated publicly that they would welcome a gay teammate, and say what you want about Sean Avery and his seemingly endless string of poor choices and cheap play as a player, he is still one of the best straight allies in the world of sports. Until that list of names grows however, it might be awhile until we see an openly gay athlete in any of the four major team sports in North America.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has a slightly different take on why a gay athlete in these sports should choose to come out.
If you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out. Because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective. You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that'll put money in your pocket. On the flip side, if you're the idiot who condemns somebody because they're gay, then you're going to be ostracized, you're going to be picketed and you're going to ruin whatever marketing endorsements you have.
Cuban's statement proves two things: 1) A gay player would be welcomed by the Dallas Mavericks 2) Mark Cuban lets the free market decide everything
As someone who isn't gay and has never had to come out, it's not appropriate of me to say "Gay athletes need to come out now", because I don't fully know how difficult that can be or all the obstacles in front of a gay athlete that prevent them from doing so. I can only say that if there is 15-year-old kid living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh who is starting to realize he is gay, and also plays hockey on a team with a typical young teenage male locker room culture, that if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or any of the Pittsburgh Penguins were to announce publicly that they are gay it would suddenly make all the difference in the world to that kid, and help change the locker room culture of that team of youth hockey players. The same situation would happen if one of the Phillies came out in Philadelphia, if a member of the Heat came out in Miami, or if the same scenario presented itself anywhere across North America.
But the onus is not just on gay athletes to come out, that lays with all athletes, gay or straight, to make it clear that gay players are welcome in the locker room.