There are no out male athletes in the major league sports world today. But among pro ballers, the straight part of the gay-straight alliance is finally getting itself off the ground.
Illustration by John Gara/BuzzFeed
“If he’s sucking cock, he’s getting his ass kicked.”
New Jersey Devils winger Cam Jannsen said those words on an internet-radio talk show on July 12. In context, they were less sinister than they were crass; regardless, they reinforced the most pessimistic assumptions about homophobia in professional sports.
In a culture of increasing acceptance toward out individuals, in which the movement toward marriage equality sometimes appears unstoppable, sports remain one of the last frontiers of homophobic attitudes. Although the prevalence of gay sports leagues and gay sports bars go a long way toward proving that you don’t have to be straight to be an athlete — the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, for example, counts more than 700 softball teams across the U.S. and Canada in its 44 affiliated leagues — the major leagues are another story.
There has never been an out athlete in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League.
Wade Davis Jr., the former NFL cornerback who is one of the few out gay athletes even to come out after their professional careers ended, sees the impact of anti-gay sentiment in his current work at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth between the ages of 12 and 24. “Most kids who I’ve talked to who are gay who play sports just don’t say anything,” Davis told BuzzFeed. “There are kids who stop playing sports because they’re out.”
Davis felt the same way while in the NFL and NFL Europe during the early 2000s, remaining in the closet until his football days were over. But times have begun to change. Prodded by activists, the four major American professional sports leagues are getting teams and players ready for the reality of out major league athletes.
Jannsen’s comments weren’t meant to suggest that gay men deserved to be assaulted, but to describe the way hockey players would use any available personal information to badger an opponent (the phrase “sucking cock” had been used first by the radio show’s host). Still, the standalone quote spread quickly as seemingly crystal-clear evidence of blatant homophobia among athletes. By the next morning, Janssen had apologized and pledged to eliminate that type of language from his vocabulary. Released through the Devils’s media operation, his mea culpa mentioned one activist group by name: “I would also like to take this chance to express my support for the work the You Can Play project is doing, and for the gay community in general.”
The quick response, the apology and the support “for the gay community” all were notable, but the reference to the You Can Play project statement highlighted what’s quickly become one of the most effective efforts to change the sports world’s mindset on LGBT issues.
In addition to being a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and a law student, Patrick Burke is one of the three founders of You Can Play. Along with his father, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, Patrick is invested in LGBT issues because his brother Brendan — who was also involved in the hockey world and wanted to work for the NHL — was gay. Brendan died in a car accident at age 21 only a few months after publicly coming out, and Patrick and Brian have taken up his cause. You Can Play began in earnest in March 2012.
The Cam Jannsen incident illustrated how integral of a role You Can Play already has in turning professional sports into a safe place for LGBT issues. Burke told BuzzFeed that he first saw the video of Janssen’s comments around 5 p.m. that evening. Immediately, he emailed the Devils and told them he could help. Within the day, Janssen would call Burke three separate times. The next morning, Janssen’s apology was made public, including that formal statement of gratitude toward You Can Play.
Change has already arrived. In 2006, Sports Illustratedpolled professional athletes and found that 80 percent of NHL players would welcome an openly gay athlete, and Burke estimates that number now at 90-95 percent. However, reaching that ultimate goal — an out player in professional sports — is still a ways off. Burke says that he’s been told by people he trusts that there are major league athletes who are out to select groups of their teammates, but that's as far as it goes for now.
Those working on the issue say that, in order to create an environment where a gay player would be comfortable, the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA — and, perhaps more importantly, their players — need to take a public stand. As Hudson Taylor, a Columbia University assistant wrestling coach and the founder of Athlete Ally — another organization working to address LGBT issues in sports — told BuzzFeed, “If coaches and league officials and players become vocal allies, then that becomes a very easy place for a player to come out.”
One of the leagues taking direct action today is the NBA.
At this year’s NBA rookie camp, which concluded on Monday, attendees heard something that past first-year players hadn’t: A message about the importance that athletes play in creating a safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — including, potentially, their new teammates.
The “ally training” presentation was a joint production of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Athlete Ally. Aaron McQuade at GLAAD, who helped prepare the presentation, said, “There’s also an open invitation for any of the league’s players to contact us anytime, off-the-record, with any questions or concerns about how to deal with certain issues.”
Kathleen Behrens, the NBA’s executive vice president for social responsibility & player programs, called the “straightforward” effort launched this year at rookie camp an important and necessary step.
“We’ve always included a session and discussion with our players on cultural awareness and understanding,” she told BuzzFeed. “Given our role in the [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Eduction Network’s] ‘Think Before You Speak’ campaign and some unfortunate instances we had of players using homophobic slurs, we thought it was best to be a little more straightforward with our players in this area.”
One of those instances came in 2011, when Kobe Bryant, one of the most visible athletes in the world, called a referee a “fucking faggot.” Bryant later apologized and was fined $100,000 by the league. Only a month later, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah yelled “fuck you, fag” to a fan during a game. New York Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire called one of his critics a “fag” on Twitter two months ago.
Specifically, Behrens noted, “Working with GLAAD and Athlete Ally gives us a chance to not only say ‘don't say this,’ but hopefully to give our players a better understanding of the challenges LGBT kids are facing and the role we can play in ensuring that sports, schools and playgrounds are a safe haven for all kids.”
McQuade explained that the video presentation was focused on the idea — prominent throughout pro-LGBT sports work — of creating allies among straight athletes.
“First, we defined the word ‘ally.’ We then explained why NBA players should strive to be allies, touching on their status as role models, their ability to impact young people, and a frank talk on the problems that can arise from using anti-gay language,” he detailed. “Finally, we gave players some tips on how to be allies, from the basics (watch what you say) to participating in things like Spirit Day, up to and including partnering with organizations like GLAAD and Athlete Ally to spread a message of respect and inclusion.”
GLAAD’s McQuade has been heading up the media watchdog group’s involvement in sports-related issues, observing to BuzzFeed that “leagues, teams and athletes hold the same cultural status that [traditional GLAAD observation subjects like] networks, studios or celebrities do — in some cases perhaps even more — and have just as much potential to make the world a safer place for LGBT people.” Said McQuade: “There are dozens of outlets dedicated to nothing but sports, and those involved with the sports world are some of the most active and influential in social media.”
Meanwhile, the sports world is even less gay-friendly now than the military, which post-DADT is filled with out members. Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith recently became the first out general. That’s part of why Taylor says changing attitudes within the sports world is important for LGBT advocates — but also why it can be so difficult.
“Our athletic community isn’t going to be everything that it should be until we have a critical mass of straight allies who are vocal supporters,” Taylor said. “I’ve been a wrestler my whole life, I was raised as an athlete, and I think I was taught a very narrow conception of what was masculine or what was required of me to be a successful athlete,” he added.
Calling the NBA’s inclusion of LGBT issues in rookie camp “an enormous statement,” Taylor said, “I think it sends a very clear message to the closeted athletes in the professional sports world, as well as closeted coaches and athletes in college and high school, that an organization like the NBA not only supports them but is willing and ready and actually doing something to advance LGBT equality and inclusion in sports.”