Why being a professional athlete means staying in the closet


A few days ago, I featured excerpts from an interview with former NFL player, Wade Davis. After Wade’s NFL career, he decided it was time to come out of the closet and speak up for professional gay athletes. Davis mentioned that there are “semi-openly gay” players currently in the NFL and NBA. By that, Davis meant that it’s sort of like don’t ask, don’t tell or that players simply turned a blind eye.

I personally believe this to be true. There are times when a co-worker might be into something that ultimately has no effect on one’s existence and doesn’t interfere with that individual’s ability to get the job done. I’m not necessarily trying to be BFF or even great friends with the people I work, just trying to get the job done. I took the conversation to Twitter and received some interesting responses. One response in particular from Marcus “Quest” Sims brings us here. Quest has worked with several NFL players and professional athletes – former all pro running back Larry Johnson and Olympic Gold medalist LaShawn Merritt to name a couple – and he believes that Davis’ POV is slightly skewed and wanted to delve into the topic in a bit more detail.

Check out Quest’s thoughts on the complicated topic:


My Sunday is normally reserved for church, sports and a huge meal. Even my tweets take on a different tone, they center around which teams are playing, friends I have in the professional ranks, or occasionally a rip on how completely horrible and horrendous Craig Sager’s suits can be. But yesterday was different. A new topic caught my attention on Stiletto Jill’s twitter feed, one that I think needs more discussion than the 140 characters twitter allows. The subject was openly gay men playing and being accepted in professional sports.


Toure’, who by the way I have the utmost respect for as a journalist, conducted an interview with one Wade Davis, a former cornerback in the NFL, in which he (Davis) stated that there is an almost acceptance of a player’s homosexuality, as long as it isn’t flaunted in his straight teammates faces, sort of like a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality and that one day in the very near future an athlete who is still in the midst of his professional career, will come out of the closet and be accepted and embraced by his teammates and fans.  To which my comment was a sarcastic, “Yeah right”.  Now I’m not saying there haven’t been whispers about some athletes over the years with “alternative lifestyles”, but as you will come to find out even those whispers can be loud enough to destroy a player’s career.


My stance was that not even in the very near future would you see a male athlete on a team sport such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, or NASCAR come out of the closet while they are actively playing. And if one did (especially an African American male athlete) it would be career suicide. I think I get where Toure’ and others are coming from. Granted in this 21st century we are seeing more tolerance and acceptance of varying practices and lifestyles that 15 years ago would have been condemned and the participants shunned. There are now outwardly gay politicians, television and movie stars, sitcoms showing married gay couples (Modern Family is hilarious by the way), we even have a Black president (which is still amazing to me) who has shown an unprecedented level of support towards the gay community. If eliminating “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, and allowing people to serve in our military while being outwardly homosexual isn’t support, I’m not sure what is. But there in lies the problem. Sports and its athletes aren’t really in lock step with the march of the rest of the country.


One needs to understand the mentality of the athlete and the culture of pro sports to understand why a person would hide their sexuality from the team and public at large.  From the first time a boy picks up a basketball in youth league, takes a swing at a baseball, or makes that first tackle in Pop Warner football, he is taught to be tough. If he falls hard and scrapes his knee, he’s told, “don’t be a sissy just walk it off”. As he gets older and starts playing on a larger stage such as high school, that notion of don’t be a sissy morphs into more derogatory words or phrases that are used to motivate. If it takes him too long to get up after a hit in football he’s told “don’t be a fag”. If he’s worried about running a particular play, it’s commonplace for teammates even coaches to say, “Stop being gay and man up”. Words like queer, fag, and gay can be heard on any practice field across the country. You can call a player dumb, you can say he sucks at his position, and the only retaliation on his part maybe more trash talk from him at the instigator, BUT if you want to see him lose his cool call him a queer or insinuate that he has interest in men, and you have a fight on your hands! To the male athlete, calling or labeling him as gay is only surpassed or out done by talking about his mother in terms of offensive comments. Once you factor in the influence of other societal norms of rap music, trying to impress older siblings, random conversations overheard when Dad and his pals get together to watch the game, and you have a young man raised to think gay is synonymous with weak, homosexuality is akin to feminity, and that all gay men are sex crazed animals who would hop on any man if given the chance. This thought pattern that started in Jr. high and high school stays with this athlete thru college and onto the professional ranks. Be it in training, on the field, or anywhere, the worst thing you can say to an athlete is any kind of slang associated with a homosexual. Those terms affect their manhood, their “machismo”.


All athletes get by on certain level of talent, but the great ones, the All-Pro ones, the Hall of Fame athletes have been conditioned to view themselves, and we the fan to see them, as the epitome of man, as Titans, as the ultimate in what man could do if you push your body to the limit. These athletes are our modern day Spartan legion our gladiators. They are the conduits thru which our natural competitive juices are allowed to manifest themselves. They have been placed on a pedestal for all to see since high school (or in the case of basketball 7th or 8th grade), anything that would jeopardize this image is rejected and denounced or covered up. There is a reason Davis and others waited until AFTER their playing days were over with to announce that they were homosexual, because they felt that if it had been confirmed that they were gay during their careers they would become a pariah in their sport. It was assumed that there would be little to no support for this player from his teammates, and management would do as little as possible for the player. Because of the negative public relations scandal and potential lawsuits, the team couldn’t just cut the player because he’s gay, but that player could forget about bonuses, contract extensions, and heaven forbid he’s a free agent! No team would bring him in.


There’s a word tossed around in sports a lot, chemistry. A team without chemistry is destined to fail, just look at the Eagles the past two season or the Lakers this season. Both of these teams have a wealth of talent but their chemistry hadn’t quite gelled. Having an openly gay player in the locker room would set off a lightning storm and possibly tear that team apart. Some would take a stand and accept the homosexual player as a teammate who can help the team win, some would remain silent not supporting the player but not condemning him either, but some would reject the player loudly and boldly. There were rumors that there was an athlete in the NFL who was wildly talented, but the homosexual rumors plagued him from almost day one. Finally he called a players only meeting to address the topic (denying any homosexuality on his part), but his career was never the same he was like a leper never regaining the trust and camaraderie that he once had, he lost the locker-room.  He then bounced from team to team never being able to establish the much-needed rapport with any one, and what was once a promising career fizzled out like a candle in the rain. Questions such as where would the player shower, who would he room with during away games, would the locker-room jokes and conversations have to change because it might offend the gay player, would legitimately have to be answered and planned for.


Team security would have to double, if not triple where it is now, why you ask the “fans”. Not a few months go buy in any season where we don’t hear the stories of the fans getting more unruly at games. In looking at the situation how would the fans treat the gay players “partner” when hi attends games, or what would they say to the player’s family when they attend games to cheer him on. I think we have the answer. Recently London Fletcher’s (who plays for the Redskins) family got into an altercation when they attended the Redskins Vs. Cleveland Browns game. Browns fans reportedly attacked the family members. The reason for that attack was simple. The Fletcher family was decked out in Redskins gear and cheering them on at a Cleveland Browns game. Take Antonio Davis, a few years ago he (Antonio) witnessed a man threatening his wife in the stands. Let’s stop for a moment if fans at games attack wives and mothers supporting sons, do you really think they would show any mercy on a gay player or his “partner”. Those examples of fan violence and obnoxious behavior pale in comparison with what took place back to Nov. 19th 2004.  The Malice in the Palace (back when Metta World Peace was still Ron Artest) is another example of what negative comments (and a thrown beer) from fans towards a player can spark. Here’s a look at some ignorant tweets targeted and Black Athletes https://www.loop21.com/life/racist-sports-tweets-nhl-fans-joel-ward-bruins-caps.  Ask Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose what they went thru at Michigan during their freshmen year. They were winning games but that wasn’t enough to quell bigoted attitudes, and daily multiple letters from Michigan supporters would have messages like “Nigger go home” and “These damn darkies are ruining the good name of Michigan” as well as others. Now if Black men who have been “equal” to whites for over 60 years (or at least the abolition of Jim Crow era practices) as well as participants in various professional sports leagues just as long if not longer have been and still are subjected to such mindless banter from racist buffoons, imagine the vitriol that would bubble up via twitter, blogs, and emails towards a gay athlete. Not to compare the gay athletes struggle to that of Jackie Robinson, because they aren’t even close, but the gay athlete would be attempting to break a barrier. The horror stories of what Jackie Robinson endured are both legendary and damning confirmation of the hate that can arise from “fans”. While the various league commissioners have the power to fine or suspend players for derogatory statements (Kobe), there is nothing they can do about ignorant fans and the venom they would spew. Looking a little deeper teams and the arenas or stadiums generate revenue from selling of the luxury suites and season tickets. What if some of these “fans” disagree with keeping a gay player on the team and demonstrate this rejection by cancelling their season tickets or cancelling their luxury box’s? Having met with and talked with team owners before (not about this topic just general conversation) the thing that they hate is wasting money on a player that doesn’t pan out or a player they deem as more headache than help. I would assume then that a gay player would fall into the more headache than help category primarily because he cost the team money


Let’s all hearken back to this most recent offseason and look at the media blitz that descended on Courtland NY where the Jets where holding training camp. The media was there en masse for 1 reason and 1 reason only, TIM TEBOW. Many players from his old team in Denver and his new team, the New York Jets, have come out to say how much of a distraction and annoyance it was. Most teammates weren’t mad at Tebow the person, but at what the media made Tebow. For his credit he (Tebow) said often he just wanted to play football. Tebow wasn’t the Jets first round draft pick, he wasn’t coming in as the starter, and he definitely wasn’t trying to break down barriers. He was a 3rd year player who guided his previous team to a playoff win (something Payton Manning couldn’t do with the same team, but I digress) and was trying to come in and win. There really wasn’t anything new to report on Tebow except he was a New York Jet. Yet not 1 day went bye during the season that somehow Tebow’s name popped up on these sports roundtable shows and talking points shows. The stories about him became less and less about football and more and more about his virginity, his morals, could he stick to the bible toting good guy image he had in college. Rarely could a conversation about Tebow stay about football. The coverage and interest in Tebow was pretty nauseating for a guy that didn’t even start one game. So imagine if that same media was that obsessed with a 3rd string quarterback, who became ostracized and resented, was now able to cover an athlete who came out of the closet while active. The ensuing media blitz would surely sack the focus of the team. The public relations department would be flooded with interview requests; every move that the player would make would be documented then analyzed and scrutinized. TMZ photographers would be permanently planted outside his home and the team facility. There would be no privacy for the player and by extension for his team.  The coach would hate that. Recent history supports the notion that a lot coaches hate the constant media intrusion and it’s subsequent distraction.


Just as with Jackie Robinson, the first out of the closet gay athlete has to be special. A player on the level of Wade Davis who never played a down in a regular season game can’t be the voice; neither could John Amaechi or David Kopay. For them to be accepted it’s going to take an extraordinary player of the caliber of a Lebron James or an Adrian Peterson to break the deeply embedded ideal that homosexual athletes aren’t as tough as their heterosexual counterparts. It’s going to take basically a “martyr”. It’s got to be someone who’s willing to forsake endorsements, All-Star games, and those types of accolades for the sake of making a difference.


It took years, over 50 years for a black quarterback to get a chance to start and win the Superbowl (Doug Williams). It would take nearly another 20 years for a black coach to win a Superbowl (Tony Dungy). Until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder (40 years ago), while the World Health Organization didn’t change its stance on homosexuality until 1990 (23 years). I share those different points in history to show that it takes time for long standing ideals to be repealed and replaced. Many black quarterbacks never got chance to show their talents and many black coaches got overlooked simply because they were black and it was the thought among owners that a black man wouldn’t be intelligent enough to lead a team to the championship. Just as it took time for Black athletes and coaches to prove they are just as good as their white counterparts, it’s going to take time for a gay man to break thru the wall and prove that he can play on the same level as a straight man


I need to add I have Gay and lesbian friends. They come to my house when I cook; I go to theirs to hang out, we go bowling. We just do normal things I don’t see them for their sexual preferences I see people. One of my best friends, who’s like a sister to me, KD is a lesbian in a public relationship and I love her and her girlfriend to death. So this isn’t about gay bashing it’s not about acceptance. They accept me as a straight male and show me enough respect not have things take place around me that I would find uncomfortable. They accept my stance and beliefs and I do the same for them. I am a Christian and yes the Bible condemns homosexuality, but it also denounces adultery, greed, and unwarranted excess. Tori Hunter (of the MLB team the Angels) was a little off with his view on why he couldn’t get along with a gay teammate. He based it on his Christian faith, but I say if you can accept teammates who does any of the previous mentioned sins then you have to acknowledge that homosexuality bears the same penance as those. Even more so JESUS teaches us to hate the sin but love the sinner. What this letter is about is reality and truth. And as much as Toure’ and others want to believe that we are living in a more liberal time that’s accepting of all people the truth is pro sports are a club, a fraternity deeply rooted in certain traditions and customs, and one of those is only real men play sports. The reality is the support across the board for a gay man to come out while he is still a professional athlete isn’t there not yet. Not in the hallowed halls of Soldiers Field or the legendary Madison Square Garden. It’s not in the high school teams that send these young men to college and then off to the pros.


The fact is that certain segments of people realize that this is the state of male athletics in this country, but they have their own agenda. The supporters and champions of homosexuals use these forums as ways to convince people that somehow they’re wrong if they don’t welcome gay men with open arms. That somehow you’re a prejudice bigot for stating your mind about the political stances of support or no support on homosexuality. Sports are one of the last fortifications isolated from the real world and it’s politics. The pay system in professional sports does not equally mimic the rest of society. In addition, the internal discipline structure is different from what you would find at any other major corporation. Therefore you cannot assume that while everything else that takes place in sports is fundamentally unique that the leagues and teams of sports must instantly conform to this new norm of liberal acceptance of all things.


The truth is that while a large section of the country is all for “equality” at all costs, that doesn’t mean their neighbors, are. It doesn’t matter how many ads the NBA runs condemning anyone who uses words like queer or fag, or other words that are offensive to homosexuals; the sentiment is still engrained in the minds of these athletes and it starts early in life.  If Toure’ and others really believe that an athlete on a major sports team in 2013 can stand up and scream ‘I’m out and I’m proud”, and still be wholeheartedly accepted, they are sadly mistaken. While I don’t doubt that there are numerous homosexuals in the professional sports leagues, they (professional athletes) already know what Toure’ doesn’t seem to, that to reveal that secret about themselves would be catastrophic to their goals of a being viewed as one of the greatest in their sport. That commentary, as sad as it is, is the reality of the sports world.

Interested in catching up with Quest? Follow him on twitter.com/starmaxprez and instagram-@starmaxprez