A Shifting Playing Field: Coming Out As A Gay Athlete Civil rights was once a common cause for pro athletes, but players have been relatively quiet about gay rights. Former athletes have expressed the fear and isolation of their "dirty little secret." Recently, though, there have been a few standout moments for gay rights in the sports world.
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A Shifting Playing Field: Coming Out As A Gay Athlete

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A Shifting Playing Field: Coming Out As A Gay Athlete

A Shifting Playing Field: Coming Out As A Gay Athlete

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in for Guy Raz.

These days, we're more likely to see our professional athletes on products than protest lines, but it wasn't always this way. In the 1960s, sports stars were often as famous for what they believed as for their home runs.

JACKIE ROBINSON: The only thing that we're demanding is that we be allowed to move ahead just like any other American citizen.

HEADLEE: That's Jackie Robinson at a civil rights rally in 1963. Many athletes spoke out about civil rights in the 1960s. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and threatened with imprisonment for refusing to fight in Vietnam on grounds of racial discrimination. By the 1970s, the issue of the day was women's rights. Tennis player Billie Jean King used her fame on the court to fight for equal opportunities for female athletes.

BILLIE JEAN KING: It just kills me to see some girls be passive. So I'm hoping that through - I call feminist movement - women's liberation that it's going to help both not to stereotype people.

HEADLEE: Today, King is also an advocate for gay rights. But for most of her career, she stayed in the closet. It's not uncommon now for female professional athlete to come out, but as of yet, we've not had a single male athlete active in a major sport come out as gay. And that's our cover story today: the uneasy relationship between professional sports and gay rights.


HEADLEE: Major League Baseball player Billy Bean spent nine years in silence about his sexual orientation in the '90s. When we spoke, I asked him why.

BILLY BEAN: For me, I was a baseball player, and I did not identify as a gay person who played baseball. I was a baseball player first and foremost. You don't get to the major leagues - nobody does - without making that the absolute number one priority and passion of your life.

HEADLEE: Well, you know, I wonder what it is that made you feel such pressure. Was it the fans? Was it the management? Because I know at least one teammate came to you and said, I'm hurt that you didn't share this with me, that you didn't trust me enough to tell me what was going on.

BEAN: Well, I mean, that was a great bonding moment for me, but nobody knew that I was gay at the time. I had - I never had told anybody. I'd never told my parents, I'd never told a best friend. The only person that knew was the person I'd left my wife for, who've I spent, you know, three years and sadly died in 1995.

And that was a very, very difficult experience for me to try to weather on my own. But I just think that because I had no precedent of anyone in the environment, there was no person for me to model myself after. And I think that I was afraid.

HEADLEE: So while you were in the locker room, Billy Bean, did you ever hear any hurtful comments yourself?

BEAN: When I was a player, the word faggot or queer or, you know, all that, that was thrown around like if, and or but. I mean, it was just something that, in my book, I write explicitly. You know, Tommy Lasorda used to call every player on the other team, you know, a word like that. And you don't make...

HEADLEE: And you didn't speak up. I mean, you must...

BEAN: Of course not. And the last thing in the world - if I ever saw, you know, the trainers - and Oprah Winfrey had a show on about men who were - married men who were gay lovers or something. I walked out of that trainer's room in two seconds. I didn't talk about gay rights. I didn't defend gay rights. I didn't bring up the topic. It was my dirty little secret.

HEADLEE: That's Billy Bean. Not the Billy Bean featured in the film "Moneyball," but the author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons From a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball."

Some people have been standing up lately, being role models for young athletes. Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made headlines in September for his defense of gay marriage. He says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Here he is on NPR's TELL ME MORE.


BRENDON AYANBADEJO: I mean, this story's got more legs than a dang millipede. The support's been coming worldwide. I've heard from other players on other teams. I've heard from fans from other teams. I've heard from people that didn't even care about football that are now football fans. And, of course, the LGBT community, they had my back. It's time we start treating our brothers, sisters, friends, relatives equally just like anybody else is treated.

HEADLEE: Former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson thinks gay players don't feel comfortable coming out not because of how their peers might treat them in the locker room or on the field, but because of how coaches might react.

NATE JACKSON: Coaches don't like distractions. Whether it's a political statement, whether it's religious views, whether it's about money, some type of business endeavor you have or sexuality, in this case, coaches encourage players not to use their position as a professional athlete as a platform for any type of social issues. And so if it causes too much of a circus, media-wise, then the coach would not be down with that.

HEADLEE: Well, I wonder if what you're saying is that the coaching staff lags behind the players. ESPN recently polled players in Major League Baseball, in the NBA, the NFL, the NHL. And anonymously, at least, the players all came out in supportive of gay marriage. Does that surprise you, first of all? And do you think the results would be the same if they polled the coaches?

JACKSON: I think the results would not be the same if they polled the coaches, but it doesn't surprise me that players are in favor of it. I think the players reflect Americans their age. Players are pretty progressive guys. They're generally liberal, and they're accepting of their teammates. The thing about NFL teams is that you don't choose what team you go to. Guys come from all around the country, all different socioeconomic backgrounds, with different families, different races, and they form a team. And so you have to be accepting of the differences of your teammates.

Players are very familiar with that. When I was playing, there were a few guys who we thought might be gay and no one really cared because it wasn't an outward thing. So it just remained in the locker room, and it was fine that way.

HEADLEE: So how much does this vary from team to team? Is there a team that you can imagine may be the first one to have an openly gay player?

JACKSON: Well, I do think it would be - it would need to be on a team where the media presence was minimal.

HEADLEE: Does that mean it has to be a losing team?

JACKSON: Not necessarily. Maybe in a smaller town. Big city media tends to get very excited about issues like this and then pepper the gay player with questions - maybe of them appropriate, some of them inappropriate - and possibly ask some of his teammates questions that make them uncomfortable. And this type of media presence would definitely factor into the player coming out.

HEADLEE: So help me to understand. For the 15-, 16-year-old kid out there who's hoping to play in the NFL someday and maybe have a chance to play in the NFL and is perhaps gay, is his best option to stay in the closet?

JACKSON: If the individual feels comfortable letting the world know who he is, then more power to him. But there are many who just don't feel comfortable, who don't want that responsibility.

HEADLEE: Will he have to be a superstar? Does he have to be a rockstar?

JACKSON: Yeah, I kind of think so. If you're more trouble than you're worth, essentially, in a coach's mind, regardless of what the distraction is, then they'll just cut you loose. And so I think it would help for it to be a superstar.

HEADLEE: That's Nate Jackson. He played for the Denver Broncos for six years, now writes about life inside the NFL. Nate Jackson, thank you so much.

JACKSON: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Cyd Zeigler is editor at Outsports.com. As part of his job, he keeps track of important moments in LGBT sports history. He says this year, and really within the past few months, there have been a few standout moments in gay rights in the sports community.

CYD ZEIGLER: Orlando Cruz, the professional boxer who came out of the closet just last week - I think that was super important because we hear the risks of coming out as an athlete, and one of them is physical danger from other athletes. And here's an athlete whose opponents are paid to try to knock him unconscious. The fact that he willingly came out of the closet, I think it's a powerful statement.

I also think that, again, last month, Yunel Escobar, the player with the Toronto Blue Jays who put a gay slur in Spanish on his eye black - what the reaction was, the fact that he got a three-game suspension. He donated $100,000 to gay sports organizations. And fans in Toronto really did not appreciate what he did. So those were a couple, just in the last month, that have been powerful.

HEADLEE: Well then, let's talk about the tolerance level of the athletes themselves. There was a recent ESPN poll - anonymous in this particular case - in which they were asking about the players in the major sports, their support for same-sex marriage and gay rights. NFL players overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, same was true for the NHL, the National Hockey League. Less support among Major League Baseball. Why do you think that is?

ZEIGLER: Well, I've always felt the NFL and NHL would be the most supportive because of, A, the education that many of the athletes have; B, the diverse backgrounds that they come from - particularly in NHL, a lot of Canadians and Europeans. In Major League Baseball, it's heavily influenced by Hispanic culture, which is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, which is not exactly marching in gay pride parades. And, you know, in basketball, it's heavily influenced by urban culture.

So those two sports at the professional level, the locker rooms are simply dominated by different factors that would make it a little bit harder than the other sports to come out in.

HEADLEE: So, Cyd Zeigler, in the end, these sports are basically businesses, right, and that must be why we've seen some sports franchises actively reaching out to the LGBT community, or is it? You've written about an example where a Major League Baseball team had gay nights. They reached out to gay organizations. They lowered ticket costs. There's also been Major League Baseball teams that have released public service announcements. They've contributed to the It Gets Better campaign. And we have a clip here from the Baltimore Orioles.


JAKE ARRIETA: You should never feel like you need to hide who you truly are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Or keep hiding the things that make you special.

ARRIETA: The Orioles are just one part of a huge team of supporters that are here for you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: To let you know that being different...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...really means being extraordinary.

HEADLEE: Where do you think that is coming from? Is that a business decision?

ZEIGLER: I know the Orioles video came from the request of a fan. I talked to the executive who was in charge of getting it done. He said when they got that letter in, they just passed it around. They decided to do it. I think part of it is they want to build their fan base. And listen, gay people have more disposable income. And I think that's why a lot of baseball teams do it. They have a lot of tickets to sell. But I also believe that sports has transformed, and it is no longer a place where homophobia thrives.

HEADLEE: So if it's the players that are totally tolerant, for the most part, as you say, if the administration or the owners, the coaching staff is totally tolerant, do you think it's just the gay players themselves that are keeping us from having a male professional athlete who comes out while they're still playing a major sport?

ZEIGLER: I wrote a story earlier this year about Wade Davis, who was a former professional NFL player. And for years, he's told me that I didn't understand sports, that sports is far more homophobic than I think it is. He, after coming out in June, he got a ton of incredibly positive reaction, not just from fans and other people, but from former teammates saying, why didn't you trust me, man? I wish you'd come out.

And he says today that he didn't see homophobia in that locker room. It was all in his head. He told himself that there was homophobia. And, yes, there might be some slurs here or there might be some machismo going on in the locker room. But most of what's keeping athletes in the closet today is in their own heads.

HEADLEE: That's Cyd Zeigler, editor and co-founder of Outsports.com. Cyd, thank you so much.

ZEIGLER: Thank you.

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