Who Will Break the Glass Closet... and John Amaechi's Response

As the movement for marriage equality and gay liberation gains momentum, we should peer with heightened expectation toward the world of sports. Yes, sports. Every movement for civil rights over the past century has seen the struggle for equality reverberate in the often quite conservative arena of sports. It's impossible to think of the early days of the civil rights movement without considering Jackie Robinson, the African American player who broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Robinson was the original "pilgrim that walks in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."

We cannot consider the women's rights movement without considering tennis star Billie Jean King. King was a voice for a feminism that demanded equal pay, more endorsements, better training and locker room facilities and basic respect. She was an activist and participant in the women's movement for equal rights. In the words of Martina Navratilova, she "embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock." In each of the above instances, there was a pattern. The athlete in question met resistance both in the stands and in the locker room. But the audacity of proximity broke down walls and made a substantial contribution to societal change. This is why Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, the second African American player, said to a writer, "Without the Brooklyn Dodgers, you don't have Brown vs. Board of Education. ... All I know is we were the first ones on the trains, we were the first ones down South not to go around the back of the restaurant, first ones in the hotels. We were like the teachers of the whole integration thing."

A gay professional athlete, with the courage to suffer, could roughly replicate this experience. The strongest weapon against homophobia is interaction with real, live gay people, not media caricatures. As Newsweek magazine wrote, "One reason that tolerance for gay marriage and civil unions may be on the rise is that a growing number of Americans say they know someone who's gay. While in 1994, a Newsweek Poll found that only 53 percent of those questioned knew a gay or lesbian person, that figure today is 78 percent." In other words, familiarity doesn't breed contempt but rather something more than tolerance: acceptance. A gay athlete would mean that every sports fan would in a way "know" a gay person smack, dab amid the testosterone-addled world of sports. In today's sports world, gay athletes reside firmly in the closet. They attend underground parties and live in the social shadows. They have been led to understand that for a man, being gay means being weak, and being perceived as "weak" on the playing field means being done. They also disproportionately come from poor or working-class backgrounds.

To risk their jobs is to risk their golden ticket. This is why the athletes who have come out of the closet have done so after they retire. Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay of the NFL, John Amaechi of the NBA, Billy Bean and the late Glenn Burke in Major League Baseball, all took this route. The reasons for staying in the closet are manifest. The evangelical Christian organization Athletes in Action, with connections to groups that promote reparative therapy for gays and lesbians, holds sway in many locker rooms. Athletes commonly add "no homo" after compliments, as in "That's a nice shirt - no homo." Yes, the locker room is not exactly what anyone would call a nurturing environment.

In sports such as football, one might expect there to be even threats of violence carried out in hard play on the field. But maybe the ride could be smoother than we all think.

Brian Sims, a former defensive tackle and captain of the Bloomsburg University football team, came out to his team during his senior season. As the Web site Outsports.com wrote, "With the preparation and frenzy surrounding the team as they inched closer to the playoffs and then started winning playoff games, the sexuality of one of the team's most respected players was the furthest from players' concerns ... No one shied away from him. His being gay became just more fodder for locker room teasing, like someone's fat mom."

Not ideal, but there is clearly space to come out that Kopay in the 1970s, or even Tuaolo a decade ago, didn't have. The movement outside the playing field means that a number of writers could be expected to write favorable pieces about the "gay Jackie Robinson."

Sizable percentages of players say they would accept a gay teammate. When Amaechi came out, then-New York Knicks coach, the much maligned Isiah Thomas, said to the press, "If (there was an openly gay player) in my locker room, we won't have a problem with it. I can't speak for somebody else's locker room, but if it's in mine, we won't have a problem. I'll make damn sure there's no problem. ... We're a diverse society and we preach acceptance. We're proud of diversity and no matter what your sexual preference may be ... no one should be excluded."

The question now is: Who will it be? Who will rise to the moment and make the playing field all the more level?

Response from John Amaechi -

I think it is really important that we apply the nuance to this issue that it deserves...I have recently been named to the UK Pink List - a review of the 101 most influential gay people in the country...I am the only former athlete - no current ones either, and not coincidentally one of only three people of colour. I wrote an op-ed on the reason for the lack of athletes in the list, it is somewhere down the bottom of the page here:


I understand the need for people to find a talisman that will make "everything ok." I know that when we peer back on history, we can make connections to people and events to whom we then attribute causality for change.

In some cases the causality has some (rarely total) legitimacy - the impact of Billy Jean and Martina is undeniable, but we must be mindful of the differences there.

They are individual sport athletes, which is crucially important, not EASIER, but different to the people you are hoping to see come out. Your article ignores the fact that there are some out athletes in individual sports - diving, skiing, speed skating, ice dance, etc, and some of these are world renown Olympic athletes - but you are talking about the US big three, I think...

Billy Jean and Martina are remarkable, but as women inherently impacted by misogyny and homophobia, that combine to actually make it easier for bigots to "accept" a lesbian (I must stress again, not easier to come out for the individual) but foolish straight men revel in the fantasy of (fake) lesbianism for their entertainment and crucially their sexism means that women lack the power and a penis that makes them a threat. This allows bigots to feel safe that they won't be "targeted for penetration." I am convinced, from a psycho-social point of view, this is one of the major obstacles fro the GLBT rights movement - that and the yuck factor - both rationalised by "God."

On the black analogy -- the Brooklyn Dodgers example - their bravery was probably pivotal in changing hearts and minds of fans - a connection between regular Joe's and these black men. However the differences between their position and that of gay (male, team sport) athlete is hugely different.

For the most part, these black vanguards who did risk so much for their sport and their communities were CHOSEN by the powers that be. Even if they hated them - every stereotype about black people suggests a propensity for being good at sport (even if it took Magic to convince people we could be smart too!) In this situation, being chosen (even if simultaneously disliked) there is an investment in their success - however crudely; managers, coaches, boards and owners WANT these people to succeed, even if just to prove their prowess as bosses. Of course the internal locker room issues from players and issues from fans were brutal, but the power in their sport wanted them to succeed - and second to approval from God is approval from the man who holds the purse strings.

Gay athletes, as far as I have been able to gather from my network of NBA, NFL, MLS and premiership (UK) football players and coaches, have never been chosen for that criteria. Management, coaches, boards and owners are often openly hostile - in the US citing God as their back-up, in the EU, just being openly mean - two EU football coaches have recently stated that gay people don't exist in football - what do you think the message is there to their gay players?

There is no (current) equivalent desire by management to have their gay players succeed. i have two friends (current pro athletes) who have been brought into offices to make sure it's clear that there "...is no place for that 'lifestyle' in (this) organisation!"

Their path and impact are different that those of non-team athletes, women athletes and the amazingly brave black athletes like Jackie Robinson and his peers.

There are lots of teams with gay players in the US and the UK. Often, the team all know and there are varying levels of embracing, but many have a quiet acceptance that is a good place to start - the problem as I highlight in my op-ed (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/the-iiosi-pink-list-in-full-1722456.html) is not the "stupid urban guys" in the locker room, but the coaches, board members and owners - if we want to see open gay athletes in team sports - there is where you must look to change attitudes - these are people who already know who their gay players are - on this I will place money.

Bigotry is alive and well in the executive branch of sports. It has taken a "rooney rule" to get (some) black coaches on the field, and there is still a huge discrepancy in faces that make up the bulk of the players, making it to the board room or executive positions - and equity for women in those positions - not so far - the power and the bulk of the effective prejudice (Tim Hardaway and his ilk notwithstanding) is in the offices above the field or court.

When the player you seek comes out, it won't be a surprise to their team mates - they will have known, they may even be embraced by many fans - I wouldn't be surprised by that either. But to think that this revelation will make a dent in the ongoing battle for rights in the US is a huge leap. America has aligned itself with Iran and Pakistan with it's policy on GLBT people in the military, expelling 30,000 people whilst in the midst of wars we are barely containing.

A "debate" rattles on in a country where church and state are (supposedly) separated as to the civil and federal rights of a massive, visible minority of people. The ideology - the theocracy that parts of the US craves, will not be broken by gay-Kobe or gay-LeBron. The law that followed the bravery of black civil rights heroes like Jackie Robinson, is starkly absent - and at every turn with every step forward, public fear and under-educated opinion is used to rush that progress back - there is a reason Jefferson said that the rights of the minority shouldn't be subject to the whim of the majority.

Even President Obama, has shown that "tolerance" (a word with no place in talk about equality) means a new separate but not-quite-equal, and the law has seen fit to uphold that (so far..perhaps)

I will bring this missive to an end soon, I've rambled on. But:

Whether a person believes in evolution or not, we evolve - the way we bring about change must also evolve - just as mass organisation and powerful rhetoric were once both necessary and sufficient, now they are only sufficient to maintain the status quo. (Prop 8!) Now, the rights of GLBT are in the hands of a scarce few lawyers.

It is important to show people the true face of gay people, as you suggest, but I hardly think that gay-LeBron is that face? You would think the litany of dead bodies boys and girls, men and women who litter the obituary pages - and sometimes the front pages would convince people of their folly and bigotry. Instead, GLBT are now as compromised as ever....as I wrote to President Obama, with a fierce advocate like his white house, who needs enemies?

On a personal front, I knew I was gay from 11. If I had come out then, would I have made it to the NBA? If I had come out in college - where I was still not drafted - but made it through free-agent camp past 34 other prospects - would I have made it then?

Is it really right to tell to these GLBT athletes: sacrifice every semblance of a personal life, ignoring every desire, enduring the terrifying fear of losing everything and the often devastating loneliness until you achieve success - and then - for the chance that you might change some minds (although NO evidence it will change policy) risk losing everything by coming out to?

Don't come out to get the chance to come out when we arbitrarily think they become important? No minority should be asked to sacrifice everything for a chance at equality. Especially if we demand they hide first in order to have a chance to achieve success - and then reveal themselves to prove our equality. That is truly a twisted system.

We MUST evolve past the point when potential martyrdom is the only way to create change. Look at what happens in countries and facets of religions that believe that. We rail against that logic when we might get blown to pieces.

Anyway, a LONG vent - frustrated with the pace of progress - and that people seem to have forgotten that progress is not the same as change - I am pretty sure people wouldn't have voted for a guy who ran under "Progress we can believe in!"

All the best pal,


42 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Isiah Thomas

While I agree with the premise of the article, I don't think citing Isiah Thomas is the most effective means of illustrating your point. For some reason, acceptance of one's sexuality isn't the first thing I think of with Isiah (see Sanders, Anuche Brown).

Great Column

Seriously, though, great column, I agreed with everything you said. Also, loved the letter by John Amaechi

Sheryl Swoopes and Sue Wicks

Sheryl Swoopes, one of the best women's basketball players in history, and Sue Wicks (Rutgers/NY Liberty) didn't wait to come out before they retired. One of the co-owners of the Seattle Storm is openly gay as is one of the co-owners of the Atlanta Dream. All women.

Not the same

Comparing the struggles of gay athletes to the struggles of black athletes pre-civil rights movement is apples and oranges. Most black people cannot hide their skin color. Gay athletes (at least NBA, NHL, NFL, etc.) must hide their sexuality. Before Jackie Robinson their were no blacks in MLB. Their have (i suspect) always been gay athletes. As bad as black athletes had it, at least they didn't have to lead a double life fearful of people finding out who they REALLY were.

What is important to LGBT people?

Mr. Amaechi, you seem to be arguing that an openly gay professional athlete would do little to advance LGBT rights. I disagree, largely because I disagree about what "LGBT rights" entail.

Personally, I believe that the biggest issue facing gay PEOPLE is not marriage, nor military service.

I believe it is the 14 year old kid struggling with his feelings who sees no one like him in the world, no one to look up to. An openly gay star athlete WOULD change this loneliness, this despair.

So a gay Peyton Manning might not bring marriage equality to the United States, but he would provide a beacon of light, of hope, to thousands of young gays and lesbians.


I think what Mr. Amaechi is suggesting is that if he'd've come out too early he wouldn't be the beacon of light to aspire to.


From my understanding, Mr. Amaechi is not saying an openly gay athlete in the big 3 would not improve the prospects of GLBT rights. He is pointing out that the risks are too great to come out in a team sport, and that the suits are the ones that have to proactively accept GLBT rights rather that reactively accept them.

Gay athletes

I'm a 44 year old divorced gay male. Married and divorced before I had the courage to come out and live my life. At that time, in the 80's, AIDS and a growing gay rights movement a gay athlete would have been unthinkable. Even in the music industry gay musicians were not forthright with their sexuality. Boy George was just gender-bending and Elton John said he wasn't gay but a bisexual.

One of the "big 3" US team sports having a player come out while a player may do little to advance our equality but as another poster noted, the positive effects of this coming out for gay youth would be infinately unbounded.

Open wounds

All one really needs to know about how the NBA has historically feared the gay athlete can be seen in the genesis of the league's open cut policy/rule. In the aftermath of Magic's HIV announcement, the slightest nick resulted in a player having to leave the court (because they might be HIV positive). The HIV link to gay men underpinned this fear. This rule still exists in the NBA. To my knowledge, no such policies exist in the NHL, UFC, Boxing, NFL or MLB.


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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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