This story appears in the June 13, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
COULD WE ALL DO THE GHOST of Jackie Robinson a favor and stop pestering him each time a sports figure announces he's gay? In the past month alone, Suns president Rick Welts, former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan and ESPN New York radio host Jared Max have come out of the closet. Each man was applauded for his courage and candor, followed by the obligatory line that "a terrible weight has been lifted from his shoulders." Then everyone moved on to the real question: When will we see an openly gay male athlete in a major team sport?
Enter Robinson. When he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking the color barrier, he endured racial taunts, high-flying spikes and the occasional fastball to the ear. No. 42 persevered, of course, and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Now, though, if you google "Jackie Robinson" and "gay," you get so many hits you might think Jackie himself was at the Stonewall Inn that night in 1969 when the gays said they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.
As well-intentioned as it is to pose the question -- who will be the gay Jackie Robinson? -- the parallel doesn't work. Robinson couldn't hide the color of his skin, and he arrived at a time when few players had black friends (to say nothing of relatives). With nobody to enlighten them, Robinson's new teammates could hold tight to old stereotypes.
I believe it'll be different for the first openly gay man in team sports, and for the exact opposite reason: Most pro athletes already have out gay people in their lives -- a brother or sister, aunt or uncle, teammate from high school, college roommate. Or they've played with and against athletes they either knew or suspected to be gay. "Every player has played with gay guys," Charles Barkley said recently. "Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin' idiot." (A few WNBA players have come out, most notably Sheryl Swoopes in 2005.)
After my own coming-out column appeared in the Boston Herald in January, a steady stream of friends and colleagues started telling me about the gay people in their lives. One sportswriter I've been sitting next to in press boxes for 20 years has a gay brother; another has a lesbian sister. One old-timer relayed a tragic story of a nephew who died of AIDS. As for the sports people I've written about over the years, dozens began writing to me. Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis sent a supportive text the morning my column appeared, as did second baseman Dustin Pedroia. When I saw Youkilis at spring training and thanked him for the kind words, he replied, "It's not that big a deal, man. Nobody cares about that stuff anymore."
Will it be different when a shortstop or a quarterback or a shooting guard comes out? Well, yes, but only to the degree that some people still obsess about naked men in locker rooms and the macho clubhouse culture. Our first out player will sit before the cameras and patiently answer every imaginable question, including, "How does it feel to be the gay Jackie Robinson?" But eventually we'll return to regularly scheduled programming as more players come out and more Youks tell us it's not a big deal.
It is true that just one day after Welts told NBA commissioner David Stern that he planned to come out, Kobe Bryant managed to weave "faggot" into his criticism of the referee who T'd him up. A few weeks later, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell directed homophobic comments at some fans at AT&T Park. And Bulls center Joakim Noah also dropped the F-word (it was the newer one, folks) on a heckler during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
All three men were quickly rebuked in the form of fines and, in McDowell's case, a two-week suspension. And for good reason: Even now, homophobic slurs have the power to destroy young people who are wrestling with their sexual identity. The fear is that the continued use of such slurs will lead to even more teen suicides. The hope is that an out-and-proud athlete will save lives.
When Robinson became the first African-American major leaguer of the 20th century, he had to wait for the country to come around. Today, the country is ready for a big-time gay athlete. And waiting for him to come out.
Steve Buckley is a columnist for The Boston Herald.