Homophobia in Sports: The Other Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Will the world of sports ever accept an openly gay player in the locker room?

Coming out in the locker room takes courage (Image: ThinkStock)

Despite changes in society over the past quarter century that have reflected a broader acceptance of the LGBT community, team sports continues to be a hyper-masculine world where homosexuality remains the most taboo of topics. Being a gay or lesbian athlete has become the other don’t ask don’t tell.

From the schoolyard to the locker room, one surefire way to insult a male athlete is to say, “You play like a girl.” Regardless of how sexist that phrase is, it’s universally accepted in sports. With being gay likened to being less than a man or “girly;” what man in his right mind would want to be considered feminine in a masculine environment? It’s that fear that prevents the sports world from openly embracing their gay counterparts.

“In the 21st century, this is something that needs to be discussed with less fear,” says Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation. While the rest of the country applauds New York’s recent passing of a law that allows same sex marriages, the sports world continues to be reactive instead of proactive in their dealings with homophobia. When pro athletes the likes of Kobe Bryant (NBA), DeSean Jackson (NFL), Joakim Noah (NBA) and James Harrison (NFL) utter homophobic slurs, the repercussions are merely a few fines but very little is done to change the locker room culture.

“Who is the NBA to fine a player [for using a gay slur] when they have taken no steps to foster an open environment,” says Slam magazine Editor-In-Chief Ben Osborne of the fines levied on Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah. “If homophobia was addressed during media training in the same manner as financial matters, race matters or other social issues, then a fine would totally be in order because they were violating the rules of the league.”

Zirin agrees, suggesting that the implementation of sensitivity training could be written into the new collective bargaining agreement as the NBA still holds firm on a lockout. But more than that, he says that the simple message that the leagues will support gay athletes has yet to be broadcast. “I wouldn’t just say that the league doesn’t do enough, they don’t do anything,” Zirin says. “It would be very easy to do something like actually putting the message out to players that says, ‘Odds are some of you guys are gay; we just want you to know that we will support you if you want to come out of the closet.’ That message never gets out.”

As a result, many gay athletes like remain in the closet until after their sports career is over. (WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes is a rare exception in that she came out while still actively playing.) Gay athletes who come out after retirement do so for a number of reasons. There are no teammates to answer to, no endorsement deals to risk and they’re no longer looking to be accepted in the locker room. Former professional athletes like Jerry Smith (NFL), Roy Simmons (NFL), Billy Bean MLB), Glenn Burke (MLB), Will Sheridan (NCAA) and John Amaechi (NBA) all announced that they were gay when their professional careers had come to a close.

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