Back in May 2013, free agent National Basketball Association (NBA) player Jason Collins announced on a front page story in Sports Illustrated that he was gay. It was the first time any active professional male athlete in the so-called ‘big four’ sports (football, baseball, hockey, and basketball) had publicly come out. Collins hasn’t yet been signed; he hasn’t played a minute of NBA basketball since the announcement.
The market for 35-year-old players (ancient in professional sports terms) with declining skills is not quite robust these days, which somewhat explains Collins’ absence from an NBA team. Unfortunately, this is not all that has come up: there are fears that the media attention would be a distraction to the team (and there’s nothing more terrifying to teams these days than a media distraction, because athletes apparently can’t handle answering questions about the real world for 20 minutes a day, or something) and that Collins’ presence might disrupt the chemistry of the locker room.
We have yet to see an openly gay male athlete play for any period of time. For some reason, the media has mostly ignored a number of openly gay female athletes, but this is also related to the fact that women’s sports are consistently underreported. Stories on trans* people attempting to ‘cross over’ into their identified gender side of a sport are usually reported on as anomalies; sometimes a tired debate ensues over whether it’s ‘right’ that someone do this. But the main sticking point for the media is an openly gay male athlete, and we’ve reached a tipping point of people waiting for it to happen, especially since it appears that Collins may never get another shot at the NBA.
Speculation about athletes’ sexuality has become common parlance with the advent of 24-hour sports networks, the internet, and Twitter. Just recently, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the target of rumours claiming that he was gay, leading to an incredibly awkward interview where he had to say that he “really, really like[d] women.” In November 2013, Mike Freeman released a story for Bleacher Report that claimed that two gay, free agent football players were ready to come out this season before the teams interested in them balked, one for money reasons (which some doubt is true) and another fearing the reaction the signing might garner from the media – and possibly negative reaction from fans or players. “Quite simply, teams remain terrified of signing an openly gay player,” Freeman wrote.
We have yet to see an openly gay male athlete play for any period of time.
Further compounding these issues was a recent article published in Deadspin by former Minnesota Vikings (and currently unemployed) punter Chris Kluwe, who claimed that he was cut from the team in 2012 in part because he had publicly spoken out in favour of same-sex marriage. Kluwe alleges that his coach, Leslie Frazier, told him to stop speaking publicly on the issue, while his position coach, Mike Priefer, reportedly made multiple homophobic remarks towards Kluwe. All this, along with Kluwe’s increasing age and somewhat declining statistics, are what Kluwe alleged led to his dismissal from the team.
This left You Can Play and its founder, Patrick Burke, in a rough spot. You Can Play is an organization that seeks to partner with collegiate athletic programs and professional leagues to create a welcoming environment for gay athletes. Burke initially tweeted (then deleted) that Kluwe had been cut for his performance more than anything else; his reasoning for this was that he did not want athletes to think that speaking out for gay rights would get them fired. Clarifying later, Burke told Buzzfeed that “[…]we do not want to see people take this incident and make it seem like you get cut for being gay-friendly in the NFL,” and that Kluwe’s case was “totally unacceptable, horrific, and (we hope) atypical[…].”
Let’s throw yet another log on this fire and discuss the upcoming Sochi Olympics, where further anti ‘gay propaganda’ laws were recently passed. Many people have balked at a boycott of the games, but do want to make some sort of statement at the Olympics in favour of gay rights. Olympic rules specifically prohibit public political demonstrations by athletes, because, for some reason, a giant international competition featuring nearly every country in the world must remain totally apolitical. You Can Play has distributed small pins with their motto written in Cyrillic, but that’s been about the extent of advocacy so far. There seems to be a tangible desire to speak out against the Russian laws, but action so far has been slow, whether from fear of prosecution or athletes’ reticence to publicly speak out.
So, yes, there seems to be anxiety over when gay rights are going to go big in sports (and, again, going big means coming out as an openly gay athlete, or showing support for gay rights). The issues surrounding the first openly active gay male athlete, athlete advocacy, and the media’s desire for one of the biggest sports stories ever – basically, the gay rights version of Jackie Robinson (professional baseball’s first black player) – have now intersected into something fascinating. There is a subtle sense of waiting for the next big story, of breathless anticipation. Projects such as You Can Play have attempted to create an accepting environment among professional organizations, but we haven’t yet seen push come to shove; it remains to be seen what will actually happen when that first openly gay male athlete faces their first unfriendly crowd, their first disparaging comment, and ever more intrusions into their personal lives by a hungry media. At this point, it’s not an if, but a when, and we’re standing at an uneasy precipice.