Brian Sims is a Philly lawyer now running for the state legislature and a former football star at Bloomsburg; he came out as gay at the end of his senior year a decade ago (and was utterly accepted by his teammates). Sims knows three current, closeted NFL players, and he reached out to them to see if they’d talk to me; he told them I wouldn’t reveal their identities, and he never told me who they are. They all said no, and one emailed back in outrage to Sims, who paraphrased the response for me:
WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? I told you from the get-go, I’m not coming out. You PROMISED an anonymous conversation. Just telling anyone we talked breaks our deal.
That I would even know of this player’s existence—though he would remain nameless—set him off. Now that’s fear.
Yet maybe, in this day and age, staying in the closet isn’t actually necessary. Maybe we’re ready now to accept a big-time gay athlete. Would fans—and a player’s teammates—really have that much of a problem if a player on the Eagles stood up and shared that part of himself?
PRO SPORTS IS CURRENTLY IN A BIND. As American society has moved, albeit slowly, toward more acceptance of gays, with more gays in prominent positions, with the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, with legalized same-sex marriage most recently passing in New York, with teenagers—even in small towns—openly exploring their sexual orientation, pro sports is starting to look like a backwater. It might be the last institutional bastion of homophobia, the final place where gays feel the need to stay firmly in the closet.
Even in sports, though, the ground is shifting. Over the past year, especially, there’s been “a change in the atmosphere,” Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com, an online magazine for gay athletes and fans, told New York magazine. As high-school and college players are coming out, the pro leagues are at last beginning to take on homophobia in their ranks. During last year’s NBA playoffs, a stunning league commercial appeared: A teenage player calls another player’s moves “gay,” and then two members of the Phoenix Suns appear:
Grant Hill: “Using gay to mean dumb or stupid—not cool.”
Jared Dudley: “Not in my house—not anywhere.”
Coincidentally, just before the ad first appeared, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant called a referee a “faggot” in a fit of rage, presumably not actually addressing his sexual proclivities but delivering the classic put-down of his manhood. League commissioner David Stern wasn’t having it: He fined Bryant $100,000, and the star apologized.
Other leagues have stepped up: At least seven baseball teams (including the Phillies) have done “It Gets Better” videos, which offer support to isolated gay teens.
Meanwhile, several sports-world gays have gone public with their sexual orientation. In short order last spring, Will Sheridan, who graduated from Villanova in 2007 after four years starting on the basketball team, Rick Welts, a longtime Phoenix Suns executive and now president of the Warriors, and Jaren Max, an ESPN radio host, came out.
Former 76er Charles Barkley weighed in on the new openness in his blunt style, telling the Washington Post in the wake of the Kobe Bryant dustup, “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play. … Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. … Every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”
With all this, wouldn’t an openly gay pro player soon follow?