If we want to fumigate the worst homophobia from a professional sports locker room, the best way to do it would be to play a highlights reel of decrepit journalists dismissing the athletes as mindless Neanderthals. I’ve heard this in person from colleagues in person and on the radio for years. It would act as instant aversion therapy, because athletes like nothing more than proving people wrong.
Typically, the media members who dismiss the idea of a gay athlete coming out of the closet are over 40 or close to it. Most of them are relying on old information. It may hold up, but they don’t really know how a 25-year-old would deal with a gay teammate.
They can’t grasp that today’s players grew up with friends and cousins who were openly gay, with peers who had same-sex parents, with “Will and Grace” on the air and the issue of marriage equality on the table. Marriage rights became a national topic in 2004, when most of today’s NFL players were in high school.
Would some players behave badly? Of course. Would most of them? We have no idea.
If we’re looking at this from an elder’s perspective, we should borrow a theory long ascribed to Casey Stengel. He has been quoted as saying a baseball manager typically had five guys who would run through walls for him, five who hated him and 15 who were undecided. He had to keep the undecided away from the five who hated him.
In an NFL locker room, that could be the issue for the first openly gay athlete. He’ll probably have a cadre of supporters, a group of haters and a large group in the indifferent category. The supporters have better shot at winning over those in the middle. They have momentum. The hardcore opponents, if they can’t contain their animosity, have sensitivity seminars waiting for them. They know that. If they don’t, their PR people have pink slips waiting for them.
Will it be easy for the player? Of course not. It will be difficult and, at times, painful – as all the most rewarding things are. But until recently, the media had perpetuated the belief that it will be impossible.
In 2005, several of the Boston Red Sox had just appeared on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and Johnny Damon had said he’d welcome a gay teammate by swatting him on the butt with a towel. I wrote that we weren’t that far away, and media colleagues insisted that I underestimated the homophobia in locker rooms. Eight years later, the Supreme Court has a brief in support of gay marriage signed by 10 current NFL players. Athletes are taught to avoid politics whenever possible, but several have dived into this issue.
The media underestimate this generation of athletes and, as ever, resist change. For them, an openly gay NFL player in 2013 is the equivalent of advanced baseball statistics 15 years ago. They can certainly find evidence to support their point. Kobe Bryant uttered a gay slur at a ref and took a fine two years ago. Mark Knudson, a former MLB pitcher, recently wrote an essay for Mile High Sports saying that an openly gay teammate would damage team unity.
But last month, Bryant not only chided a Twitter user for homophobia but also said that his own remark had been “ignorant.” Public figures rarely revisit their indiscretions. They always want to move forward. Bryant’s comment was extraordinary, and far more revealing than the casual thoughtless use of a slur.
As for Knudson, he isn’t much of an authority. He retired 20 years ago.