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Can Gay Athletes Come Out And Play?

After he retired from the NBA in February 2007, John Amaechi came out in his memoir.
Douglas C. Pizac
After he retired from the NBA in February 2007, John Amaechi came out in his memoir.

Suddenly, with a diverse sampler of incidents, the subject of homosexuality in sport has again moved back to the forefront. Invariably, too, this brings up the question: When will the first gay male American athlete in a prominent professional team sport step forward and declare his sexuality?

True or not, male athletes have generally been assumed to be uneasy about gays in their midst, if not downright homophobic.

Certainly, the slur that Kobe Bryant called out to an NBA referee –– which cost him a $100,000 fine –– has been common in locker rooms for years, as it has in many other places of business.

But athletes are not apart from society, and they are young, and since many surveys indicate that younger Americans are more accepting of gays and lesbians, it is very likely that the antipathy toward possible gay teammates has greatly diminished.

The public anti-gay tirade that Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell went on recently before a game in San Francisco –– which cost him a two-week suspension –– was certainly extreme. Quite possibly, though, McDowell, who is 50, is more a representative of some of his generation than he is of much of his profession.

Still, sports certainly does do some tiptoeing around the general subject of homosexuality. Sean Avery, a hockey player, was criticized for making a commercial in support of same-sex marriage, while Peter Vidmar, a gold-medal gymnast, felt obliged to resign a very prominent position with the American team in next year's Olympics because he was criticized for speaking out against same-sex marriage.

What is this? To serve our Olympic team, you can't have any personal opinions about divisive issues?

Ah, but in sports, on the team: What do you think? If a prominent American player did come out, and you were in a stadium or arena when he played against your home team, and a fan near you –– holding yet another beer on high –– began screaming, "Hey, you dirty blank-blank!" — what do you think would happen? Do you think the other fans would laugh and hoot, too? Would maybe even a chant start: "Frankie is a blank-blank!!"

Or would the fans around the guy screaming anti-gay rants tell him to shut up? Might someone actually confront him personally? Might, in counterpoint, some fans even start to cheer the visiting gay athlete? If you think the latter, if more tolerance toward gays has come to the arena, as it has in so much else of American life, then perhaps very soon a closeted gay male team athlete will dare come out.

In the meantime, vis-a-vis tolerance, let us encourage the U.S. Olympic Committee to plead with Vidmar to rejoin the American team –– an honorable gentleman, whom we can all respect, whether or not we agree with one opinion of his.

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Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.