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The Last Closet

When will a gay professional athlete finally come out?


Illustration by André Carrilho  

O n May 9, Todd Reynolds, vice-president of Uptown Sports Management in Ontario, a firm founded by his father that has represented NHL players for more than 25 years, logged onto his company’s Twitter account,@uptownhockey. Four days earlier, Rangers wing Sean Avery had appeared in a public-service announcement in favor of the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality campaign. “Maybe I can help,” Avery told the Times, “and I jumped at this opportunity.”

Among fashionistas, magazine editors, and upscale urbanites, Avery, who famously once interned at Vogue, may be beloved. But among his fellow hockey players, particularly his opponents, he is despised. So Reynolds, whose agency’s top client is probably Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher (better known as Mr. Carrie Underwood), was surely seething when he sat down at his computer. Reynolds began to type: “Very sad to read Sean Avery’s misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage.’ Legal or not, it will always be wrong.”

And then, two hours later: “But I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I do not hate anyone.”

Whatever your reaction to Reynolds’s tweets, it is worth noting that this is not an obscure opinion for the country at large. Polls show that 46 percent of the population agrees with him. Reynolds did not write that gays are an abomination. He just said he was personally against gay marriage. You and I might disagree with him, but his opinion does not make him crazy, or even fringe.

He also said it in the context of sports, perhaps the last bastion of homophobia in American society, even more so than the military. Reynolds surely felt he was speaking to an audience sympathetic to his views, that what he was saying wasn’t even controversial at all.

He was wrong. The backlash against Reynolds was immediate, not just on ­Twitter but within the hockey world. ­Reynolds’s agent colleagues came out strongly against his stance, and when Reynolds refused to stand down, the ­agency began to lose clients, including then–Minnesota Wild free agent Andrew ­Brunette (Brunette denies he left because of Reynolds’s tweets). A week later, a Canadian sports anchor defended Reynolds. “I completely and wholeheartedly support Todd ­Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.” The next day, his station fired him.

This is sports in the year 2011. It took decades for the sports world to catch up to the rest of us, but now that it’s closing the gap, it’s doing so extremely fast.

“Something has happened in the last year,” says Jim Buzinski, co-founder of OutSports, an advocate for and chronicler of gay sports issues for more than a decade. “It’s almost like homophobia is no longer considered cool in sports.”

Nine years ago, Mike Piazza called a press conference just to let everyone know he wasn’t gay. Seven years ago, future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, when asked about gay marriage, said, “What’s next? Marrying an animal?” Four years ago, retired NBA player Tim Hardaway said, “I hate gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States,” and added he wouldn’t want a gay player on his team.

Then we had last season’s NBA playoffs, which earned record television ratings. There was one commercial no viewer could avoid. It featured Phoenix Suns veteran Grant Hill talking directly to the camera, explaining to everyday players that as intense as playground competition can become, as much fun as it was to trash-talk, there was an insult that was unacceptable to ever use. One kid yells, “Your moves are just gay.” He is interrupted by a sudden silence and Hill yelling, “Buzzzzzzzzzz!” “Using gay to mean dumb or stupid: not cool,” he says. “You’re better than that.”

The NBA is renowned for David Stern’s relentless messaging. And here the league was, at its signature event, using its house ads telling kids not to use a gay slur. “You would have never seen that as recently as two years ago,” says Pat Griffin, a professor emeritus at the University of ­Massachusetts–Amherst and a project director at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which helped produce Hill’s NBA Finals ad. “I give Grant Hill and the NBA a lot of credit.”

The use of gay slurs was something vividly on the NBA’s mind: At the end of the season and during the playoffs, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and superstar Lakers guard Kobe Bryant were fined by the league for being caught using “the F-word.” Noah, who immediately apologized, had been shouting back at hecklers; Bryant screamed his F-bomb at a referee. The league came down hard on both players, particularly Bryant, who was fined $100,000 and publicly ­renounced his comment.


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