The Last Closet

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.

The F-word has long been used as an essential part of playground trash-talk—“A male athlete who doesn’t perform up to par gets called a faggot, the biggest insult of all,” says Griffin—but leagues had typically treated it with punishments equivalent to accidentally saying “fuck” on national TV, something that’s not part of the family-friendly marketing the league thrives on, but not uniquely offensive on its own. “As a black man, there is no difference between calling me the N-word or calling me the F-word,” says John Amaechi, the former NBA center who made headlines in 2007 by coming out three years after he had retired in his best-selling memoir Man in the Middle. “Both words make me want to kill you.” (Amaechi is roughly six-foot-nine and 300 pounds.)

Ordinarily, Noah’s and Bryant’s fines would have inspired the sports world to debate whether it was okay to use the word in the heat of battle. Not this time. This time, it started a higher-level debate that kicked off what some observers have joked was “the gayest sports month ever.”

As usual, at the center of the story was TNT analyst Charles Barkley, the iconoclast chatterbox. When asked about the fines, Barkley went off. “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play,” he told the Washington Post. “Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person … I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.” It was a cannon shot: It was one thing for Vogue intern Sean Avery to come out in favor of gay marriage. It was quite another for Charles Barkley, an NBA icon, to do so.

Barkley’s comments seemed to open a door. “You sensed a change in the atmosphere, and that often sort of presages something greater happening in the culture,” Buzinski says. “That is the kind of stuff we have not heard voiced before that publicly.” Next thing you knew, former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin was on the cover of Out magazine, declaring his love for his gay older brother and saying, “If anyone comes out in those top four major sports … I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support.” It became fashionable for sports franchises to do public-service announcements, like support for marriage equality (the Phoenix Suns, whose team president, Rick Welts, is gay) and “It Gets Better” (seven Major League Baseball franchises, most recently the Tampa Bay Rays). In a video released by the Baltimore Orioles, players declare, “You should never feel like you have to hide who you truly are.” The PSAs were greeted by the sports world with a surprising yawn.

In many ways, sports have changed simply because the world has changed, and the world is where the money is. “I think the business community is saying, ‘This is not good for business to be seen as supporting homophobia in any way, and it’s actually better for business if you come out against it,’ ”says Buzinski. (The NFL still has made no anti-bullying statements and never spoke out on gay issues even during the tenure of commissioner Paul ­Tagliabue, whose son is openly gay.)

But it’s more than just that. Sports are played—and jerseys are bought—by the young, and it’s a generation that considers gay marriage and other “hot-button” gay ­issues nonstarters. “Today’s athletes are coming of age in a world of same-sex marriage and vastly more tolerant attitudes toward gays throughout society,” says Neil Best, who has covered sports for Newsday and other publications for some three decades. “Like racism and sexism before them, the walls are starting to crumble.”

Obviously, there are still considerable pockets of anti-gay sentiment in sports. Earlier this year, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was placed on leave by his team for reportedly asking a group of male hecklers if they were “giving it to each other up the ass.” And when the gay-marriage bill passed the New York State Legislature, the Daily News quoted Mets players saying that the team was “split 50-50” on the issue of gay marriage, and “most of us are still Neanderthals.” But the general consensus is that this homophobia is primarily an abstract prejudice that would dissolve once an actual openly gay man were in a team’s midst. “I believe that there are a lot more athletes who would take the perspective of ‘If you can play, you’re fine with me,’ ” says Griffin.

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.”


The Last Closet