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Saturday, May 4, 2013

An Openly Gay MLB Player?

Wild on Sports
An Openly Gay MLB Player?
By Wild on Sports MLB Insider Aaron Dorman

*Disclaimer - The thoughts and views expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the site*

This week, NBA Center Jason Collins announced that he was gay, becoming the first openly gay professional athlete in any of the four major American sports. His courageous announcement is just the tip of the iceberg, but begs the question when players in other sports will follow suit. I cannot speak for football or hockey, but it is no sure thing, despite the progression in social mores towards universal acceptance of homosexuality and gay rights, that a baseball player will come out anytime soon. Certainly not when players are publicly stating that they would never be able to play with a gay teammate, as Torii Hunter said at a press conference this winter.

Hunter was subsequently miffed when there was negative backlash in the press. If anything, he should be ridiculed, not criticized, for speaking his mind about the issue, since it’s almost certain that he’s playing alongside a closet gay player right now. If baseball demographics match that of the rest of America, there should be about 4 or 5 gay players on every baseball, give or take. Now, that number is probably a little lower, since there is probably a self-selecting aspect to a profession that is openly hostile to potential gay members, but as of now it would be nearly impossible to objectively assess such a thing. I believe it is very safe to assume that professional sports has plenty of gay athletes who thus far have not felt stating their sexual identity would be worth the fallout, which would likely involve ostracism, hate mail, intense press coverage, etc.

But it will happen one day in the near future. Baseball was integrated over a decade before the nation at large, and similarly, it would be nice to see the sport take the lead once more on a progressive social issue. However, just like Jackie Robinson was no ordinary African-American player, the first baseball player to come out may be a calculated move, one designed to permanently make it okay to for players to be honest about their sexuality. And more personally, such a player might want to make sure that the historical significance of coming out isn’t outweighed by the risks. Therefore, here are some criteria to consider:

Break the homophobia barrier will not be like integration. There is no separate “gay league”, all the gay baseball players are already in the MLB, hiding in the closet. Nevertheless, it would be a significant precedent if a bona-fide star came out, as opposed to a bench guy or AAAA fodder. No doubt the stereotype exists that gay athletes are less ‘manly’ or capable of handling the rigors of professional sports. Therefore it would send a strong message if someone with a history of success came out, thus forcing people to challenge their beliefs: what do the value most, ideas about ‘appropriate’ gender relations or helping their team win?

Don’t believe that it would take a good player to make a difference? Read this article from “The Atlantic” about the “first” openly gay player in pro sports, marginal bench OFer Glenn Burke, who tried to be a role model but was shut out by the media. That’s not his fault of course, and times have changed since 1979, but nevertheless, it’s easier to imagine someone like him being marginalized as an outlier, not a trail blazer.

LONG-TERM CONTRACT: This is key. Most team owners value on-field talent over controversy or “team chemistry” issues; how many cheaters, wife beaters, drunk drivers, or just all-around jerks have been celebrated as they lead their team to a pennant? However, there is a notable exception: when the controversy might cut into sales or drive away a large portion of the fan base. Collusion in baseball is forbidden but ask Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco if that made a different at the end of their careers? I find it highly plausible, albeit deplorable, that owners would shy away from signing an openly gay player either because of their personal beliefs or fear that the backlash from the fans or the media would be too great to make it worthwhile. These are businessmen, after all.

And while it would be courageous for any player to come out of the closet, can you blame someone for keeping their sexual identity a secret with millions (or hundreds of millions) of dollars on the line? It would be unfair to ask martyrdom from a player just open the floodgates.

Therefore, it would make sense for someone to come out only after they’ve probably been guaranteed most or all the money that they’re going to get. Such players could always be denied insider jobs like coaching or management after their playing career, but that could change with time and shifting cultural norms.

SUPPORTIVE MARKET/FAN BASE: Some cities have a larger and more active/vibrant/supportive gay community, mostly the big ones. I can imagine a player coming out in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco/the Bay Area, perhaps Toronto, maybe Seattle?? There’s probably about a dozen places that make sense. I could certainly understand being leery about coming out in a market like Philadelphia; one can only imagine unruly fans chucking batteries and dildos into the outfield. More conservative areas like Cincinnati or Kansas City may similarly contain a larger hostile element of fans. It will also be up to players to support their teammate, although that is something a manager/owner could enforce. And ironically, players may be more replaceable than fans.

On the other hand, a smaller market could be perfect for a gay player to ‘quietly’ come out, without a media circus making a huge deal of such an event. Particularly if it happened during the season. Some players just don’t want to have to deal with being hounded by the press, and most assuredly a gay star in New York would have a face-full of microphones for at least a few weeks (until the story died out).

Once again, this is a thought experiment. This is not attempt to define “boundaries” for a player to come out, it is just guessing about what would be circumstances conducive to such an event. The “fall-out” from Jason Collins’ decision has been quiet thus far, and it may happen that player will slowly and quietly come out with little fanfare over the next few years or decade(s). Maybe people in the coming decades will wonder what the fuss was all about. But right now, it looks like it will take a special player to overcome a sports climate that has not followed the military in shaking off “don’t ask, don’t tell.”


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