When Chris Culliver, a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, stated, “I don’t do the gay guys, man. I don’t do that. Got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff…Can’t be…in the locker room, nah. You’ve gotta come out 10 years later after that,” many people turned their heads in disgust. And rightfully so.
After all, football is one of the most popular sports in the United States. The United States is one of the world’s most tolerant countries, and this man plays for San Francisco, one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. To compound matters even more, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, is one of the most outspoken supporters of gay rights in professional sports.
Football is not the only sport where homophobia is a problem. To date, there has never been an actively gay player in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League, in addition to the National Football League. Being gay in team sports is seen as taboo. Players who are gay tend to hide their sexual orientation until after they retire, for fear of reprisal from their teammates and other players.John Amaechi, a former NBA player, came out in 2007. This revelation made waves as he was the first NBA player to openly speak about his sexual orientation. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, came out to his teammates but did not publicly come out until after his playing career had ended. Burke is quoted as saying that, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have…But I wasn’t changing.”
Probably the most well known gay athlete is Billie Jean King, the tennis player, who is famous for defeating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” In tennis, it can be easier to be openly gay because it is a one or two person sport. When one plays for a team with 20 plus other teammates to answer to, the pressure can be overwhelming. This is probably the dominant reason why gay athletes hide their sexual orientation until their playing careers are over.
Soccer is one of the only sports where openly gay athletes are prominently known. Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the U.S. national women’s team came out in July 2012. David Testo, a midfielder most recently of Montreal Impact, came out as gay to the public in November 2011 even though his family and teammates had already known about his sexual orientation. Despite these openly gay players, there is still anti-gay sentiment among some. Marc Burch, a defender for the Seattle Sounders, was suspended three games for using an anti-gay slur in a game this past season, illustrating that there is still a long way to go in terms of acceptance.
Many people could look at the lack of prominent gay athletes in the major four sports and say this is very similar to when Major League Baseball did not allow black baseball players to be signed by Major League teams. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of the league, originally drafted this ban. Think about this for a second: Judge Landis was a federal official and he would not allow black baseball players. Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player, entered the league after Landis had died. We live in a different age now.
President Barack Obama (the first black president of the United States) is a staunch supporter of gay rights and the public support from the Commander-in-Chief, and the nation, would be incredible for any athlete who came out. Not to mention all the potential business opportunities an athlete could make from such an announcement; as the lone representative for a large segment of Americans, advertisers would be lining up to sign the first out athlete.
The time has come for there to be an openly gay athlete in major professional sports. It is easier said than done, but it is something that will symbolize the progressiveness of this country. If and when there is a player who comes forward and says that he or she is gay during his playing career, they could face comparable amounts of abuse that Jackie Robinson experienced. However, years from now, we will be able to look back on that moment and realize what a strong turning point it was for professional sports and the United States.