Mixed Signals For Gay Athletes

Rosie Jones holds up the winner's trophy after her victory in the Asahi Ryokuken International, Sunday, May 11, 2003, at Mount Vintage Plantation in North Augusta, S.C. Jones revealed in March 2004 that she was a lesbian, signed an endorsement deal with a company that caters to gay clientele and went right on with her life as an LPGA golfer.
AP
Rosie Jones walked off the green, signed a few autographs and pondered the reaction.

No boos. No taunts. No under-the-breath putdowns.

Nothing but encouragement. "Go get 'em, Rosie!" one fan shouted.

Surprising?

"Kind of," Jones conceded. "I didn't really think people would treat me bad, but I've been pleasantly surprised. I guess people have respect for my game."

Score one for changing attitudes.

Jones revealed in March that she was a lesbian, signed an endorsement deal with a company that caters to gay clientele and went right on with her life as an LPGA golfer.

Then again, the gay athlete has hardly become a fully vested member of the sporting world. No one has ever come out while still active in the major leagues of football, baseball, basketball or hockey. There's ample evidence that the person who breaks down that barrier will face hostility from teammates and opponents.

Consider:

  • Cincinnati Reds pitcher Todd Jones, who writes for magazines and newspapers, admitted it would be tough to have a gay teammate. "I'm homophobic," he wrote. "It's easy to be scared of something you don't know anything about."
  • Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz, a devout Christian, criticized those who want to legalize gay marriage. "What's next? Marrying an animal?" he asked derisively.
  • Miami linebacker Junior Seau jokingly used the term "faggot" in describing the relationship with his teammates at the Dolphins' annual banquet. He later apologized.
  • Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick felt compelled to go on the radio to debunk an Internet hoax claiming he was gay. "Everybody who knows me knows how I get down," he said.

    While countless gay athletes have revealed their sexuality in sports like women's golf and figure skating, the greatest frontier lies ahead. When will someone come out in major league baseball? Or the NFL? Or the NBA? Or the NHL?

    "Fifteen years ago, nobody believed a gay man would be able to penetrate the upper echelon of athletics," said Eric Anderson, who has done extensive research on the subject and is writing a book, "In the Game: Sport, Homophobia and Gay Male Athletes." "Now, everybody is waiting."

    Anderson, who came out as a high school track coach in 1993, expects it to happen first in baseball, probably revealed by a little-known player nearing the end of his career.

    "There's only a few Jackie Robinsons out there," he said, referring to the player who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. "It's more likely to be a third-string athlete than one of the big guys. ... He'll say, 'Nobody knows my name now, but what if I come out of the closet? I'll be on Oprah. They'll make a movie about me."'

    Certainly, homosexuality has become a hot-button issue in this election year, especially after some communities began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples (including Anderson and his partner).

    Opponents fought back, pushing laws to preserve nuptials only between a man and a woman. President Bush even weighed in, calling for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

    Smoltz said the homosexual lifestyle is at odds with his religious beliefs.

    "If somebody believes two men should be able to get married, well, I think that's wrong," he said. "That's against everything that man is built on."

    Other sports have shown more tolerance. When Rosie Jones decided to reveal publicly that she's a lesbian, LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw and most of the top players backed her up. "I know that she's really happy about it, and that's fine with me," Annika Sorenstam said.

    Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez gave Jones a hug.

    "I wanted her to know that I didn't disapprove," Lopez said. "I know the way Rosie is as a person. I don't feel any different toward her as a person just because of this."

    Then there are those who seem less comfortable with the subject. After going out of his way to debunk the Internet hoax, Vick won't even discuss the issue of gays in sports.

    When asked about it during a recent minicamp, Vick said, "I'm not going to talk about that. It's nonsense."

    His actions mirrored those of Mike Piazza two years ago. The All-Star catcher felt the need to hold a press conference to profess his heterosexuality after a newspaper gossip columnist suggested that one of the New York Mets' top players was gay.

    Falcons coach Jim Mora tried to dissuade Vick from even acknowledging what was being said on the Web, figuring that would only draw more attention to the matter.

    Which is exactly what happened, of course.

    "You're not going to win by commenting on it," Mora said. "But it's hard. ... It's like they're attacking you. Your natural instinct as an athlete, as a competitor, is to become combative, and that's not necessarily the best thing to do."

    While insisting he could play alongside a gay teammate, Smoltz would question the motives of anyone who felt the need to come out publicly. What would that person be trying to accomplish other than bringing attention to himself? What would be the impact on his teammates?

    "Sooner of later, someone is going to do it," Smoltz said. "I wouldn't have a problem with it -- unless it compromised the team."

    One of Smoltz's teammates, catcher Eddie Perez, said he would like to know in advance that he was playing with a gay teammate. His take on the issue can be found in every big league clubhouse, where players ponder what it would be like to have a homosexual in their midst and speculate on those teammates who might be gay.

    "If I knew a guy was gay, then I could work it out. I could be prepared. I could hide when I'm getting disrobed," Perez said. "It would be hard to play with someone all year and then find out they're gay."

    In his writings, Todd Jones said the proximity of teammates -- showering together, dressing together, spending long hours on the road together -- would likely lead to isolation for an openly gay player.

    "Off the field is where it gets tough. Real tough," Jones said. "Players would think twice about asking him out to lunch because other players might think the straight player is gay."

    An 18-year-old basketball player who recently completed a stellar high school career in a small, Midwest town knows all about that sort of alienation. He's gay, but never came out to his teammates (or to his parents, for that matter). He constantly worried that someone would expose his secret.

    "It would have been pretty humiliating," said the teenager, who spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity. "That was one thing I was always terrified of, to be honest. When you're a gay athlete, you have to be really, really careful who you talk to."

    Anderson, who recently took a teaching post at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, insists times are changing. The MTV generation is more exposed to homosexuality through TV, movies and other media outlets. Familiarity breeds acceptance of different lifestyles.

    In January, Cleveland Indians pitcher Kazuhito Tadano admitted taking part in a gay porn video in which he engaged in a homosexual act. He insisted he was straight and apologized for what he called a one-time mistake. The fact that he was able to get on with his career showed Anderson that times are changing.

    "Whether he's gay or not, the point is he had gay sex," the researcher said. "In the old world, if you touched a guy, you were gay."

    As for his prediction that baseball is the most likely sport to usher in a new era, Anderson cited these reasons: Football and basketball have a greater proportion of black athletes, which his studies have shown are the most anti-gay demographic, while football and hockey provide greater opportunities for physical retribution against homosexuals.

    Certainly, players in all sports are beginning to realize that they've likely had at least one gay teammate during their careers. Baseball's Billy Bean and football's Esera Tuaolo are among those who came out after their careers were over.

    "I had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of teammates in the 17 years that I played. I heard the ratio in the world is one in every nine men is gay. So if you do the math, you probably played with quite a few," said former big leaguer Mark Grace, who retired after last season and now works as a broadcaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    "It didn't bother me then, and it doesn't bother me now."

    By Paul Newberry