In Part I, we discussed Sports Illustrated Magazine’s selection of Denver Broncos’ star quarterback Peyton Manning as its 2013 Sportsman of the Year. While Manning is an excellent choice, in my view. there were better choices, like Jason Collins
Sports locker rooms are real life examples of Social Darwinism. There is a definite social hierarchy and caste system. The social order is based upon your ability to help the team win. The superstar player, like a Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky, is the center of attention. The rest of the starting players are next in the hierarchy. Rookies and backup players, except for the superstar rookie, are at the bottom. If you are injured and cannot help the team win that day’s game, you don’t exist. If your team is winning then the mood is upbeat and the music played is loud. If the team is losing, the locker room has the atmosphere of a morgue. Various divides, such as racial, regional and place in the “pecking order”, exist.
Professional sports athletes have the added underlying pressures of money and fame. Win and you are on top of the world. Lose and the attention and endorsement opportunities disappear very quickly. Except for the superstar players, who have superior skills and protection of large contracts in the modern sports salary cap world, you can be cut or traded at any time. There is always another player, usually younger and making less money, ready and willing to take your job.
Good teams have the locker room leadership to get all players to focus on winning first, and individual play, playing time, contracts and statistics, second. The pressure to conform, to fit in, by management, the other players, the media and the fans is huge. Individualism, like not joining in on the frat boy pranks and banter, or doing something as nonconformist as reading a non-sports book in the locker room, can make you a pariah and threaten your job.
An extreme example of this pressure to conform was the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito – Jonathan Martin contretemps, which was thoroughly covered by Sports Illustrated. Every locker room as a strong undercurrent of testosterone, joking (and not so joking) about each players’ manhood and sexuality is standard fare. Martin was perceived by team coaches and Incognito of “being soft” which affected Martin’s play. With the tacit encouragement of team management and coaches, Incognito assigned himself to” toughen up” Martin.
Incognito teased and taunted Martin, supposedly his good friend, so hard that Martin cracked emotionally and mentally. Martin checked into a hospital psychiatric ward because of his extreme depression. Allegedly, Incognito constantly taunted Martin, a Stanford University graduate and son of mixed race professional parents, about Martin’s race, intelligence, game performance, mental and physical toughness and sexuality. Typical epithets used are “pussy”, “homo”, “fag”, and “queer” . Calling your teammate those words supposedly “toughens him up”.
Are there gay professional athletes? Of course there are. The LPGA’s Dinah Shore Classic has been called “spring break for lesbians”. Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova are legends because of their outstanding play and their efforts for women’s and gay rights. But the stigma of being gay remains in male professional sports.
MLB’s Glenn Burke was one of the first gay men to “come out of the closet”. While playing, he was considered an ideal teammate.
“Glenn Burke was just doing what came naturally.
Dusty Baker’s home run blast to left field on the last day of the regular season, Oct. 2, 1977, was history-making. It was his 30th, meaning the Dodgers became the first team to have four players hit 30 home runs in a season.
As Baker rounded third to the roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd, Burke, a rookie outfielder, ran from the on-deck circle, jumped up and gave Baker an over-the-head hand-slap in celebration.
And, the high-five was born.
Most people don’t remember Burke for that moment — or, frankly, any other moment — during his two years with the Dodgers. The onetime Oakland prep basketball star would be gone from the Dodgers a year later. Two years after that, he was out of baseball.
Burke was mostly forgotten as a ballplayer. But, it was also forgotten that he was a trailblazer for something far more significant than the high-five. …
Since Burke’s revelation, the only other major league player to make the same acknowledgment has been Billy Bean, who played for the Detroit Tigers, the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres before he announced he was gay in 1999.
Yet Burke’s Dodgers teammates seemed to know, accept and understand him.
Dodgers broadcaster Rick Monday, who started in center field when Burke was with the Dodgers, described a moment in 1977 when the team was playing in Philadelphia during the National League playoffs.
“I remember a championship [series] game in Philly,” Monday said.
“It was cold and rainy and he put on an overcoat and hat and had the entire locker room rolling on the floor laughing. He could take any moment in time and make it fun. There was no better guy in the clubhouse, I’ll tell you that. There was no one who didn’t love having Glenn around.”
Burke can no longer tell his story. He died at age 42 in 1995 from AIDS-related pneumonia.”
This article goes on to mention professional tennis legend “Big” Bill Tilden, NFL player David Kopay, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, and Olympic marathon runner Tom Waddell as other gay athletes. Only Tilden was openly gay, but he was a bigger than life figure during the Roaring 20’s and the best tennis player in the world. Even the great Tilden was not immune from harassment and persecution.
According to contemporary George Lott, a player and later tennis coach at DePaul University, and authoritative biographer Frank Deford, Tilden never made advances to players, whether other adults or his pupils. Art Anderson of Burbank, who took lessons from Tilden from the age of eleven and remained a lifelong loyal friend, reported that Tilden never made advances toward him. “Bill had all the rumors floating around about his sexuality,” Jack Kramer said. Questions remain if Tilden’s prosecution was based on the rumors, many published, and homophobic stereotypes. California did not repeal its sodomy law until 1976. Because he lived in an era when homosexual sex was illegal and was not tolerated socially, some suspect that Tilden was a victim of the homophobic society of the era. More shocking than Tilden’s being caught was the revelation that “sports and homosexuality were not mutually exclusive.”
Various research studies, going back to the Kinsey Report have estimated that between 2% and 10% of males are gay.
So if the population of professional athletes is similar to the rest of the male population statistically, there should be between 78 and 390 gay male professional athletes currently.
If there are, none have come out publicly. There has never been a superstar player, with the exception of Bill Tilden, who has gone public. The notoriety of the one transgender professional sports person, tennis player Dr. Renee Richards, has faded in the public’s memory.
All of which makes what Jason Collins, Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo did in 2013 more important. Jason Collins became the first current player to state being gay publicly, in a Sports Illustrated feature article. In the May 6, 2013 article, Collins writes:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.
My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons.
I’ve played for six pro teams and have appeared in two NBA Finals. Ever heard of a parlor game called Three Degrees of Jason Collins? If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates….
I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel. My motivations, like my contributions, don’t show up in box scores, and frankly I don’t care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.
Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn’t come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn’t yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I’ve struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.”
Reaction around the professional sports world to Jason Collins’ admission was supportive, but muted. Only two professional players openly stated in their support, Brendon Ayanbadejo, former linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens and Chris Kluwe, former punter for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
Notice that all three are “former” players. Collins was a journeyman player near the end of his career, at age 37, when he made this announcement. Ayanbadejo started his pro football career in the Canadian Football League and had a 9 year career playing linebacker and special teams for the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens. He was named to the NFL Pro Bowl three times. Kluwe had an 8 year career with the Minnesota Vikings as a punter, and holds most of the Vikings’ punting records.
Kluwe has subsequently made accusations against the Vikings that he was cut from the team because of his support for gay rights. Ayanbadejo supported Kluwe’s accustations. In an article published on Deadspin.com, “I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot”, Kluwe writes:
Throughout the months of September, October, and November, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer would use homophobic language in my presence. He had not done so during minicamps or fall camp that year, nor had he done so during the 2011 season. He would ask me if I had written any letters defending “the gays” recently and denounce as disgusting the idea that two men would kiss, and he would constantly belittle or demean any idea of acceptance or tolerance. I tried to laugh these off while also responding with the notion that perhaps they were human beings who deserved to be treated as human beings. Mike Priefer also said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible. He said all this in a semi-joking tone, and I responded in kind, as I felt a yelling match with my coach over human rights would greatly diminish my chances of remaining employed. I felt uncomfortable each time Mike Priefer said these things. After all, he was directly responsible for reviewing my job performance, but I hoped that after the vote concluded in Minnesota his behavior would taper off and eventually stop.
Are there superstar professional athletes that are gay? The statistical probability is yes. The reality is that professional sports has a star making machine, much like Hollywood had in the days of Rock Hudson. This highly image conscious world of professional sports still believes that being gay means not “being manly” enough for that world and the public that worships it. Despite all the nice sentiments and support for gay rights expressed by the league offices, they aren’t ready for it. The coaches, who believe that having a gay player in their locker room disrupts team morale, aren’t ready for it. The players, still fearful of losing their jobs in a profession they otherwise enjoy, aren’t ready for it, either. These coaches could see how well integrating gays into real combat troops is going by observing what is happening in the US military forces. But they won’t. It would be too different.
Professional sports coaches, especially professional football coaches are, by their own profession, a conservative and paranoid lot. They feel they have to be. Nine NFL head coaches have been fired this year before the playoffs are over. The Miami Dolphins’ general manager and offensive coordinator were fired. They have only 16 regular season chances to show the results of their coaching prowess. One key injury, one bad play, one off-the-field incident that divides the team can cost him his job. Kluwe’s coaches told him, they don’t want to be bothered with his concerns about social issues. As soon as the Vikings felt he became a distraction, Kluwe was gone.
That’s the professional sports world these three men worked in. They performed well in their profession. The internal pressures to conform in this world are immense. Supposedly, professional sports is a meritocracy, where the best athletes get to perform, regardless of political views and sexual orientation. In 2013-4, it is not, but it will be, some day.
In the next few weeks, we will get a chance to see the best “amateur” athletes throughout the world perform in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin’s direction, has passed laws against gay rights and has cracked down on gay rights protests.
“In Vladimir Putin’s Russia—official Russia—there is no controversy about the rights of gays and lesbians. Controversy suggests a serious clash of ideas and opinions; controversy suggests points of view that are in opposition and, potentially, subject to change. This is not the case when it comes to the human rights of homosexuals in Russia. In the Kremlin, in the parliament, in the courts, in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and on television there reigns a disdainful and intimidating unanimity: homosexuals are a threat to morality, to the family, and to the state. In the words of Masha Gessen, a journalist and longtime activist, “They want to throw us back in the closet.”
There will be gay athletes performing at the Sochi Olympics. There will be gay rights protests held. We can only hope that these athletes and protesters will not be harmed or arrested. The world will be watching.
That is why I believe Jason Collins, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe should have been the choices for The Sports Persons of 2013, because what they have done is to expose what goes on in the homophobic world of professional sports. They have been social trailblazers, even at the risk of losing their jobs. Sports is part of life, but not life itself.
In his Sports Illustrated article, Jason Collins refers to my other choice for The Sports Persons of 2013, the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, their families and the “Boston Strong” sports community that supported and continues to support them. The Boston Strong contingent will be featured in Part 3, the final part of this series of articles.
It is very ironic that the events in the 2103 Boston Marathon were a factor in Jason Collins’ decision to go public.
“The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully? When I told Joe a few weeks ago that I was gay, he was grateful that I trusted him. He asked me to join him in 2013. We’ll be marching on June 8.
No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”