Gay Sports Community Buoyed by Unprecedented Support

Athletes and sports figures publicly denounce homophobia, but fear remains.

May 26, 2011— -- It would seem there's never been a better time to be gay in the sports world.

Two Phoenix Suns basketball players have participated in a public service announcement this year denouncing the phrase "that's so gay."

National Football League linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo -- and National Hockey League forward Sean Avery -- backed same-sex marriage in videos, and several people came out: a former Villanova University basketball player, two sports journalists and Phoenix Suns president and CEO Rick Welts.

Indeed, 2011 might turn out to be a watershed year for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in athletics, some sports experts and leaders of gay organizations say. Even so, not one active gay male in any of the four major U.S. leagues has publicly come out.

Some say that could change after the San Francisco Giants -- the World Series champions -- complete their video spot for the "It Gets Better" campaign, a movement compiling more than 10,000 videos of those who overcame bullying and social isolation because they were gay, lesbian or transgender.

Giants spokeswoman Staci Slaughter told the team planned to finish the video in the next few weeks. The Giants have yet to announce who will be in it but Slaughter said, "We do have players participating."

In the meantime, former NBA star Charles Barkley's decision to speak out about LGBT acceptance has already created shockwaves.

Barkley Interview Makes National Headlines

Barkley announced on a Washington, D.C., radio show this month that he'd played with gay teammates, and claimed major sports teams are often unfairly portrayed as hotbeds of homophobia.

"I really like ESPN," Barkley told reporter Mike Wise. "They do a great job. But like once every two or three months, they bring all these people on there, and they tell me how me and my team are going to respond to a gay guy."

Barkley, who is already well known for his sometimes controversial, provocative presence on TNT's "Inside the NBA," is considered one of the 50 best NBA players in history. So when the former power forward says: "I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play," people pay attention.

For ESPN Radio host Jared Max, Barkley's comments became a "tipping point."

The interview spurred Max to come out last week on the air, something he equates with jumping out of a plane (which he said he has always wanted to do).

"There's that moment beforehand ... that moment of, 'I can't do this' and the moment where you say, 'Just shut up and go; do it."

Afterward, people began sending him congratulations on Facebook. And he was surprised and relieved to receive a supportive email from a former colleague and close friend whose reaction he had feared.

"We had a bro-relationship," Max said. "Two dudes."

The support came from within his company as well. While driving home from a business meeting, he got a call from ESPN president George Bodenheimer, who complimented him on the broadcast.

"To get that phone call was humbling, it was like, wow, this is just unbelievable," Max said. co-founder Cyd Zeigler said he believes this year marks a turning point for the LGBT community because support for gay equality within athletics is happening so publicly.

"It's a direct result of what happened in this country from 2008 to 2010, where we saw voters withdraw the civil rights of gay people and we saw so many young gay kids killing themselves," he said. "Those two things woke people up."

The Final Frontier: Will a Gay Athlete on a Big-Four League Team Publicly Come Out This Year?

When former NFL running back Dave Kopay came out in the 1970s, he said, he was "an angry, desperate young man. ... I didn't understand the ramifications of what I did."

He had played in the NFL for nine years before retiring in 1972. At the time, other athletes weren't as forthcoming about their sexual orientation.

"If everyone came out in those days, it would change overnight and, of course, that's what's happening [now]," he said.

So could this be the year a man on a major sports team comes out publicly?

Kopay, 68, said he's not holding his breath.

"It's hard to take always being in the spotlight. I can't imagine what Jackie Robinson went through, for example," he said, referring to the way Robinson broke color barriers by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Max of ESPN Radio said the first man to come out in one of the four major leagues would need "Balls bigger than whatever ball he plays with in the game."

And thick skin.

OutSports co-founder Jim Buzinski said many players "are in their 20s and not secure with themselves." He speculates that if pros could physically withstand the game into their 40s, a gay male athlete might have already come out on one of America's big teams.

Right now, he added, sports remains "the last closet in American society."

Fear is the number one obstacle.

"No matter how many people tell you it's going to be OK you're still afraid," Zeigler said.

In other parts of the world, there are currently only two high-profile male team athletes who are publicly out. One is Gareth Thomas, England's star rugby player, who divulged his sexual orientation in 2009. This year Swedish soccer player Anton Hysen came out as well, currently the only high-level openly gay soccer player in the world.

The first soccer player to come out, England's Justin Fashanu, reportedly wasn't prepared for the backlash that followed his coming out in 1990. He committed suicide eight years later after moving to the United States.

Today's environment, however, is increasingly different.

'This Is Just the Beginning'

Zeigler said after spending the past decade speaking with athletes who have come out he has "not heard a negative coming-out story in men's sports."

"The number of people speaking up for gay equality in sports and the stature of those people, I know for a fact is going to increase over the summer. This is just the beginning."

Andrew Goldstein, 28, a former Major League Lacrosse player who now has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA, came out when he was playing NCAA lacrosse at Dartmouth.

He was "terrified" at the time, but decided to speak out after having worried for many years that he could never play openly and also be happy.

Although initially shocked, his teammates not only respected his decision, they vowed to protect him.

"Each one came to tell me that if anyone gave me a hard time, they'd have to deal with my teammates; they'd have my back," Goldstein said.

With all of the positive momentum this year, he said, more people might decide to come out, if "all of a sudden people in the closet start to see, 'It's OK for me.'"

Change Comes Slowly

When Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley recently created a 30-second public service announcement advising kids to avoid saying 'That's so gay,' the response on Twitter was, at times, abusive.

"Grant Hill became the trending topic on Twitter for all the wrong reasons; it's exactly the reason why professional athletes don't come out," said Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network executive director Eliza Byard.

Despite signs that attitudes are changing -- the public is increasingly becoming more accepting of gay marriage, for example -- gay students still encounter harassment and bullying.

A GLSEN study surveying more than 7,000 students who identify as LGBT found that during the 2008 school year, a little less than 19 percent reported they were physically assaulted at school because of their sexual orientation.

Wade Davis, a former defensive back for the Redskins, said in a recent YouTube video that when he was trying out for the Tennessee Titans, he was told by another player not to associate with someone on the team who was thought to be gay.

He complied, with the understanding that he should "steer clear of any controversial subjects." Davis, who is gay, said that moment caused him to go "further and further back into the closet." But thinking back, he said, "that was the last thing I should have done."

The video was posted as part of GLSEN's "Changing the Game" project aimed at helping K-12 schools create positive athletic environments for all students.

Davis' message to LGBT youth: "... you can still be who you are and be a great athlete and a strong male or female and also be gay, lesbian, transgender."

Now that two NBA stars recently shouted gay slurs, that message is even more relevant.

Gay Slurs Embarrass NBA

The NBA fined the Lakers' Kobe Bryant $100,000 in April for yelling a gay slur at referee Bennie Adams and the Bulls' Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 for using the same language to lash out at a fan.

NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement, "Insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society."

GLSEN's Byard said, "Clearly both of these instances were teachable moments. The NBA sent a clear response that this language is not OK and that's critical."

After Bryant's incident, the Lakers released a public service announcement after partnering with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios said, "The Bulls should take action like the Lakers but more so, the league … is best served by addressing the issue across all teams."

The NBA, Barrios said, this year has "expressed interest as a league in tackling the problem of homophobia among players and fans, creating a hate-free zone at games."

Bryant's fine amounts to 0.4 percent of his $24.8 million salary, and Noah's fine is 1.5 percent of his salary. Regardless, GLSEN spokesman Daryl Presgraves said, "The NBA deserves a lot of credit for handing down a significant fine."

"To my knowledge, for a major male sports league, this set a precedent," he added.

But the slurs aren't necessarily indicative that a player dislikes gay people, Max of ESPN Radio said. "That kind of language especially, guys are marinated in it from the time these guys start playing basketball.

"It's just the word everyone they know uses," he said. "What happened here is these guys got caught on camera."

Buzinski said the slurs, and the outpouring of support, co-exist because "the culture is changing. It's not considered cool to be homophobic.

"Things are definitely changing but it still can be a slog. Change doesn't happen overnight."