Sports  Playing out

The continued absence of professional queer athletes and the fight for acceptance

The locker room has never been seen as a very accepting place. In fact, the whole jock, machismo culture that exists around sports as a whole is often seen as an insular community that resists societal change.

Sure, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier in 1947, becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball (MLB) well before the burgeoning days of the Civil Rights Movement. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were among the first black professional football players in 1920, which is a pretty amazing feat if you think about it. Still, Robinson and the others were subject to racial threats and abuse throughout their careers, from players and fans alike, and many teams stayed all white for many years after.

Racial minorities were slowly phased into every sport and every team when owners realized they couldn’t pass up the profits their talent provided. As Robinson’s manager, Leo Durocher, once said, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black… I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich.”

And so, with some resistance, the racial barrier was eventually broken down on all teams, and racial minorities gained acceptance in every sport (although, there are still many issues involving race in most sports today).

There is one barrier, though, that has yet to be crossed, and that is the fact that there are no openly queer athletes in any of the major North American professional leagues. What’s more, there never has been. There have been players who have come out after they’ve retired, such as the NBA’s John Amaechi; the NFL’s Esera Tuaolo, Roy Simmons and Dave Kopay; and the MLB’s Glenn Burke and Billy Bean. But there has never been an active player who is openly queer to the public and teammates alike.

Perhaps the most indicative narrative of the struggle for gay athletes is Glenn Burke’s story. Burke was a highly touted outfielder who joined the MLB in 1976. He was openly queer to his teammates, and the management of his team knew that he was queer. Almost immediately upon his arrival, he was met with opposition for this aspect of his identity. His manager tried to get him to marry a woman before his rookie year, offering a contract bonus. Burke refused and continued to be out to his teammates and management. Within two years, he was traded to another team, and he was out of the league a year later. He claimed, “prejudice drove [him] out of baseball.”

What comes next then? Has the sports community evolved enough for an active player to come out as queer? There are many roadblocks in place. There would be the constant slurs coming from the opposing fans, or even the hometown fans, if the athlete’s performance suffered. It would become a huge media story and garner a level of attention with which many would find it difficult to cope.

And maybe most troubling would be the reaction of fellow players or coaches.

After Amaechi came out, another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway, said that he “wouldn’t want him on my team… If [Amaechi] 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.” Hardaway later apologized for the sentiment, but his visceral reaction is one that many athletes have and one that many queer athletes probably fear. Your teammates are supposed to be the ones who look after you, protect you, support you – no matter what. If a player was to come out, they have to wonder: will their teammates still be there?

It is certainly a good sign for queer athletes that the NHL has partnered with the You Can Play organization to promote LGBT rights. The organization was started in part by Patrick Burke, whose father is the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke’s brother, Brendan, was a hockey player at Miami University in Ohio. In 2009, he came out to his teammates, and this announcement was leaked to the media. The hockey world at large supported Burke and his sexuality, and he became an queer advocate, looking to make the sports culture less homophobic and more accepting. Sadly, he died in a car crash in 2010. Patrick Burke came up with the program to honor Brendan’s legacy.

The basic idea of the You Can Play program is right in its name. Their motto is, “If you can play, you can play.” Any athlete playing the game should be respected regardless of their sexual orientation. The program calls for queer athletes and straight allies to create a culture of acceptance within sports, using the game as a binding force rather than a restrictive one. They want to use the universality of sports to create bonds between people that go beyond sexual preference. Players are to be judged on their athletic “skills, work ethic, and competitive spirit” above all else, according to the You Can Play website. While there is still a long way to go, this development of this organization is clearly a positive step.

Players on all thirty teams of the NHL have joined the project, filming public service announcements for the group in which they pledge their support for queerathletes. The NHL is the first sport to join the effort, with the hope that the other major sports will join the program soon.

So, when can we expect our first openly gay athlete? It’s impossible to put a timeline on something so monumental, but we can hope that programs like You Can Play and the continued advocacy by queer rights groups will hasten the process.

There’s a whole generation of players rising through the high school and college ranks in a culture that is growing more and more accepting of the rights of queer people. Sooner or later, something has to give. It certainly will be a huge victory for queer athletes if they can break down the resistant and super masculine culture of the locker room.