It's only a matter of time before a gay trailblazer emerges to transform the way Americans see their sports heroes, doing for homosexuals what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans. It will be painful, it will be sordid and it will be embarrassing for any sports fan who finds homophobia offensive -- but over a longer run it will also be good for sports and, more interestingly, good for America.
That does not mean last week's media frenzy on gays in sports moved us closer to that point. Only Brendan Lemon, editor in chief of Out magazine, knows for sure what his agenda was in going public with his contention that he has been in a relationship with a well-known baseball player the past year and a half. Could it be he's just trying to boost circulation?
Or maybe a baseball columnist friend of mine has it right: "It's like that joke where the guy is on a deserted island with the supermodel. In this case, the guy is sleeping with a big-time athlete who's good-looking, and he is pissed because no one knows about it. He wants to be able to tell his friends who his lover is. He probably does it now, and no one believes him."
Or maybe Lemon had nothing but good intentions. Maybe he really believes that the lover he says he has just needs a push -- even if it's a strangely timed push. (Coming out at this time of the season would be 100 times more difficult than, say, early in spring training or just after winning the World Series.) Personally, as someone who covered four baseball seasons for the San Francisco Chronicle and two World Series for Salon, and spent many months researching a 1998 New Republic piece on gays in big-time male team sports, I choose to believe this last interpretation, odd timing and odd reasoning notwithstanding.
It really doesn't matter. The point is that something has to change sooner or later. Too many sports stars live in fear of having their sex lives made public. Too many sports fans make too many ludicrous assumptions about who plays the games they love. A star ballplayer will come out -- though not on a magazine's timetable, it seems certain -- and that will unleash a full-scale national media convulsion. I say: Bring it on.
And I say that knowing, in a way that Lemon clearly doesn't, just how bad the convulsion will be.
It's an open secret among sports insiders that there have been all-star-caliber gay athletes playing in each of the four major U.S. sports in recent years, including baseball. Lemon's article has inspired coast-to-coast guessing games about which rumored gay major leaguer is his supposed boyfriend. Working on the New Republic piece, I got a tip from a gay friend that a certain East Coast star -- maybe even Lemon's boyfriend, if his story is legit -- was a regular at a gay bar in town. A visit to the gay bar left little doubt that the story was true. The star's picture was on a ledge above the bar. Several people there had stories about the star that passed a beat writer's bullshit tests.
And then there was the star's reaction when asked about the place. Never mind that on the day in question he was wearing short shorts of a sort ballplayers just don't normally wear. We were having an animated discussion about bars in town, and when I happened to mention the gay bar where I'd seen his photo -- with no statement about what kind of bar it was -- he gave me a sudden blank look and mumbled that he'd never heard of the place. I didn't believe him, but I was in no position to push.
Of course, several sports stars have come out after their playing careers ended, most notably Dave Kopay, a former running back for the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins, among other teams, and baseball journeyman Billy Bean. But no major male athlete has come out during his playing days. Tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King have been out as lesbians for years, and Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo is also out, and on the way up in her career. But lesbianism for myriad complex reasons has always been in a different cultural category than male homosexuality.
"Once you make the decision to speak out, there's no looking back," Kopay told me this week. Kopay came out in the Washington Star in 1975. His book, "The David Kopay Story," published in 1977, will be reissued later this year with a new introduction by Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times.
"There should be some player" who decides to come out while still active, Kopay said. "College and professional sports is probably the last Neanderthal area in society that really needs to be shaken up and be forced to look at [itself], especially when you get into as much wife battering and violence as you see in professional sports."
Kopay's right, of course. But nobody should minimize the firestorm that would ensue if an active player came out -- and Brendan Lemon clearly does.
It's hard not to feel some compassion when Lemon explains in his editor's letter: "At some level, I am writing about this relationship because I want the ballplayer to come out and make my life easier. I have spent many nights, awakened by a 3 a.m. phone call after a West Coast game, talking with this guy about his homosexuality and the way it affects his behavior toward his teammates, and I have concluded that coming out would, on balance, lessen his psychic burden."
Still, it's a little strange that Lemon says he's been dating a ballplayer for a year and a half and has some things so wrong. First of all, he brushes aside as "adolescent" any concerns "a teammate or two" might have about soaping up, butt-naked, side by side with a gay man. In fact, many ballplayers worry about just such a scenario. Researching the New Republic piece, I talked to probably the coolest man in baseball, San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker. He and I had talked many times before, and I think he trusts me. Baker was skeptical about a star baseball player ever making his homosexuality known.
"We're so much into being macho in sports," said Baker, who was a friend and teammate of Glenn Burke's on the Dodgers. "When [openly gay umpire Dave] Pallone said in his book they could field an all-star team of dudes that are gay in baseball, that started kind of like a witch hunt. Even some of the wives were asking their husbands, 'Are you one of them?' That was a heavy time. We were told about Glenn being gay long before it came out, but we didn't really believe it. Some guys didn't want to be in the shower with him. They didn't want him looking at them."
Lemon seems out of it in other ways, too. "With the exception of an occasional judgmental type, most of these straight guys don't have a problem with homosexuality," he writes. "Their prime concern is winning, not who you're sleeping with."
This is hilarious. Winning is a big priority of ballplayers, no doubt about that. But it's far from certain that it trumps the all-consuming attention paid to sex -- which is precisely why a gay Jackie Robinson figure could be so important, forcing pampered star athletes to deal with the real world a little more often. As it is now, ballplayers on the road spend most of their time talking about road beef. That means women. And no, it's not a respectful term. One sportswriter told me recently that his advice to a young, inexperienced reporter was, basically: If you can't talk to the players about women you've had sex with on the road, then you're lost.
I was on the road with the Oakland A's in Chicago one time when I happened to be hanging out at the same bar as some of the players. The next day, a gregarious pitcher came over to give me a hard time. He had seen a woman leaving my room at the team hotel that morning, and recognized her from the night before.
"Don't blush," he told me, in effect welcoming me into the club. "We're all men here."
Variations on the same theme come up every two or three minutes when athletes spend time together. If you cover a team, you know that this good-looking slugger makes a specialty of threesomes -- and you ride the elevator with him and that night's pair of women. No doubt he has fun, but at some point, you wonder how much his goal is a good time and how much he just wants racy new stories to tell the boys.
"All the athletes ever fucking do is relate to each other through sex by talking about women," said Kopay. "All they talk about is what pussy they got, and what is next. In a way they are already relating to each other through sex."
Especially among baseball players, who spend the most time together, a homoerotic vibe is always present. The standard putdown of anyone a ballplayer doesn't like is "faggot," which shows how insecure they tend to be on this subject. You might be, too, if your preferred terminology to describe an effective pitcher was "He really stuck it up our asses tonight."
On the other hand, listening to talk shows percolating with reaction to Lemon's bombshell, you'll hear aggressively ignorant views that miss the point -- starting with the notion that any gay athlete in the clubhouse or locker room would get beaten up. What if the athlete in question was tough enough to take care of himself?
"People keep saying that if a guy came out, he might get his ass kicked," said Kopay. "But when Glenn Burke was with the Dodgers, he could have kicked anybody's ass on that team. He was a tough, mean son of a bitch -- nice, but don't mess with him."
And Kopay, too. He was 6-foot-1, around 220 pounds, and claims he could squat 800 pounds. "This bullshit about the locker room?" he said. "Give me a break. Half the people in the locker room are fat uglies anyway. If a major star was to speak out, I think there wouldn't be an issue about homosexuality in the locker room."
Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late '70s and died of AIDS in 1995, was definitely tough.
"I knew people from Berkeley who knew him," Sports Illustrated writer Michael Silver told me. "He was playing in this relatively competitive night basketball league some year after he was out. Some guy called him a fag and Burke just pounded him. I guess the guy guessed that since he was gay, he wouldn't be tough like most athletes. The guy guessed wrong."
And I was struck by the relative open-mindedness of many in baseball when I researched my New Republic article. Rickey Henderson, baseball's all-time stolen bases leader, tends to be portrayed in the media as a strutting little peacock who has never had a thought for anyone other than himself. But this is what he told me:
"Eventually it will come out and be open," he said. "It's always tough for the first guy who makes a breakthrough. It might not happen in our generation, but we will see it happen. We will say: 'If you are a homosexual, you won't be penalized for it.' I know a few people who are that way. They're good people. That's just how they feel. There's nothing wrong with it."
"It would be important for homosexuals to have someone come out and make a strong statement that this is not something evil or aberrant or sick," ESPN baseball expert Peter Gammons told me. "But because of tabloid TV and tabloid newspapers and tabloid radio, someone ... will break some story on this subject. Even though we're theoretically more open and more tolerant, it would be harder than ever. 'Dateline' would be there. 'Hard Copy' would be there. You'd have one of those ESPN town meetings on 'Homosexuality in Sports.'"
SI's Silver knows more than most about famous athletes who are something other than meat-and-potatoes heterosexuals. He coauthored Dennis Rodman's second book, "Walk on the Wild Side."
"In my Rodman experiences I've seen how threatening the prospect of homosexuality is to most athletes," he told me. "I think it's more so than in the average societal group. They're so conditioned to be macho, to intimidate and to not allow any sign of weakness to surface that the thought of any man showing too much femininity, let alone admitting he's gay, just mortifies them."
In fact, sports itself can be almost sexual in the intimacy it creates among players. Critics have clucked and fussed over the stress men place on sports as a common ground for communication. The claim is that no real communication could be taking place, only a lot of belching and bellowing and other behavior that takes men back to their days as towel-snapping boys. In fact, top-level sports offers a study in communication. The moments that turn sporting events often involve one man looking into the eyes of another. The rookie slugger wipes off his sweaty palms on his pants, looks at the scoreboard that shows his team down 4-1 in Game 1 of the World Series, then glances at the pitcher glaring down at him with a look the rookie is lucky enough to recognize. The look says: "I'm going to blow you away, pipsqueak." The rookie gets the high fastball he's expecting, and cranks it for a game-turning homer. The aging power forward pauses between grimaces (his knees are killing him) to shoot a look at the little point guard holding the ball, catches a glint that says "Alley-oop!" and makes the cut around the kid he has been banging bodies with in the last hour. The aging power forward leaps toward the rim, ball already in flight, and a building packed with 18,000 fans explodes in applause
The sort of communication required in such moments is something everyone envies and few attain. It is the sort of communication one associates with happy lovers. This profound sense of being on the same page is of course the very feeling some critics celebrate in their descriptions of sisterly bonds, all the while showing a blindness to it in the context of sports.
Ballplayers themselves know they're close in a way others might not understand. New York Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius offered this thought: "It would be hard to imagine [openly gay players] because of the intimacy of the way we live together on the road." But sooner or later, the world of sports has to cross this frontier, and the turmoil could help shake sports loose of some of its tired poses.
Clearly, the gay community needs the boost. Gay athletes talk up the growing participation in the Gay Games -- and they should. But to mainstream sports fans, the Gay Games have more in common with the Special Olympics than the Summer Olympics. The invisible barrier that prevents great athletes from saying who they are leaves the impression gay athletes excel only on a small stage, never on Broadway.
But professional sports, not just the gay community, would benefit -- eventually -- from having openly gay players. It would encourage fans to see the variety of individuals who achieve greatness on the playing field. It could help steer people toward the human stories, and away from their obsession with escalating player contracts and the high price of tickets.
"Of course it would be a huge boost for America," said Kopay. "The closet is still the closet because of society and what everyone interprets that you should be. You're supposed to be fearful, frightened and less than a standup guy if you're gay -- the same way that women used to be thought of as fragile. If everybody puts that on you, you start to accept that. That's why people have to deal with their own attitudes about who they are and reject all that nonsense."
Lemon may have some of his facts wrong, but he's right about one thing: It would be great to see a prominent gay athlete in a male team sport make the brave decision to be the gay Jackie Robinson, rather than letting the tabloids and sleazemongers dictate how the story unfolded.
How would it work? Here's my take: The best scenario would be for a star athlete to choose a moment of triumph to share his news with the world. Sportswriter friends and I used to speculate often on just how it would play out if the most valuable player of a Super Bowl, for example, went to Disneyland -- and brought along his boyfriend and explained to the world that he loved men. The point is to make a splash, and make it a big splash.
Sure, it would also be smart to have done some groundwork first. A select number of influential sportswriters could and should be cultivated ahead of time. Team officials would have to be willing to do their part to steer the controversy in a constructive direction.
And, of course, Nike or whoever else is paying the star athlete the most in endorsement deals would have to be with the program -- all set to produce a hip commercial making the most of the controversy. It would also help if the athlete were in a long-term relationship, preferably with someone the public could get to know and like.
Reports have circulated in the gay press for years that this or that major star is prepared to come out and brave the ensuing media circus and loss of lucrative endorsement deals. Yet no major figure has come forward yet. (There are rumors now that a prominent metro sports columnist is planning to out himself, in the wake of Lemon's column, but he hasn't done it yet.)
But it needs to happen. Sports, mythologized for faux heroism, needs a true hero to step forward. It needs a brave individual to alter the nation's perceptions of what it means to be gay, and what it means to be a man, even if the personal sacrifice involved would be so extreme, only Jackie Robinson could understand. Sports needs the nudge toward the real world, and away from glib artificiality. The gay community needs the link to the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment.
And the nation needs to take this next step. It's unhealthy the way we as a sporting public are complicit in the game of lies that enables a large open secret to remain a large open secret -- and forces some people to deny who they really are.