King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Americans are confused about gays in sports, but one expert says the first man out of the closet will be cheered. Plus: Yanks-Sox tempest in a Fenway teapot. And: A fabulous farewell.

Published April 15, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

The latest survey about gays in sports finds Americans answering in the usual way, which essentially seems to be, "I wouldn't have a problem with it, but there are plenty of other bigots around who would."

Eighty-six percent of the 979 respondents to the poll by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates said they think it's OK for openly gay male athletes to compete in sports, for example, but 68 percent believe it would hurt an athlete's career to be openly gay. So an overlap of somewhere between 54 and 68 percent, more than half and maybe more than two-thirds of those polled, seems to believe others are less accepting than they are.

There are two ways to look at that: Society is either more accepting than most people think, or most people are less accepting than they let on. As you may know, I believe the former, but if I were a gay male professional athlete contemplating becoming that Jackie Robinson, that first man out of the closet during his career, I can't really take that belief to the bank.

Friday is Jackie Robinson Day in major league ballparks, by the way. Not a bad reason to be thinking about this sort of thing.

You can read the survey questions and responses on It was commissioned by NBC-Universal, whose USA Network is airing a documentary Wednesday about boxer Emile Griffith that deals with Griffith's possible homosexuality and his 1962 fight with Benny "Kid" Paret. An enraged Griffith knocked out Paret, who had called him "maricón," a Spanish slang word akin to "faggot." Paret died from his injuries.

Looking at the full survey, it's so packed with contradictions, it's pretty clear Americans don't know what they think about homosexuality in sports.

Just one example: 78 percent agree with the statement "It is OK for gay athletes to participate in sports, even if they are open about their sexuality," and 40 percent agree with the statement "It's OK for homosexuals to participate in sports provided they are not open about their sexuality."

Wait a minute. Those two statements are directly contradictory. Only 22 percent said it wasn't OK for gays to participate if they're open about being gay, but 40 percent say it's only OK for gays to participate provided they aren't open. Some people -- at least 18 percent -- agreed with both.

Fortunately for our for-the-moment hypothetical gay Jackie Robinson, it probably doesn't matter what those people think.

"The survey is virtually irrelevant because it's a survey of people's attitudes, not athletes' attitudes," says Eric Anderson, author of "In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity." Anderson, who came out while coaching high school track and field in Orange County, Calif., and is now an adjunct sociology professor at SUNY-Stony Brook, says what surveys like this one do is take the pulse of homophobia generally, not so much in sports. And he's optimistic that the pulse is weak.

"We assume that sports are one of the most homophobic environments left in American institutions," he says, "so what it really is is sort of a survey of homophobia on that last front. And with findings like that it basically shows that being homophobic is increasingly unpopular."

Anderson, whose book is the result of research into the issue of athletes staying in the closet and coming out on various athletic levels, is the only person I've ever talked to who's more optimistic than I am about what will happen to that first gay man in the major American professional team sports who comes out.

"There will be a media fury, but it's going to be a positive media fury," he says. "There might be one or two obscure assholes, of course, but the media's going to report it as, 'Well, now there's an open gay athlete.' They're going to run around and they're going to interview his teammates and they're going to interview his parents and bla bla bla bla bla. And then it's going to be like, OK, yeah, so now what?"

So now what, most people seem to believe, is that the athlete will become an unperson.

"Gay athletes tell me that they're afraid of losing their sponsorships, which is absolute hogwash, because, you know, Nike is not going to pull a sponsorship away from someone for being gay," Anderson says. "Who wants that kind of negative publicity."

Yes, but what about potential endorsement opportunities drying up?

"No," Anderson says. "We know that when gay athletes come out of the closet, even after retirement -- you can be a no-name, like Esera Tuaolo, you can be a Billy Bean, and then all of a sudden, Esera has a national Chili's commercial. There are so many companies that court the gay dollar.

"To have a professional athlete for Miller Lite or Absolut vodka or Subaru or any number of the amazingly high number of gay-friendly advertisers, would be -- I mean, Cory Johnson, a high school football player, got a national furniture company sponsorship. Now how many high school athletes get national furniture sponsorships?"

Anderson says the real thing athletes fear isn't being thought of as gay, it's being thought of as not masculine, not one of the boys. But he says his research shows that gay athletes who have come out in high school and college sports have mostly found acceptance.

"All of the social patterns at the high school level also exist at the collegiate level, and all of the social patterns at the collegiate level, there's no reason to assume don't also exist at the professional level," he says. "You have to remember that the age gap between the collegiate and professional level isn't very much. Most athletes are pretty young. And this is the MTV generation now, playing professional sports."

But wouldn't a gay teammate cause problems in the clubhouse? Maybe, Anderson says, but so what?

"It's not going to be any more dissension than any other petty grievances they have against each other," he says. "Because we know that athletes don't [always] get along on teams. You know, they're not a perfectly working, beautiful, wonderful family. There's lots of tension between them. So if it does create some tension between some players, hey, so what? Add it to the litany."

I've written before that there will be a gay Jackie Robinson, and I don't think it will be too far in the future, though the first gay male athlete we know about in the team sports may be outed rather than coming out voluntarily. Who will be that one who steps out of the closet?

"If someone voluntarily comes out, it's more likely to be a 23- or 25-year-old savvy baseball player who's been up and down from the minors to the majors," Anderson says, though he's not confident that anyone's on the verge of breaking through what he calls the cult of masculinity.

"He's had his shot, he realizes he's a no-name, he's going to have no career. He is literally Billy Bean of today. And he realizes, 'My God, if I come out of the closet now, I am an international celebrity. I'm on the front page of every magazine, there's movies made about me, I'm on "Oprah," I've got book deals, I've got it all.' And if your career is over and you know it, why not?"

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Tempest in the Fenway teapot [PERMALINK]

So I'm sitting on my couch Thursday night, watching the Yankees-Red Sox game while paging through a book called "A Tale of Two Cities: The 2004 Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry and the War for the Pennant" by Tony Massarotti and John Harper, which is the 7,458th book I've been sent in the last four months about the Red Sox and the Yankees.

And I'm thinking, "I'm really glad this is the last Yankees-Red Sox game for six weeks, because I'm just about Yankee-Red Soxed out."

That's when Gary Sheffield got into a little scuffle with a fan in the right-field corner at Fenway Park, and here we go again.

Maybe it's just my pinstripes-and-bloody socks fatigue, but I think this one's getting blown all out of proportion. I mean, what happened? As Sheffield reached down to field a ball in the corner, a fan swiped with his hand, sort of in the direction of the ball, and clipped Sheffield in the face. Sheffield picked up the ball, gave a shove to the fan, threw the ball back to the infield, and turned back around with his fist cocked but didn't throw a punch. Security then intervened.

It wasn't clear from the video what the fan was trying to do: Hit Sheffield, reach for the ball or some other thing. A beer a fan was holding got spilled on Sheffield too, and it also wasn't clear if that was intentional. The fan was ejected, Sheffield wasn't, and play continued.

Yankees manager Joe Torre was quoted saying, "These people shouldn't be allowed to walk the streets much less come to a ballgame."

Good God, people. Get a grip.

Yes, we're only five months removed from the Pistons-Pacers brawl, but this wasn't that. Let's say the fan was taking a swipe at Sheffield -- and it's a testament to the unreliability of video evidence that I'll get e-mail from people absolutely convinced that he was and from people absolutely convinced that he wasn't.

What happened next was that Sheffield -- who wasn't looking at the fan when he got hit, so his immediate reaction of shoving the guy away is understandable -- didn't punch the fan, didn't jump into the stands, and security was there in seconds.

In other words, exactly what's supposed to happen happened. All of the things people complained about in November, the players not controlling themselves, security not being alert and on the scene, didn't happen.

Shall we move on?

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A fabulous farewell [PERMALINK]

When I grow up I want to be an old columnist who retires with just the right words. Maybe I'll crib from Albert Morriss. Never heard of him? Me neither, but reader Oscar Chamberlain pointed me toward his farewell sports column after 35 years at the Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper.

"Great editorial heavens, was it that time already?" Morriss writes. "My column, I realised, was 35 years old and it seemed only the day before yesterday when it was offered to me, as one would hand over a caber, and caused my minds knees to buckle."

A caber is one of those telephone pole-size things big men throw in Scottish games. That sentence is about as good a description as I've ever seen of what this racket is like.

Morriss writes that he was given a column "because I shared with pickpockets the reputation of having 'a light touch.'" Sorry I missed these last 35 years of it.

Previous column: Jermaine O'Neal letters

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