This summer, two members of the male sports team world chose to announce publicly that they are tired of hiding their sexuality, and decided to come out. Rick Welts, now the President of the Golden State Warriors, and Will Sheridan, a former college basketball player who played at Villanova University. Both men are polished, successful, and handled the issue’s at hand quite gracefully.
As has been the case with each admission of a retired athlete, it has started a fire storm of conversation and opinion as to why no “active” players have come out, and more importantly, when will it happen. I have always been accused as being defensive of players still hiding. I guess I’ve just transferred my old fears onto this generation of players who are struggling with the same secret I hid for so long. For me, their arguments are easy to understand. The sports world moves swiftly, careers are short, and offering this information to the public is a huge decision for anyone, especially since they have no real idea of exactly what may happen to them, good or bad.
In a perfect world, this courageous athlete will be accepted and embraced much like actor, Neal Patrick Harris, when he came out in 2006. I admire how he has looked directly into that camera, and let his talent speak for itself, ironically, by playing a womanizing, shallow, corporate sell-out, on a very funny TV show called, “How I Met Your Mother.” However, we are not talking about actors coming out, we are talking about young men, in the world of professional sports, and it’s not as friendly a place as most people tend to believe.
Outside of sports it seems our world is evolving, accepting, and many of us believe our younger generation has become practically indifferent to the whole issue. A few of Will Sheridan’s teammates at Villanova may have been a shining example of this belief. However, the lewd posters and gay taunts he endured during games, while still being closeted, against their arch-rival St. Joseph’s, prove otherwise. He said they called him those names only because of the funny way he ran on his toes. Imagine the free for all, had he invited more attention, with a public admission during that time? The truth is, we don’t know what will happen, that’s why we are all so damned anxious to see what will.
A few years ago, John Amaechi, a former NBA player, came out and it was expected to relieve the pressure for other athletes in hiding. However, the truth remains that most athletes are still afraid of the unknown. Afraid of a couple of teammates spewing their prejudice anonymously to reporters, igniting an Internet wave of judgment, or afraid of a few jerks in the crowd that will condemn his every step, ridicule his every move, cast the most doubt, and finally throw the Bible at him.
As a player in the closet, I remember my biggest fear was that the players would look at me differently, and the quiet acceptance, and mutual respect of each young man trying to realize a dream, would forever be altered by a look into my private life, one that I myself was struggling with so greatly . If only all people were like Charles Barkley, who said, “I’d rather have a gay teammate who can play….than a heterosexual one who can’t.” It’s so simple, so fair.
Make no mistake, male team sports are played by a bunch of individuals who make up a team. Teams change their rosters every single season, and unless you are a superstar, no job is really safe. Herein, lies the problem. Who is going to protect our athletes if the decision hurts their career? Is it our problem? Can we demand fairness? There are a million reasons why players are cut everyday in team sports. I knew many players in baseball who had emotional problems off the field, and the teams just got tired of dealing with the issue. There is a common phrase in baseball, “he’s a bad clubhouse guy.” This essentially means that the player is disruptive to the team and negatively affects team chemistry. What if two superstars on a team quietly tell the GM, that they aren’t “comfortable” with a gay teammate, or that it’s disruptive to the team?
Does anyone remember Tim Hardaway’s comments when John Amaechi came out? They were despicable, and unacceptable. Tim has since been rehired by the Miami Heat.
I wonder if we ask Rick Welts in 12 months if he senses a difference in his workplace, since he announced that he is gay? I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you, that he’s not running around in shorts and a tank top every night in front of 18,000 demanding fans who are paying a lot of money to watch their team play, or playing in opposing arenas all around the country. Ironically, for me, one of my great fears when I was playing was that a “front office” executive would find out about me (even if I didn’t admit it publicly), and decide to trade or release me because of some stereotyped belief about gay men, so Rick Welt’s admission made me smile, and I felt a great sense of progress for all of us.
Rick has proven, just like I tried to do my whole career, that his sexuality has never interfered with his ability to do his job. However, there is a big difference between assembling a team, and playing for one. As I read through his story, I could see the similarities of our lives that are the demands of living in the closet. For Rick, he spoke of relationships hidden, lies in his personal life mounting, distance required from colleagues to keep things manageable. Ultimately his own relationship ended because his partner grew tired of the constant denial of who he was in Rick’s life.
The underlying tone in Rick’s NY Times article was his constant fear of being outed. From a man with 40 years of experience in the NBA, it tells me that from his vantage point, the environment was quite risky for an active player. I hate that it’s still this way. I also hate that Grant Hill, a player on Rick’s Phoenix Suns, is being verbally attacked for putting himself out there in the landmark commercial denouncing use of the word GAY on the playground. He and his teammate, Jared Dudley, have been commended, and they should be, for their courage by most everyone in the LGBT community. However, tell me, why is it so courageous? Is it because they are at risk of being thought of as gay because they are standing up for us? If a closeted player sees the taunts and accusations thrown at Grant Hill, then what direction do you think he is going to go?
The truth is, we just don’t know. I’ve said many times, that the day it happens, I’ll find a way to be in the front row of wherever that athlete is playing. I’ll be wearing his jersey, and cheering with tears in my eyes. It will take a strong man, and a courageous hero. I hope it happens soon. I also hope we keep knocking down barriers until it’s a no-brainer, and we all say, “What took so long?”
If there is an athlete out there, who is in the closet, and reading this….I would like to say, that my life began once I stopped lying about myself, and finally came out. I often dream of what might have happened had I been strong enough to take the chance and come out while I was still playing. I’d give anything to have that opportunity again. It’s a case of, “I wish I knew now what I didn’t know then.” I believe it is going to happen sooner than later…I really do.
For that unnamed player, we are waiting. I know there are many people who will stand and cheer for you, and you will deserve it. The LGBT community is one of compassion, and acceptance. You will have a whole new legion of fans, in many ways….a whole new family. Many of our allies will also cheer for you, but you will need to be strong, and resilient, as all great leaders in our history have been.
So until that day, the rest of us need to continue to pave the way. Today is a great day because of brave and generous people like Rick Welts, and Will Sheridan. Let’s keep going to the games, voicing our support, seeking jobs and business opportunities in the sports world, and educate with our actions. We need to change the minds of those people who somehow continue to vote to take away our right to marry, and preferred we stay closeted while serving our country in the military. It’s up to us, so when the day comes for one of our own to come out, maybe it will be because we made it possible for him, and not the other way around.