Andy Hutchins of SB Nation — working off an observation from Yahoo!’s Jamie Mottram in the wake of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal — wonders when we might see the first gay athlete in one of America’s major sports leagues come out while still active.* His closing thought:
When the first NFL (or NBA, or MLB) player trusts his teammates, league, and fans enough to tell the world he’s gay, there will be much hubbub, plenty of ink spilled, and many, many hyperlinks. But then that player will be accepted as a trusted teammate, like he always was. And he’ll keep on playing. And he’ll show the world that there’s no reason he can’t do it, and prove that there’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to do it.
He’ll also prove that there never was.
I don’t disagree with any of that. But I have always had a slightly skewed take on the biggest challenge that would face an active gay athlete. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, but in Internet time that may as well have been ten years, so let’s revisit it, shall we?
I don’t think the challenge of acceptance or the angry voices of haters would be the biggest concern of a gay ballplayer contemplating coming out. Indeed, while any given blog’s comments section would soon become a mess of bad jokes, innuendo and hate, I think it would be relatively easy for a person as famous as the first active gay ballplayer to tune out the haters himself.
I say this because I believe that in this day and age there is an inverse relationship between the vehemence of anti-gay rhetoric and the specificity with which the gay target is identified. Bigoted jerks hate non-specific gay people to whom they can attribute the worst stereotypical behaviors and to whom they can ascribe an “agenda” with impunity. Put a name on the person, and the voices grow quieter (e.g. the gay neighbor down the street). Put a famous name on the person and they’re quieter still (e.g. the gay celebrity). Bigots are even more likely to accept gay family members. The point is that the more prominent any given gay person is, the less likely they are to receive an overt negative reaction. Mostly because bigots are cowards.
No, the real problem would be the volume of the reaction, be it good, bad, or indifferent. And actually, I think the positive reaction would be the worst part of it. How many interviews would the gay ballplayer have to sit for? How many photo ops? Awards show invitations? Cameo appearances on TV shows? How large would the paparazzi contingent around this guy be? How many people would fall all over themselves in order to show just how much they accept the gay ballplayer and show everyone else just how open minded they are? The baseball season is already a huge grind. It’s hard enough to deal with the current amount of media attention a ballplayer gets. One can only imagine that adding a media circus to it — not to mention the new burden of being a national spokesman/role model — would make it damn nigh intolerable.
If there’s a gay man playing ball today, he has probably already dealt with hate and intolerance on a personal level, and if he reads the newspapers, he has already engaged it to some extent on a societal level. That stuff would be old hat. What he wouldn’t be used to is being on the receiving end of the hype and overexposure orgy this great nation is truly capable of when it puts its mind to it. I can’t imagine the player who wouldn’t be utterly crushed by that, and because of it, I can’t imagine the player who would want to subject himself to it, even if it presented itself to him with open, loving and accepting arms, as I believe it would be.
Because of that, I don’t think we’ll see a ballplayer come out while he’s still active. At least any time soon. If the player is marginal, he doesn’t want to stick out. If a player is established, he doesn’t want the added distraction and attention. No matter who they are, they just want to do their jobs. Players that come out will likely only do so after they retire or at the very tail end of their career.
I think it’s possible, however, that someone may try to “out” a gay ballplayer. I have some thoughts on that too, but I’ll save that for another post.
*Whether Glen Burke was truly out while playing in the late 70s is an open question. Teammates knew and ownership reportedly knew, but it wasn’t generally known by the public. Heck, it’s probably the case that most people had no idea who Glen Burke was at the time. That’s still probably the case, actually.