Of course, for all the talk about the “gayest sports month ever,” there has never been an openly gay-male active professional athlete in a major sport. (Lesbians have been out in women’s sports for years.) How can sports say they are making progress when gay men can’t express their sexual orientation publicly?
“There have been guys who have been talking to their agents about wanting to come out,” Buzinski says. “We have heard this for a while.” So where are they? Where is gay sports’ Jackie Robinson?
Here’s what the first gay athlete is in for. “The first question I was asked in the press conference after I came out was, ‘Are you HIV-positive?’ ” Amaechi says, chuckling. “It was pretty unbelievable.”
The first thing to understand about the lack of openly gay professional athletes is that there are openly gay professional athletes. They just don’t feel obliged to tell you. Many of their teammates know. Buzinski says he’s been told that “one NFL player took his partner to a teammate’s wedding in Florida and nobody cared.”
This may be inherent in the nature of an athletic career. The average NFL career lasts 3.2 years; baseball, basketball, and hockey between four and five. There are only 3,436 jobs available, with millions of potential applicants. In such a fiercely competitive industry, the last thing anyone wants to do is give any employer, no matter how open-minded he might believe him to be, a reason not to give him a chance. “If athletes could play until they were 65, they would not be in the closet their entire life, because people do not want to be closeted forever,” Buzinski says. “There is this feeling that I can compartmentalize this now and when I am out of my career, I can deal with it then.”
Amaechi understands this as well as anyone. He didn’t come out publicly until he had been out of the league for three years, and in large part to sell a book. (Before the book came out, ESPN Books had stoked journalists for months, claiming they had a huge upcoming scoop on their hands. When it turned out that the player was Amaechi, there was a collective shoulder-shrug. We’d all been hoping for a bigger name than a journeyman center.) He’s hardly in a position to criticize any current gay players for not letting their sexual orientation be known, because he never did. He understands. “For those who say, ‘Why did you wait until you retired to come out?’ which is a very legitimate argument, I say, ‘If I would have come out at 16, you would have never heard of me.’ ”
Also, what business is it of ours anyway? “It’s just kind of an odd thing to sort of stand up somewhere and declare your sexual orientation,” Buzinski says. Coming out is a private decision. In a way, this isn’t all that different from the dilemma movie stars have been facing for decades, in a field that has been far more welcoming to gays. Why is it any more “official” to proclaim your sexuality to some old bald dude with a notebook or a microphone?
Then, of course, there are the locker rooms. The biggest issue for an openly gay pro athlete would not be the “Neanderthals”: It would be the Evangelical Christians. Particularly the African-American ones. When Will Sheridan, a former basketball player at Villanova, came out in May, he said that because religion generally plays such a central role in African-American culture, many African-American players reject homosexuality simply because the church says they should. A poll earlier this year showed that 60 percent of African-American Baptists oppose gay marriage. It’s not even just players: Tony Dungy, the former Colts coach who is now a commentator for NBC and an adviser to several players, has openly embraced a ban on gay marriage. “I think that religion has become a socially acceptable way to be a homophobe.” Amaechi says. “I think religion has far surpassed those notions of masculinity and jock culture as the single most homophobic aspect of sports. Do I think without the religious aspect sports would move more quickly and naturally along like the rest of the culture? Yes.”
Still: An openly gay athlete is an inevitability, and his coming out may not be so difficult after all. “I can’t imagine a player being treated the way Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell was,” says Jared Max, the ESPN Radio New York morning sports personality, who came out on the air in the wake of Barkley’s comments. “I don’t think that that’s going to go on now.” So who will it be? Max thinks it’ll have to be a superstar. “It’ll have to be an All-Star,” he says. “Someone with status. Someone whose teammates will be like, ‘As long as he wins.’ ”
Buzinski agrees, but notes that in many ways, once the player comes out, he will be so embraced—not just by the sports media, but by the larger culture (it is not difficult to see the first openly gay pro athlete landing on the cover of Time magazine) that it will become difficult for a player’s team to cut or trade him. This is a funny idea. It sounds like the premise of a bad sports comedy, in which a straight player must pretend to be gay to keep his job.
All told, you probably don’t know the most likely first openly gay pro athlete, because he’s not a pro yet. He might be 12. “It’ll be someone who has identified as gay through high school and just doesn’t think anything about it,” Buzinski says. “They’ll just be so talented that no one would even think to deny them.”
When that someone comes out, we will have our gay Jackie Robinson, and the impact will be massive. “I came out three years after finishing a reasonably average career, and everybody freaked out,” Amaechi says. “Imagine if I had been good.”