WHEN IT COMES to reporting on closeted gay athletes, I have a long-held "don't start none, won't be none" policy. As long as people aren't tweeting homophobic slurs or making antigay statements, I won't reveal their secret. As someone who has been blatantly denied employment because of my sexual orientation, I get it.
But their secret and my code have bothered me for a long time now. The unintended byproduct of respecting a player's privacy is rendering him invisible, and that invisibility allows prejudice to fester. In the case of gay athletes, the unspoken truth provides cover for our latent homophobia in the mainstream media. While we don't mind chasing down and reporting every detail of presumed heterosexual athletes' lives, we work particularly hard to avoid rumors of homosexuality. What weighs heaviest on me about this code is that it inadvertently endorses shame. It grants permission for bigotry. And it perpetuates the assumption that gay male professional athletes are a rarity. The media -- more to the point, I -- haven't shown the courage to delve into whether or not that is true.
It's time the charade ends. It's time the media start covering gay athletes' off-field lives with the same intensity and integrity with which we cover straight athletes.
"They're squeamish about it but cloak that in a concern for privacy," says Michelangelo Signorile, editor-at-large of The Huffington Post's gay section, of the mainstream sports media. "Though again, they don't show a concern for privacy when speculating on players' and celebrities' heterosexual affairs."
When Rex Ryan's foot fetish was discovered, we didn't respect his privacy. We allowed Tiger Woods' love life to become a SportsCenter staple, with a new mistress stepping in front of cameras every other day to puncture his carefully manufactured "family man" facade. Tom Brady's out-of-wedlock child, Michael Jordan's new marriage and Dwyane Wade's divorce all became fodder for sports reporters. It could have all been dismissed as good old-fashioned gossip, except that it was legitimized by the outlets doing the reporting. Yet when photos of NFL free agent safety Kerry Rhodes walking arm in arm with his former assistant, Russell "Hollywood" Simpson, turned up on the Internet, we turned a blind eye. The interviews Simpson gave, claiming to be Rhodes' ex, fell on deaf ears. Even Rhodes' public denials seem not to have happened.
Rhodes' sexuality is not the issue here. Whether he is gay or straight doesn't change the fact that the Rhodes story was purposely underreported. And what that willful indifference says about our sports culture is that being gay is still far too taboo for discussion.
"It's a double standard," says Signorile. "This seems to indicate that editors and reporters often still see homosexuality as the worst thing imaginable to even speculate about, even in this day when there's so much clamoring for gay athletes to come out, and when the teams and leagues say they'd welcome them."
The lack of Rhodes coverage was particularly odd given that the national conversation surrounding the possibility of gay players in NFL locker rooms had reached a fever pitch.
There were reports that during the NFL combine, team officials were asking players whether they liked girls. Not much later, Mike Freeman reported on CBSSports.com that an NFL player was considering coming out soon. Then NFL free agent linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told The Baltimore Sun that four players were considering coming out all at once on the same day. If there were ever a moment for the mainstream media to talk about photos of a professional football player holding and kissing another man on the cheek or embracing him in a swimming pool, this would have been it.
And yet it wasn't.
There was a time, says Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out magazine, when journalists helped closeted actors keep their sexuality a secret in Hollywood. But as being gay became less of a shameful thing, the entertainment media were more willing to report the facts than help the actors project a lie.
Apparently, Hicklin learned that lesson better than your average sports reporter. In 2007, when Out published its first "Power 50" list of the most significant gay Americans, CNN's Anderson Cooper ranked second, just ahead of Ellen DeGeneres and trailing only David Geffen. This is the same Anderson Cooper who did not come out publicly until last year.
"It is not the media's job to be in collusion with these individuals," Hicklin says. "For us to put together a list of the most influential gay people in the country and then leave off someone as influential as Anderson Cooper, we would not have been doing our job."
Freeman, whose 2004 book Bloody Sundays chronicles the life of an anonymous gay active NFL player, says he made a conscious, and conscientious, choice not to write about Rhodes. "The situation was very murky," Freeman says. "To me, it was unfair to speak for him, and he's refusing to talk. I'm also uncomfortable with someone being outed. If a person is outed and then decides to talk about it, that's different. But coming out should be a person's choice."
Still, Rex Ryan never called a news conference to talk about the tattoo of his wife wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey, and we talked about it anyway. Homosexuality, it appears, is the exceedingly rare topic in which we require a sports figure's full participation before convening a discussion.
Says Signorile, "It shows that we haven't come as far as we might think."
It was closed-mindedness and a lack of discourse that forced Glenn Burke, who was out to his teammates and widely admired on the 1976 Dodgers, to lead a closeted life in front of the cameras and microphones. If there had been a willingness to talk, would we have had to wait another four decades for an active player in a major team sport to come out? And without more open conversation, how much longer will we have to wait before being gay in the locker room makes no difference at all?
We need to move forward as the celebration over Jason Collins' coming out ebbs. We need to reach the point where we are as comfortable with showing a male athlete's male partner in the stands as we are with showing Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. When reporting a profile, sports writers need to become willing to ask a male player if he has a girlfriend or boyfriend.
I haven't gotten there. After years of being indoctrinated in sports' culture of secrecy, and years of being trusted with the secrets of others, I still haven't mustered the courage to report the whole truth.
At least not yet.
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