“If he’s sucking cock, he’s getting his ass kicked.”
New Jersey Devils winger Cam Jannsen said those words on an internet-radio talk show on July 12. In context, they were less sinister than they were crass; regardless, they reinforced the most pessimistic assumptions about homophobia in professional sports.
In a culture of increasing acceptance toward out individuals, in which the movement toward marriage equality sometimes appears unstoppable, sports remain one of the last frontiers of homophobic attitudes. Although the prevalence of gay sports leagues and gay sports bars go a long way toward proving that you don’t have to be straight to be an athlete — the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, for example, counts more than 700 softball teams across the U.S. and Canada in its 44 affiliated leagues — the major leagues are another story.
There has never been an out athlete in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League.
Wade Davis Jr., the former NFL cornerback who is one of the few out gay athletes even to come out after their professional careers ended, sees the impact of anti-gay sentiment in his current work at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth between the ages of 12 and 24. “Most kids who I’ve talked to who are gay who play sports just don’t say anything,” Davis told BuzzFeed. “There are kids who stop playing sports because they’re out.”
Davis felt the same way while in the NFL and NFL Europe during the early 2000s, remaining in the closet until his football days were over. But times have begun to change. Prodded by activists, the four major American professional sports leagues are getting teams and players ready for the reality of out major league athletes.
Jannsen’s comments weren’t meant to suggest that gay men deserved to be assaulted, but to describe the way hockey players would use any available personal information to badger an opponent (the phrase “sucking cock” had been used first by the radio show’s host). Still, the standalone quote spread quickly as seemingly crystal-clear evidence of blatant homophobia among athletes. By the next morning, Janssen had apologized and pledged to eliminate that type of language from his vocabulary. Released through the Devils’s media operation, his mea culpa mentioned one activist group by name: “I would also like to take this chance to express my support for the work the You Can Play project is doing, and for the gay community in general.”
The quick response, the apology and the support “for the gay community” all were notable, but the reference to the You Can Play project statement highlighted what’s quickly become one of the most effective efforts to change the sports world’s mindset on LGBT issues.
In addition to being a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and a law student, Patrick Burke is one of the three founders of You Can Play. Along with his father, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, Patrick is invested in LGBT issues because his brother Brendan — who was also involved in the hockey world and wanted to work for the NHL — was gay. Brendan died in a car accident at age 21 only a few months after publicly coming out, and Patrick and Brian have taken up his cause. You Can Play began in earnest in March 2012.
The Cam Jannsen incident illustrated how integral of a role You Can Play already has in turning professional sports into a safe place for LGBT issues. Burke told BuzzFeed that he first saw the video of Janssen’s comments around 5 p.m. that evening. Immediately, he emailed the Devils and told them he could help. Within the day, Janssen would call Burke three separate times. The next morning, Janssen’s apology was made public, including that formal statement of gratitude toward You Can Play.
Change has already arrived. In 2006, Sports Illustrated polled professional athletes and found that 80 percent of NHL players would welcome an openly gay athlete, and Burke estimates that number now at 90-95 percent. However, reaching that ultimate goal — an out player in professional sports — is still a ways off. Burke says that he’s been told by people he trusts that there are major league athletes who are out to select groups of their teammates, but that's as far as it goes for now.
Those working on the issue say that, in order to create an environment where a gay player would be comfortable, the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA — and, perhaps more importantly, their players — need to take a public stand. As Hudson Taylor, a Columbia University assistant wrestling coach and the founder of Athlete Ally — another organization working to address LGBT issues in sports — told BuzzFeed, “If coaches and league officials and players become vocal allies, then that becomes a very easy place for a player to come out.”
One of the leagues taking direct action today is the NBA.
At this year’s NBA rookie camp, which concluded on Monday, attendees heard something that past first-year players hadn’t: A message about the importance that athletes play in creating a safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — including, potentially, their new teammates.
The “ally training” presentation was a joint production of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Athlete Ally. Aaron McQuade at GLAAD, who helped prepare the presentation, said, “There’s also an open invitation for any of the league’s players to contact us anytime, off-the-record, with any questions or concerns about how to deal with certain issues.”
Kathleen Behrens, the NBA’s executive vice president for social responsibility & player programs, called the “straightforward” effort launched this year at rookie camp an important and necessary step.
“We’ve always included a session and discussion with our players on cultural awareness and understanding,” she told BuzzFeed. “Given our role in the [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Eduction Network’s] ‘Think Before You Speak’ campaign and some unfortunate instances we had of players using homophobic slurs, we thought it was best to be a little more straightforward with our players in this area.”
One of those instances came in 2011, when Kobe Bryant, one of the most visible athletes in the world, called a referee a “fucking faggot.” Bryant later apologized and was fined $100,000 by the league. Only a month later, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah yelled “fuck you, fag” to a fan during a game. New York Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire called one of his critics a “fag” on Twitter two months ago.
Specifically, Behrens noted, “Working with GLAAD and Athlete Ally gives us a chance to not only say ‘don't say this,’ but hopefully to give our players a better understanding of the challenges LGBT kids are facing and the role we can play in ensuring that sports, schools and playgrounds are a safe haven for all kids.”
McQuade explained that the video presentation was focused on the idea — prominent throughout pro-LGBT sports work — of creating allies among straight athletes.
“First, we defined the word ‘ally.’ We then explained why NBA players should strive to be allies, touching on their status as role models, their ability to impact young people, and a frank talk on the problems that can arise from using anti-gay language,” he detailed. “Finally, we gave players some tips on how to be allies, from the basics (watch what you say) to participating in things like Spirit Day, up to and including partnering with organizations like GLAAD and Athlete Ally to spread a message of respect and inclusion.”
GLAAD’s McQuade has been heading up the media watchdog group’s involvement in sports-related issues, observing to BuzzFeed that “leagues, teams and athletes hold the same cultural status that [traditional GLAAD observation subjects like] networks, studios or celebrities do — in some cases perhaps even more — and have just as much potential to make the world a safer place for LGBT people.” Said McQuade: “There are dozens of outlets dedicated to nothing but sports, and those involved with the sports world are some of the most active and influential in social media.”
Meanwhile, the sports world is even less gay-friendly now than the military, which post-DADT is filled with out members. Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith recently became the first out general. That’s part of why Taylor says changing attitudes within the sports world is important for LGBT advocates — but also why it can be so difficult.
“Our athletic community isn’t going to be everything that it should be until we have a critical mass of straight allies who are vocal supporters,” Taylor said. “I’ve been a wrestler my whole life, I was raised as an athlete, and I think I was taught a very narrow conception of what was masculine or what was required of me to be a successful athlete,” he added.
Calling the NBA’s inclusion of LGBT issues in rookie camp “an enormous statement,” Taylor said, “I think it sends a very clear message to the closeted athletes in the professional sports world, as well as closeted coaches and athletes in college and high school, that an organization like the NBA not only supports them but is willing and ready and actually doing something to advance LGBT equality and inclusion in sports.”
Expanding that base of allies is something Burke is working toward. So far, the You Can Play project has mainly worked with the NHL, enlisting 55 players — and counting — to pass on their powerfully simple, message: “If you can play, you can play.” The slogan pervades their PSAs and public efforts as well as the education You Can Play does for athletes on the professional, college, and youth levels.
The goal goes beyond the NHL, though. Burke has recently had meetings with the Major League Baseball, NFL and NBA officials as well.
“We’re trying to keep building the PSA campaign, because we think that’s the biggest way to actually change culture,” Burke said. “Getting these athletes to come out and very publicly, very visibly say, ‘I support a gay teammate and you should too’ — we’ve already seen it in hockey, it’s changed the culture. NHL players are calling me saying they’d like to do one.”
Burke’s pitch always starts simply: if you can play, you can play, no matter what your sexual orientation is. From there, You Can Play teaches players, through meetings with teams and individuals, what terms and ideas are supportive, what terms are offensive, and why. With its focus on education and acceptance, You Can Play caters as much to straight players as it does to gay players — Burke, like Taylor, is straight.
Burke also understands the importance of getting key players out in front. “If I’m in a PSA, the public is going, ‘Great, who the hell are you?’ In the NHL, when Henrik Lundqvist does it, Steven Stamkos does it, hockey fans are going, ‘Wow, I know him, I want to be like him. He’s not homophobic, maybe I should learn from that.’ Yeah, I can explain it well, but me doing a 20-minute speech versus Ryan Kesler doing a 30-second PSA — the impact is not even comparable.”
In addition to the NHL and NBA, eight MLB teams, led off by the San Francisco Giants, shot It Gets Better videos highlighting their opposition to anti-gay bullying during the 2011 baseball season. The campaign included well-known figures like Phillies ace Roy Halladay, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Johnny Damon and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.
Although the Seattle Seahawks participated in a Seattle-wide sports teams It Gets Better video, they are alone on the NFL front. McQuade did note, however, that several individual football players have stepped forward as allies in support of marriage equality, including Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who video appearances in support of Maryland’s marriage equality efforts.
Straight allies in sports may be lining up to shoot supportive videos, but, in some ways, that’s a means to an end — and the end still remains hazy and unfulfilled.
In terms of tangible proof — an out gay major leaguer — NFL player-turned-LGBT advocate Davis isn’t expecting to see it happen any time soon.
“I think we’re about five to seven years off, to be honest. I don’t think it’ll happen before 2016-2017 at the earliest — we’re a lot further off than we’d like to be,” he said. “The media still hasn’t totally embraced the idea of what it means to be gay, especially in the sports world. There are still a lot of athletes that still use homophobic slurs when they’re frustrated, and every time that’s done that’s a step back.”
GLAAD’s McQuade agrees with that timetable: “I think it will happen within the decade. Remember that pro athletes enter the major leagues in their late teens or early twenties. Kids who are growing up now, seeing their heroes talk about how you need respect and teamwork to be a champion — those are the kids who will be tomorrow’s superstars.”
The first player to come out “is going to have a statue someplace,” said Burke. “There’s not going to be another player in the next 20 years who has the same impact. The first athlete who comes out is going to have 100 times more of an impact than Sidney Crosby or LeBron James. Or anyone else.”