The rise of LGBT tolerance in the sports community
By Matt Tracy
Homophobia runs rampant in the world of sports, but most of it goes unnoticed. Gay men are often forced to keep their lives a secret because they are too afraid that their teammates would think of them as feminine, inferior and otherwise secluded from the rest of the team.
Over time, these attitudes have changed at different paces on different levels of sports. On the professional level in the United States, athletes are known to come out after they retire due to a potential uproar that could occur if they came out during their career. Players who have failed to keep their sexual orientation a secret have had to deal with discrimination so much so that they must chose to stop participating in sports. For example, in the 1970s, Glenn Burke was a promising young player in Major League Baseball, with talent comparable to the likes of Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays. When the news spread that Burke was gay, he was driven out of baseball by the age of 27. Burke eventually died of AIDS complications in 1999.
In July 2010, openly gay umpire Billy Van Raaphorost was verbally abused with gay slurs during an Independent League baseball game when manager Brent Bowers, of the Edmonton Capitals, disagreed with one of Van Raaphorost’s calls. There was a supportive reaction to that incident, as the umpires in the league protested. The league slapped a season-long ban on Bowers, who immediately resigned.
Incidents like these are the reason why professional players do not feel comfortable enough to come out while participating in sports. However, a recent positive public reaction to coming out shows that things are getting better. Players who have come out after they retired from their respective sports include former NBA player John Amaechi, as well as former MLB player Billy Bean.
Among college students, attitudes toward gay athletes have improved and attitudes toward gay people are usually positive. Gay college students in general do face challenges though, as evidenced by the recent string of suicides that stemmed from homophobic bullying. There have been some widely publicized examples of positive reactions when gay student-athletes came out to their families, friends, and teammates.
Kiera Duckworth, who graduated from Ithaca College in 2009, completed a study during her time at IC about student-athletes’ perceptions of LGBT athletes. She said she interviewed 10 athletes and found that overall views toward their LGBT teammates were positive.
“The athletes welcomed players who came out during their career and supported those who did not choose to come out,” said Duckworth.
Duckworth said that she is not sure if the study may be an anomaly, considering all of the student-athletes she interviewed attended Ithaca College, which recently earned five out of five stars in the Campus Pride LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index.
“Each athlete in the study participated in sports at Ithaca College, so maybe the positive attitude comes from the LGBT-friendly campus,” said Duckworth. “But maybe the climate really is shifting to be more positive overall,” she further explained.
Morgan Ewing, an openly gay student-athlete at Ithaca College, agrees with Duckworth and believes that there is a positive atmosphere for gays at Ithaca.
“I do feel very accepted,” said Ewing, a member of the Crew team. “I have not run into issues with being an out athlete. I do get crap for it, but in the same way that any member of my team gets crap for their personalities.”
Moving down to the high school level, things have improved dramatically in the last decade. Out of the estimated 27,000 high schools in the U.S., there are currently about 3,000 registered gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in high schools across the nation. GSAs were almost unheard of throughout most of the 20th century, but as awareness increases, so too do the number of GSAs. These groups are crucial in making sure that LGBT students feel comfortable in their environments.
Despite all of the negative stories that you hear about gay athletes, an increase in acceptance in the most recent generation has caused many people to anticipate a gay professional athlete that will make the brave jump out of the closet before they retire. Eric Anderson, an American sociologist at the University of Bath in England, is an expert on the topic and is known for his research on homophobia in sport. Anderson believes that it is increasingly easier for gay male athletes to come out in today’s younger population where acceptance rates are higher.
“Today’s youth, particularly white undergraduates, have really lost the homophobia that the generation of men had before them,” said Anderson.
With that, it appears that the highest chance of a professional player coming out would be when today’s younger population grows up and takes on leadership roles. Anderson said that even football, known as one of the most masculine-based sports with pervasive homophobic slang, is even becoming more accepting with the younger population.
“Athletes can come out in any sport today,” said Anderson. “There hasn’t been a gay athlete who has been physically assaulted in over 15 years. Most athletes report a thriving atmosphere their teams.”
Anderson and Duckworth’s positive results, along with Ewing’s positive experiences as an out athlete, show that acceptance rates are only on their rise. While sports may be the one of the last frontiers to cross for members of the LGBT community, it is clear that things are improving and progress is being made. Anderson summed it up best: “It’s increasingly easier and easier for gay male athletes to come out.”
Matt Tracy is a sophomore sports media major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.