Noted gay rights activist and former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Last week, reports surfaced that four currently closeted gay NFL players are considering coming out at some point soon, the idea being they’d announce together so as to avoid suffering backlash alone. Even rumors of this kind of movement are a good sign, but the longer these players wait, the more the story becomes a gossip hunt for the SECRET GAYS in the NFL and less about a transformative moment for the LGBT community. The longer they wait, the longer they give voice to people who wonder if they should even be doing this at all. The longer they wait, the more they signal to young gay people who love sports that coming out may not be the best idea. After all, if rich, successful athletes struggle to do it, how on Earth will you be able to?
This brings us to a simple an inescapable fact. A generation of young people need a gay Jackie Robinson. Someone that they can point to on SportsCenter and say, “Yeah, I’m gay, but so is he. And look what he can do.” Someone who by their simple existence and athletic success can do more damage to playground homophobia, and the idea that masculinity and heterosexuality are one and the same, than a thousand PSAs. We need someone who, like Robinson, was good at what he did, but also willing to stand up to a backlash head-on. I you’re a successful, closeted gay athlete, your time has come. But lest you think this is a suicide mission, there are a lot of very good reasons for you to do it.
1. Your soon-to-be allies have already gotten everyone used to the idea.
With vocal gay-rights advocates like Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe in the NFL, Brian Burke in the NHL, and Magic Johnson in the NBA (and now MLB as well, as a Dodgers part-owner), the world has been properly prepped for someone to come out. We’ve reached a point where the idea of a gay athlete is old news In fact, as the deluge of coverage given to the “four players considering coming out together” story showed, there’s actually a hunger for it. “People aren’t ready yet” isn’t a valid excuse anymore. Fans and fellow players have had enough time to consider and re-consider how they should react to a gay player. They’re ready as they’re ever going to be, thanks to the names above. Are you?
2. You can dispel the “lost endorsement” fallacy and make $$$ doing so.
One age-old argument for players remaining in the closet is that it puts their endorsement dollars at risk. But the world was a very different place when this particular piece of prevailing wisdom took hold. That linked article was from 1994. That’s before Rent. Before Six Feet Under and Will and Grace and Queer as Folk and The L Word and Ellen and Modern Family. Before all of Bravo. Before openly gay members of the military. Before members of congress didn’t have to wait to be elected to come out (or be outed). Times are different now. Neil Patrick Harris is a huge star famous for playing a womanizing straight guy, and there’s a good chance that he’s singing a show tune somewhere at this very second. His face is everywhere. That would have seemed crazy twenty years ago, but makes perfect sense now. Similarly, I’d be willing to bet the number of companies today that want to align themselves with a history making athlete FAR outnumber those that would be scared off. 2013 is not 1994. I’m sure Nike has a “coming out” ad waiting in the drawer for a brave soul like you, Successful Closeted Gay Athlete, to step forward and put your name on it. Just do it already.
3. To instantly become a hero — a sports hero — to a huge portion of the American public.
Who wouldn’t want to instantly become a hero? And I’m not just talking about to gay people, and not just as a political figure. People everywhere who are sick and tired of homophobia will immediately embrace you, Successful Closeted Gay Athlete. Droves of people who had never cared about sports before will find themselves poring over box scores looking for your name. They’ll buy your jersey. They’ll chant your name. And you know they’ll paint their faces. They’ll learn your name because of your political act, but they’ll follow you as an athlete. So how about it? Want to be an icon in your sport? It’s there if you want it.
4. To cement a place in history for yourself and your family.
If Jackie Robinson had played one season, he’d still be in the Hall of Fame for breaking down baseball’s color barrier. His heirs carry on his life’s work to this day. Do you not like the idea of your family’s name being a synonym for courage? Or do you not like the idea of having ceremonies held in your honor for the rest of your life?
5. To win over the locker room.
It’s common for players to say that they’re OK with gay people, but that they don’t want an out gay player to upset their team’s culture. The idea is that you will be a distraction. That your coming out will be responsible for derailing your team’s season. It’s a compelling argument. After all, players are brought up to want to be a “good teammate.” To avoid being a “clubhouse cancer.” But that’s nonsense in this context. Yes some of your teammates may be uncomfortable with your coming out, but that’s not a reason not to do it. It’s a reason to do it.
Here’s a list of things that according to some current thinking, can make a player into a “distraction” to their teams:
• Get arrested.
• Go bankrupt from mismanaging their money.
• Say inappropriate things on Twitter.
• Curse out the media.
• Get in fights with teammates.
• Bring guns in the locker room.
• Operate an interstate dogfighting ring.
• Commit severe unsportsmanlike conduct on the field.
• Openly loving whomever it is they love.
One of these things is not like the others. And until someone like you, Successful Closeted Gay Athlete — someone who’s already shown that they are a good teammate and a good person — says “this is who I am, and it’s not my job to make you comfortable,” that’s never going to change. How can you sit idly by while something as simple and beautiful as loving who you want to love is tacitly equated to crime and assholery? You’ll make the absurdity of that list above evident just by your very existence.
6. It’s the right thing to do.
Telling someone to come out is a tricky thing. It’s a personal process that people have a right to come to (or not come to) in their own time. Now there’s an argument to be made that the best thing for every LGBT person in the world can do for “the cause” is be open about themselves. The idea being that the more people who come out, the less shame there is to go around. But that argument is built around a cumulative effect. It’s like voting. No one “coming out” is going to change much, but rather in the aggregate all of the “coming outs” will add up to something meaningful. It’s a theory that makes sense for regular people, but it doesn’t apply to you. You are different, Successful Closeted Gay Athlete. You’re not part of a movement who won’t be missed if you decide to stay in the closet. Your coming out, all by itself, has insane and actual power.
Somewhere a 15-year-old quarterback in love with his best friend and teammate will see your bravery and stand a little taller. Maybe your coming out will keep him from beating himself up for what he’s feeling inside. Maybe it’ll keep him from begging God to make him more like everyone else. Maybe it’ll keep him from trying to end his suffering in irreversible fashion. Successful Closeted Gay Athlete, I know you’re out there. But that kid doesn’t. And he needs to. Will it be tough? Yes. Will you face teammates who are uncomfortable with it? Definitely. Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide. But I will say this. We’re given so few clear, black-and-white opportunities in this life to leave the world a little better than we found it. This is yours. Don’t squander it.