The issue of gay, and lesbian, athletes comes up in the media every so often. To date, no athlete who is currently active in his or he, respective sport has come out, although several who have since retired have done so.
The issue has been kicking around for decades. The first major athlete to come out was champion tennis player Bill Tilden in 1920. Tilden was a three-time winner at Wimbledon, won seven US championships, and lead US teams to seven Davis Cup victories during his time. His homosexuality was an "open secret" throughout his career.
In recent times, an NFL running back by the name of David Kopay made international headlines by becoming the first professional team sports athlete to come out, and that was back in 1975. He played for several teams including the San Francisco 49ers (1964-67), Detroit Lions (1968), Washington Redskins (1969-1970), New Orleans Saints (1971), and the Green Bay Packers (1972). Following his coming out, Kopay, who had retired from playing and was seeking to coach football, found it difficult to find a job as a coach.
The first gay man to come out while still actively playing for a professional team sport was British soccer player Justin Fashanu in 1988. He committed suicide ten years later at the age of 36, following allegations he had sexually assaulted a teenaged boy in the US.
In Canada, we have Brian Orser who was outed by an ex-boyfriend in a palimony suit, Mark Tewksbury an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who came out after he retired, and Toller Cranston who made no secret of his gayness but never actually declared it either.
But it is perhaps in the world of professional team sports that the issue creates the most anxiety and controversy. While it is "known" there are gay players within the NHL, for instance - law of averages alone would suggest that - none have dared come out. And those who have "come out" after being molested by coach Graham James, namely Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, are both avowedly heterosexual with no suggestion whatsoever of being homosexual. The support within the ranks of professional hockey for both Kennedy and Fleury is notable, but even at that, it took them years before they were able to come forward publicly. Imagine what a gay player must be going through and, if a player did come out, would he be supported by his peers or vilified? Nobody knows.
However, there are some indications such support may be there. Sean Avery, the controversial and trash-talking forward for the New York Rangers, (notorious for his "sloppy seconds" comment regarding ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert dating Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf) declared in February he would absolutely support a player who came out.
"If there’s a kid in Canada or wherever who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he’s worried about coming out, I’d tell him to pick up the phone and call (NHLPA Executive Director) Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a plane ticket. I’ll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."
Avery is not what one might call a sensitive sort of guy. He’s tough. He’s got a mouth and a half on him. He’s driven, competitive and even a little pushy. If a total jock like Avery simply doesn’t have a problem playing with a gay teammate maybe there’s hope yet.
Of course, when it comes to professional team sports the concern (if we can call it that) about having an openly gay person on the team is the same as the concerns we heard about having openly gay military personnel. How comfortable will the straight athletes be, parading around the dressing room naked or showering together, when there’s a guy everyone knows is into guys in the room? The general consensus seems to be: not too comfortable. Gosh...what if he comes on to one of them or something? Pure hooey.
The thing is, there probably is already at least one guy in the room who is into other guys and if he hasn’t hit on his teammates by now, he’s not going to...and even if he does, (hot porn fantasies aside) so what? A polite, "no thanks, dude" is enough...or words to that effect.
Chris Stevenson, a sports columnist for the Sun Media chain of which the Calgary Sun newspaper is a part, wrote in his February 4th column about Brendan Burke, the 20-year old student manager of the University of Miami at Ohio hockey team who publicly came out. Burke’s father is President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke, and his brother is Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. His family and his team supported him in his decision.
A few months after coming out, however, Brendan Burke died in a car crash in Indiana.
Stevenson poses the questions a year after Brendan Burke’s death, are we any closer to seeing the first openly gay player in the NHL, and is the NHL ready for it? He writes that Mark Tewksbury, who had some major issues about coming out himself and spent years being protected by friends and family before finally deciding to self-declare, is quoted as saying there will have to be a major cultural shift within hockey before a gay player would be comfortable enough to come out.
"I used to think it would take a brave player, but now I think it will take a brave, open-minded general manager," he quotes Tewksbury as saying. "Brian Burke is the archetype of the macho hockey (executive). If he’s open-minded - if he’s willing - then there’s a glimmer of hope there can be a systemic change."
And that is the crux of the issue. It will take a systemic change, a major cultural shift within the sport, before an openly gay athlete would be accepted. The sport is, like all such enterprises, a conservative environment. Players are concerned about public perception of their prowess and any suggestion they or the sport they’re in, no matter how remote or how distanced it may be from them themselves, are somehow "less than" masculine is going to elicit a strong reaction. Of course, those of us who are familiar with the culture of being gay, who are gay, totally understand sexual orientation has nothing to do with the degree of masculinity one possesses. The perception that gay equals effeminate is still a pervasive one in heterosexual culture, and one I have never been able to understand.
Not only are some players going to react but, since this is a multi-million dollar business, hockey executives are going to voraciously attempt to protect their bottom line. Investors are going to be really nervous about public reaction. Company executives are going to be anxious about their product being endorsed by an openly gay player. The fan in the seats may not care...or be a constant source of heckling.
If the sport has an openly gay player I can guarantee you there will be parents across Canada who will speak out about the "damage" it has done to having their little boys playing league hockey. Somehow, for some of them, having a gay player will negatively impact the game, somehow render it suspect, even unwholesome. What effect will having little Johnny’s favourite player being a - gasp! - homosexual, have on him? All this is a consideration for any player contemplating coming out, whether fair or not.
Totally ridiculous, of course, but such are the realities of dealing with a dominant culture with no understanding, insight, or even interest in our realities.
However, Patrick Burke says he has seen signs of positive change since his brother came out.
"In the last year, both publicly and privately, I think we have seen a great deal of progress. For people who haven’t really been exposed to [someone who is gay], hopefully it did kind of open up some eyes."
Not only has Sean Avery come out (so to speak) in support of a potentially openly gay player but, Ottawa Senators’ team captain, Daniel Alfredsson, has been quoted as saying: "If [a player was] gay, it would probably be really hard to have to hide it all the time. There will always be people opposed to it, I suppose, but I have a feeling that, overall, it would be accepted...I wouldn’t personally have an issue or feel anything [negative] toward someone who is gay."
Statements such as those made by Alfredsson and Avery are, indeed, encouraging. Perhaps there is a small change starting to happen within the ranks of the NHL, and maybe from there it will spread to other professional team sports. We won’t know until a player takes that step across the threshold of his closet and comes out, prepared to take the flack and constant analyzing that every sports writer and commentator is going to give for weeks; about the effect coming out will have, might have, on his career, on his team, on the sport, on the bottom line, ad infinitum.