My conversations with a gay pro athlete
Over the years, several current professional athletes -- both All-Stars and scrubs -- from each of the four major sports have told me they are gay and are afraid to come out.
I don't hang out with any of these guys and don't consider any of them friends.
In fact, if our paths cross in mixed company, they tend to avoid me altogether and apologize later for having done so. I tell them it's not necessary. I get it. They don't want to be found guilty by association. This, of course, would be why I do not consider them friends.
Still, perhaps through word of mouth or my work, I have earned enough respect and trust from these men to be one of the few to whom they have told their secret.
This month, another closeted athlete revealed his secret to me.
But unlike the others -- who mostly want to talk about their fears of being discovered -- this dude has met someone he is interested in, and the poor fool was told by a mutual gay acquaintance to come to me for dating advice. That's like asking Wile E. Coyote for hunting tips.
Now, if you are reading this column hoping I will reveal names or drop hints so you can start speculating, you might as well stop reading and click over to TMZ.
That's not how I roll.
But I do try to be honest with these players, so I asked this athlete one simple question: "Are you ready to come out?"
This weekend, I am traveling to Washington, D.C., to hear President Barack Obama address the crowd at the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner. HRC is the largest gay-rights advocacy organization in the country and -- as you can tell by the presence of Obama -- obviously a significantly powerful group on the Hill. You don't have to be gay to attend the dinner -- and many who do are not -- but that doesn't stop people from gossiping about attendees.
It's where we are right now -- both gay and straight.
So as I was talking with my new gay acquaintance, I reminded him that, in today's world, there is no such thing as privacy, especially if you are in the public eye, so any little thing you do could fuel rumors. Because of today's technology and social media, what you had for lunch and with whom could be known by millions of people before you even ask for the check.
It's because of this, I told him, that I no longer believe people should be asking "When will any active professional athletes in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB come out?" but rather "When will they be found out?" That is, when will a gay player slip up, get careless or be targeted by some fame-seeking blogger who wouldn't think twice about posting "incriminating" pictures to draw page views?
In his autobiography, "Going the Other Way," former major league baseball player Billy Bean talked about living with his partner while playing for the San Diego Padres and how, when teammates Brad Ausmus and Trevor Hoffman came to his home unannounced one day, his partner had to sneak into the garage and hide for hours so Bean wouldn't have to explain who he was.
But that was in the 1990s, before Twitter made millions of people into 24-hour news reporters. In today's world, that kind of secret would be a lot harder to keep.
Then there's the chance the person you're with is not who you think he or she is. Look what happened to Dirk Nowitzki. Or you could become the victim of an attempted blackmail attempt -- think of the allegations in the Rick Pitino case. Ben Roethlisberger has been slapped with a civil suit alleging rape. Regardless of whether he actually did anything wrong, aspects of his personal life are now public, and two Super Bowl rings can't change that.
If any of those men knew then what they know now, they probably would make different decisions.
I don't believe in using scare tactics to manipulate people. But I did tell my new acquaintance the truth -- that if he is serious about pursuing a relationship with someone, he'd better think long and hard about whether he has the strength to keep playing and be openly gay. I didn't say don't do it. I just said he needs to figure out what he can and cannot live with and what he can and cannot live without because once the public finds out you're gay, you don't get a redo.
He asked me why I came out and whether it hurt my career. I told him that I came out because I wanted a shot at genuine happiness and that yes, at times, being openly gay has hurt my career.
But it has never hurt me.
Near the end of the conversation, this athlete said that he wasn't sure he was ready to come out but that he would think about it, which surprised me. In all the years I've known closeted athletes, this was the first time one said he would consider coming out. That's progress, I guess, and perhaps an indication that the world isn't as scary as it was when Bean was playing.
Or maybe this player met someone he believes he can trust and is worth telling the world about.
Or maybe he just wanted to shut me up.
We have talked once since then, and obviously he hasn't come out, and neither one of us brought up the subject. Actually, we talked about "District 9," aging parents and other stuff.
I guess we both subconsciously decided there are a lot more interesting things about people than whom they are dating. If New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo are any indication, we're not the only men in the sports world who feel that way.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.