When I read the first stories about St. Louis Blues player Mike Danton being arrested in a murder-for-hire scheme Friday, I thought, Do we have a gay hockey player here? There was no mention of that, but the description of the relationships involved were so vague and the subject of possible homosexuality was avoided so artfully that I figured there must be something there.
After a weekend round of denials from anonymous sources close to the player I have no idea if Danton is the first active male professional athlete in North America who is known to be gay. But as always when the subject comes up, his story tells us some things about gays in sports, and even though his story is an awful one, some of those things might be good ones.
The first good thing is that nobody got hurt. The alleged scheme blew up, according to the criminal complaint, after the man who agreed to do the job went to the FBI upon realizing the whole thing wasn't a joke.
Danton was arrested at the San Jose, Calif., airport Friday, the morning after his team was eliminated from the playoffs by the Sharks. The criminal complaint, written by FBI Special Agent John Jimenez, alleges that Danton called a St. Louis friend, Katie Wolfmeyer, earlier in the week and told her that "a hitman" was coming from his native Canada to kill him over a debt. He asked Wolfmeyer, 19, if she knew anyone who would kill the man for $10,000, the complaint says, and Wolfmeyer contacted a male friend who agreed to do it.
When the friend realized Wolfmeyer was serious he contacted the FBI and became a cooperating witness. Wolfmeyer was arrested after she and the witness went to Danton's apartment Thursday night and spoke briefly to the targeted victim, who identified himself as Danton's father. He was described in the complaint as an acquaintance of Danton's.
The would-be victim then allowed the FBI to record a phone call to Danton in which he asked the player why he'd wanted to kill him. "Danton broke down and sobbed," reads a widely quoted passage in the complaint. "Danton explained that he felt backed into a corner and also felt that the acquaintance was going to leave him."
That quote, and one that described Danton and the acquaintance having a severe fight Tuesday "concerning Danton's promiscuity and use of alcohol," led to most of the speculation that Danton's relationship with his acquaintance was sexual. I don't know about you but I don't worry that friends, never mind acquaintances, might "leave me." That wording, not to mention sobbing, is reserved for love relationships. Also, the complaint describes Danton begging the acquaintance not to ruin his career by going to the Blues, and it's hard to imagine how a team's knowledge of a guy's promiscuity and use of alcohol, both very common, would ruin his career.
Of course, it's easy to imagine a player believing that being outed would ruin his career, but another of the good things coming out of this story is an indication that maybe it wouldn't.
"Let's not jump to conclusions, but you know what, hypothetically I think it would be fine," the Associated Press quoted veteran Blues center Doug Weight saying. "I'd like to think people are bigger than that and look into the person as a person and as a teammate."
That story was one of the ones that was artfully avoiding the subject of homosexuality, so it kind of read like Weight was saying it'd be "fine" if Danton turned out to be a murder conspirator. But it's pretty clear Weight, a team leader, was talking about having a gay teammate, especially because the story prefaced the quote with: "Weight said what Danton does in his personal life is his own business and shouldn't have been a problem for the team."
Chris Pronger, another influential teammate, told Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "A lot would depend on the guy. And what kind of guy he was. If he was liked by his teammates. A lot of it would have to do with his character, more than anything. I wouldn't have a problem with it. If that's the way he wants to live his life, that's the way he should live his life. Everybody has a private life outside the locker room."
Pronger admitted that he was speaking only for himself and couldn't say what the overall response to a gay player might be, but I think Pronger's reaction wouldn't be unusual. His comments echoed those made by Bobby Valentine two years ago, when the then-Mets manager said baseball was "ready" for a gay player, but that it would be a lot easier on the guy if he could really hit.
I think that despite the macho, immature attitude of the locker room, acceptance for gay athletes isn't that far off. Remember, it wasn't that long ago when it was thought that an entertainer coming out would be committing career suicide. Then performers started coming out and the reaction has been a worldwide shrug. For all the hype about Ellen DeGeneres' announcement in 1997, is there anyone who thinks of her now as anything but a mildly amusing talk-show host?
Certainly whoever is the first gay pro athlete to come out will be in for some abuse. Pioneers always have it rough. But it won't be a career-ender. As each year's crop of young players comes along, there are more and more people in the various leagues who've grown up in a world where gay entertainers are taken for granted, where there was a gay-lesbian organization at their high school, where gays have been unafraid to be out in their community. They'll shrug their shoulders at a gay teammate just as the world has come to shrug its shoulders at gay singers and comedians, neighbors and co-workers.
Danton, a 23-year-old grinder, is such a marginal player and his story is so anomalous that even if he is gay, he's not the gay Jackie Robinson. But he might help push the closet door open for that Jackie Robinson, whoever he is. It's possible that Danton decided that it was worth killing to avoid being outed. That would be a pretty clear statement about how damaging a place the closet can be.
Perhaps the Danton incident, however it turns out, will push that player who's wrestling with whether to come out to finally make the decision. That would be a saving grace for an ugly story.