The Los Angeles Rainbow Squirrels
Monday was National Coming Out Day. The Proposition 8 lawsuit sits in waiting, as the case for same-sex marriage in California has a pending hearing at a federal court of appeals before possibly moving on to the Supreme Court. The U.S. military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy is its own political firestorm at the moment and is on the cusp of abolishment. New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino mouths off that "your children" would be much better off if they are not "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option." A sobering rash of recent suicides among youngsters reminds us that bullying, lack of tolerance, and the notion that being gay is bad are still far too prevalent in our society.
Thus, it seems an appropriate time to highlight that same lack of tolerance that has dismayingly infected the world of major league sports. Why should it matter where the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB stand on social issues? Whether the respect given is warranted or not, these leagues are composed of individuals that serve as role models for youth. Additionally, the mere games that these leagues provide for us inspire millions and influence public discourse. Would anyone claim that the positive example of Jackie Robinson in integrating Major League Baseball did not play at least some role in opening minds and allowing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to take place? What happens on the fringes of these fields, courts, and rinks serves as both a current reflection and the bellwether for our future.
I did not frequently consider the issue of LGBT equality in my youth, but in my adulthood I have found it to be quite straightforward in its rationale. I see it as the final frontier in civil rights. I am frustrated by the fact that we have not settled quickly in the political and cultural spheres what seems to me to be a blatantly easy question to answer. Once we have surmounted it, then perhaps we could move on to more difficult questions that are worthy of debate, but some insist on holding our society back with the sort of attitudes that I can only envision will be viewed a century from now with substantial shame.
As it stands, none of the aforementioned four major North American team sports have an openly gay athlete within their ranks. It is easy for me as an outsider to angrily ask, "Why not? What sort of ridiculously prejudiced atmosphere prevents it?" I am not a player in any of these leagues, but I have seen and heard enough to have an idea of the thinking behind it. (On a related note, the closest I ever came to engaging in a cliché barroom fight was a direct result of another patron leading a chant of "Tony Homo" as Tony Romo and my Dallas Cowboys floundered against the New England Patriots. I mockingly applauded his wonderfully witty rhyming skills and stopped short of calling him a thoughtless bigot.)
In the NFL, three former players have come out, but they only did so once they left the league. David Kopay was the first to do so in 1975 after having played in the league from 1964 to 1972 as a journeyman running back for five different teams. Roy Simmons was next in 1992 after playing for the Giants and the Redskins as an offensive lineman between 1979 and 1983. He played in the Super Bowl with the Redskins during his final season. Defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo played between 1991 and 1999 for five different teams, including the Super Bowl participant Atlanta Falcons in his final year. He came out in 2002.
Former Green Bay Packer Sterling Sharpe commented shortly afterward in response to the news of his former teammate Tuaolo's sexuality: "If the guys found out another player was gay on Monday, he wouldn't be able to play on Sunday." Those are blunt and unsettling words to say the least about the possible reaction to a gay teammate in the NFL.
To cite another example, in 2007 former NBA player John Amaechi became the first openly gay former NBA player by way of his biography Man in the Middle. In response to this news, former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway infamously responded that not only would he have distanced himself from any player that was homosexual, but also that he hated gay people and would have attempted to have that player fired from the team. Hardaway's remarks were not well received. He apologized and has since strived to open his mind and make amends via work with organizations such as The Trevor Project.
To answer the question of what creates this hostile environment, one first need only acknowledge that a major league sports locker room carries with it all the prejudices that are found in normal society. Those prejudices are heightened for a variety of reasons.
There is the hyper-machismo that is deemed inseparable from athletic achievement and superiority in these sports. A different sexual preference is wrongly perceived not to reach the proper standard of masculinity necessary to excel. There also are the cultural stigmas that attach immorality to anything outside of heterosexuality, and those stigmas probably are accentuated by the religiosity that many players espouse.
I cannot help but consider that last particular factor when I think about the organized prayers that one often sees take place after an NFL game. That is not to say that religiosity in itself automatically frowns upon homosexuality, but certainly there is a correlation in religious belief and this discriminatory attitude. Statistical analysis of the voting patterns for Proposition 8 determined that one of the two most significant driving variables after party identification and political ideology was religiosity.
There is much more to motivate the closeted players to keep their secret. These leagues maintain their own unwritten "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy similar to the one that has been in use for the past several years by the U.S. military. There is a perception that even if a closeted player were not abused or ostracized by his teammates after coming out, his revelation could be viewed as a betrayal of that code. As the presence of a gay athlete on one of these teams has not been revealed yet, the individual who chooses to be that first pioneer would likely cause an immense publicity distraction for his team. Being the first consequently would take a great amount of courage. Paradoxically, some teammates might even consider it a betrayal that the secret was kept and not immediately told in the first place.
More fundamentally, the financial livelihood of these players is at stake. The fear exists that the mere presence of a gay athlete could invoke such a negative reaction among teammates and fans that said athlete's job security could be endangered if not destroyed. For professional athletes who on average only have a window of a few years to capitalize on their avocation, that is a critical factor. Considering that, one finds it much easier to sympathize with that player's impulse to avoid rocking the boat and stay in the closet, regardless of how utterly unjust the construct that demands this status quo is.
One might also take into account the ages of the individuals in these leagues. Many of these young men are in their early to mid-twenties. They still have important formative maturation ahead of them. Throw out all the extra pressures of the most high-profile sports leagues in the world. The rigors of normal society have been known to keep many people closeted well beyond that age range, and as such these guys - whoever they are - deserve a lot of latitude. It is entirely possible that some of these players that have come out after retirement might not have come out much earlier due to any number of personal pressures.
I feel as if I have just given you a preponderance of bad news. There is good news, however.
There are current players who have said that they would have no problem with a gay teammate and would be fully supportive of him. For example, earlier this year an anonymous poll among Major League Baseball players exhibited a full range of reactions to the idea of an openly gay teammate. Players were asked to rate their potential response on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represented "no reaction" and 10 represented "apocalyptic." The average answer was 5.1, and 23 percent of the players polled gave an answer of 3 or less. America might not be quite ready for the long-rumored major studio feature film in development about Major League Baseball players in love, but we are moving in that direction.
Most encouragingly, the other highly correlative variable that drove the Proposition 8 voting results was a simple one: age. The younger you are, the more likely you are to favor LGBT rights. With each passing year, tolerance in this country increases. Prejudices are gradually dying out. It is simply a matter of time before a hotshot athlete grows up in a community where not too many people bothered to hassle him or make him feel insecure about his innate sexual preference. He even might come out before he graduates from high school. He will be a college star, and an NFL team that cannot deny his talent will draft him.
Perhaps the first out active athlete in one of these leagues will not have that story. Perhaps he is in the league right now. Inspired by the current political climate he will decide to make an example of himself, thus risking alienation but in turn inspiring countless others.
Whoever the guy is, added hardships that go beyond the usual physical gauntlet of major league athletics await him. I hope he knows that there are plenty of fans eager to regard him as an equal and see him succeed.
And who are the Los Angeles Rainbow Squirrels? The city of Los Angeles has been without an NFL franchise for several years, and there are rumors that they might soon poach another city's financially struggling team. If a new mascot is required for that team that will represent a state containing all those wacky "activist judges" that cause conservatives to grouse, I think the Rainbow Squirrels are a fine choice to usher in a new era of tolerance.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.