'It's a tough step to take by yourself'

Andrew Goldstein was a sophomore at Milton Academy in Massachusetts when Corey Johnson, the co-captain of a high school football team on the other side of Boston, came out of the closet.

It was the spring of 1999 when the Masconomet Regional High School linebacker made headlines across the country when he announced he was gay. Goldstein, whose sexuality had been a source of pain and suffering – suicide, he said, often weighed on his mind – was surprised.

"You're thinking you're the only one, and then somebody like Corey Johnson comes along," Goldstein said. "It meant a lot to me at the time. It was the first time I thought it was possible to be an athlete and maybe think about coming out to my teammates."

That was six years ago. Goldstein, an All-American lacrosse goalie at Dartmouth College who will graduate in two weeks, came out to his team after his sophomore season. An online essay brought his story to national prominence. Goldstein is believed to be the most accomplished U.S. male team-sport athlete to be openly gay during his career. Part of his motivation for taking part in an exclusive interview with ESPN, Goldstein said, was to provide an example for young gay athletes – just as Johnson was a role model for him.

Today, Johnson is 23 and lives in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. He is the political director for Mark Green, a democratic candidate for New York State's attorney general.

"I wanted to help other young athletes that were struggling with it, so it's nice to know that I accomplished part of that goal," Johnson said. "But I think you have to recognize that there's a huge difference between high school and college – especially Division I. For him to come out, in that competitive atmosphere of Ivy League lacrosse, and for his team to accept him, is amazing.

"It's a tribute to Andrew and the trust he cultivated with his teammates."

Just as some sectors of society are moving toward the acceptance of same-sex marriages and the concept of homosexuality, the arena of sports also seems more tolerant. Below the professional level, openly gay athletes are now part of the athletic landscape. University of California gymnast Graham Ackerman, who is out, won his second consecutive floor exercise national title last month. Sue Wicks of the New York Liberty and Michele Van Gorp of the Minnesota Lynx came out during their WNBA careers. Esera Tuaolo, who played defensive lineman in the NFL for nine seasons, came out in 2002 – after his career was finished. Likewise, major-leaguer Billy Bean came out in 1999 after he retired.

Still, to this point, high-profile gay male team-sport athletes in Division I and professional sports have been unwilling or unable to reveal their sexuality while they are still playing. So what exactly does Goldstein's announcement mean?

In 1993, Eric Anderson made national headlines as an openly gay high school cross country coach. After sharing his story with his team at Huntington Beach High School, Anderson went on to earn a doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Irvine, and is regarded as a leading authority on gay athletes.

"We're still at that phase where each outing is celebrated," said Anderson, a sociologist at SUNY-Stony Brook. "There certainly have been a number of collegiate athletes out in all sports, but the farther you go toward Division I, and the more masculine sports, the rarer it is. A player of [Goldstein's] status is rare to come out.

"The Corey Johnson story was touted as highly unusual. At the time it was touted, I was conducting research on the subject. I can tell you that every year it's gotten better and better. He deserves a great deal, a lot of credit – so, too, do his teammates."

Anderson has written several books on the subject, and the most recent is "In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity."

"There is a changing of the order here," Anderson said. "Cultural homophobia is on the retreat. Homophobia in all sports is on the rapid descent. It's safe to assume that sports is more conservative than society itself and that some teams are highly homophobic. But there is plenty of evidence that suggests it is no longer appropriate to say that team sports are a bastion of homophobia."

This is welcome news to the two NFL players best known for coming out after their careers.

David Kopay, who played with five NFL teams from 1964-72, was the first. When he came out in 1975, the news was received in many quarters with shock and dread. Thirty years later, he is almost universally embraced when he speaks around the country. Now 62 years old, he is a new man after hip, knee and shoulder replacements.

"When I was at the University of Washington in the early 1960s, there was a lot of homophobia around," Kopay said from his Los Angeles home. "I hid behind my toughness. I dated women, even though I was in love with a fraternity brother.

"Today, it's a different world. Things are happening because it's right – even with the Bush administration and all those horrible, b------- things the Christian fundamentalists are doing.

"I am thrilled beyond belief for Andrew Goldstein. I think you'll see a time, maybe soon, when a major college star comes out and moves to the next level."

Tuaolo, who played with the Minnesota Vikings from 1992-96, stimulated much discussion when he came out in an ESPN The Magazine story and on HBO's "Real Sports" three years ago. He was unaware of Goldstein's story when contacted earlier this week, but after hearing the details, said Goldstein made an important contribution.

"That's awesome," Tuaolo said. "It's a huge deal for the gay community to have a role model like him at such a young age. It tells the tale of the times. Things are getting better; we're taking baby steps forward."

The next level?

Four years ago, Brendan Lemon set off a Where's Waldo-esque guessing game when he wrote in an editorial that he was dating a professional baseball player from a major East Coast franchise. The editor of Out Magazine and Out.com, which explores issues related to gay culture, never revealed his partner's name – after numerous discussions, they decided it wasn't worth the risk.

For Lemon, the coming out of Andrew Goldstein comes with a context.

"First of all, I think it's terrific," Lemon said. "It is worth noting, though, that he's in a team sport that, for better or worse, is considered rather special or elite. I think what he's done is terrific and wouldn't say otherwise, but at the same time, this isn't the quarterback coming out at [the University of] Alabama.

"The salient fact here is that he's a terrific player. Somebody who helps them to win is easier to support, accept and tolerate – in a nice way – than somebody who doesn't."

For the record, Lemon said he is no longer seeing the baseball player.

"Not dating, but still friends," he said.

The widespread effort to uncover the identity of the baseball player, he said, wasn't as ridiculous as the idea that there were no gays in baseball.

"That's what some people were saying, 'There aren't any on my team,' " he said. "That's what sports talk radio is all about. To think that any group of individuals, athletes or not, wouldn't contain a few people who are gay, well, that's ridiculous."

Lemon said he believes gay professional team-sport athletes haven't come out for two basic reasons: money and fame.

"The more famous you are, the more pressure you feel because you're gay," he said. "Closeted players make so many sacrifices to get to that level and succeed. … Once they've done that, there is a tendency to not want to disturb that.

"More and more, it seems likely that a team-sport athlete could emerge – somebody who would be a terrific player at the collegiate level that would already be openly gay and move up to the pros. Having said that, I keep waiting for it to happen."

Lemon's cynicism is not without foundation. It may be a new millennium, but homophobia clearly still exists in the locker room.

In a January 2000 interview with Sports Illustrated, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker offended mothers, gays and AIDS patients in a rant about Flushing's No. 7 train. He was eventually suspended for 14 games. That same season, Chicago Cubs pitcher Julian Tavarez upset San Francisco's gay community with inappropriate remarks and Sacramento Kings guard Jason Williams taunted Asian-American fans with anti-gay slurs.

In the spring of 2003, Florida softball captain Andrea Zimbardi charged she was dismissed from the team by her head coach, a devout Christian, because she's a lesbian. Zimbardi, the starting catcher and an all-Southeastern Conference academic selection, claimed that four other players similarly had been discriminated against.

In a 2004 Tribune newspaper group survey of 750 professional baseball players, 74 percent said they would not be bothered by having a gay teammates. On the other hand, 15 percent said they would.

In a contest on Outsports.com, skier and football player Jeremy Bloom was recently named "King of the Hardwood." Bloom defeated soccer star Michael Owen 56 percent to 44 percent in an online vote.

In an interview with Outsports.com, Bloom was asked if he would feel uncomfortable with a gay teammate in the locker room.

"That's a tough question," Bloom said. "It would definitely be a little awkward. But I could get over it."

Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of Outsports.com, said he believes that Goldstein's coming out is a milestone of sorts.

"I think it shows that it's possible," Buzinski said. "It has helped to puncture the myth that it's impossible or basically suicide to come out. Albeit, he's in a so-called minor sport, but there was a positive outcome. It can happen.

"You're dealing now with a whole different set of generational issues. It's just more tolerant. Younger people are less bothered by it. But if Andrew is the most accomplished athlete and he plays lacrosse, well, it shows how far we have to go."

While studies vary as to the homosexual component in the general population, 6 percent is considered by many experts to be a legitimate number. If that held up with regard to the NFL's 1,800 players, it would suggest, at least theoretically, that there could be as many as 100 gay players in the NFL.

"Imagine if 100 NFL players came out – we'd all have a collective heart attack," Buzinski said. "Even if it was 3 percent or half of that, those numbers would be stunning. The idea that they're not there … everyone accepts the fact that they're there now. And even though they chose to remain private, we're making incremental progress."

Every team, every college?

Anderson, a sports psychologist at Stony Brook, said he believes that – contrary to accepted opinion – there is a higher percentage of gays in sport than in the general population.

"What better place to hide than the most masculine of environments?" asked Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of Outsports.com. "It makes sense when you think about it."

Ziegler said he wasn't surprised Goldstein was supported by his lacrosse teammates.

"Graham Ackerman, Ryan Quinn, a skier at the University of Utah, Corey Johnson – over and over, we see examples of teams rallying around that player," Zeigler said. "The positive stories far outweigh the negative. To be honest, I think that the whole problem is created by the press. There's this notion that if a pro athlete came out it would destroy team chemistry and fans would throw batteries. That's all made up; we don't know what would happen.

"There are so many gay kids playing sports in colleges. We don't even know the beginning of it. There's no reason to believe there's not an Andrew Goldstein playing on every team at every college."

While Goldstein's coming out is a breakthrough, though perhaps a modest one with the entire gay athletic continuum as a backdrop, Anderson says his experience of widespread acceptance is not all that unusual.

"This is a pattern, almost without exception," Anderson said. "Andrew's experience is a common one: 'I feared this. I feared that.' They have a mountain of fear and then they come out and say, 'This really isn't so bad.' He is so insanely typical, it's outrageous. There's no reason to believe professional sports would be any different.

"Overall, I'm encouraged. I'm now hearing from a second flight of athletes, from the lower sports. I got a call the other day from a freshman on a high school track team in Texas. … That's progress."

"Maybe more of these stories of student-athletes coming out will help change the culture," Lemon said. "The hope would be [those reading these stories would] be inspired to come out to their teams. I get a lot of e-mails from college players in team sports thinking about coming out. It's a dialogue that is definitely going on.

"There has been a fair amount of progress in the last 20 years or so, but it has been minimized. There's so much emphasis on men's high-profile team sports – basketball, football and baseball – people tend to forget that there is so much that is percolating below."

In the end, Johnson said, he couldn't have come out on his own.

"When I wanted to come out, everyone told me not to do it – that it would be bad for me," Johnson said. "But my support group, my safety net was there for me. It sounds like Andrew was able to do the same thing. It's a tough step to take by yourself.

"It seems like there's more support these days than there used to be."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at greg.garber@ESPN3.com.