Athletes coming out and a special issue of the Blade edited by football great Brendon Ayanbadejo, a straight ally and gay rights activist, are both great events for the LGBT community.
Even non-sports fans like me recognize their importance. Being more into politics than sports (some think politics these days is actually a contact sport), I still recognize the incredible impact that sports and the heroes created through sports have on our culture. From Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics to Jackie Robinson making his debut with the Dodgers, millions of people had their worldview changed. While many like me merely glance at the sports section of the paper each morning to not sound totally illiterate when friends talk about their favorite teams and players over coffee, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the personal connection people have with their favorite teams and players.
So when someone asked whether an athlete coming out really makes a difference I didn’t have to think too long before responding. My appreciation of sport is generally limited to watching a cute football player’s ass in those tight pants or looking at baseball phenom Bryce Harper and drooling a little. Watching the Olympic men’s gymnastics team is exciting and not only for their grace on the high bars; and watching the swimmers or men’s divers like Olympic champion Tom Daley is always better when they are out of the water.
But millions of others look at players and see them as personal heroes and idolize them. Youngsters still collect baseball cards and quote the statistics of their favorite players. People arrange their lives so as not to miss a football, basketball, soccer or baseball game. Many sit in the stands yelling for their favorite NASCAR driver. Our culture puts sports heroes on a pedestal not only in the United States but around the world.
Many male sports stars become heroes seen as endowed with strength and manliness. In high school many girls, and secretly in the case of most gay guys, the goal is to date the quarterback. He often becomes a hero for the whole town and some parents tell their children to grow up to be just like him. Now when he turns out to be gay that can throw a wrench into everyone’s thinking. Just ask Corey Johnson, a varsity middle linebacker and right guard and co-captain of his winning football team at Masconomet High in Massachusetts who came out as a 17-year-old senior. Corey who is now running for City Council in New York can look back proudly at his courageous act of coming out in high school and know he changed the thinking of a generation of students and their parents in his town.
If one high school athlete can have that impact just imagine what a professional athlete with millions of fans can have by coming out. It breaks down the stereotypes of who gays and lesbians are. It seems that people are more blasé about women coming out and that is fodder for another column but when a male professional athlete comes out it can change how the LGBT community is viewed. Just by his coming out, people are forced to recognize that gays and lesbians come in all different sizes and personalities just like everyone else.
When enough professional athletes come out people will realize that they can’t tell if their heroes are gay or straight by what they do or by looking at them. They will begin to realize that it doesn’t matter. It will cause people to rethink their feelings on what it means to be gay and lesbian. If they can still idolize their sports hero who is gay why can’t they love and accept friends and family who are gay? They will start to reconsider their own thought process and reactions to finding out a neighbor, a teacher, a best friend or even their own child is gay.
Sports figures are celebrities and our culture reveres them. We want to know everything about them and the gossip columns and shows like TMZ feed that need. They often share their every thought and lives on Twitter or Facebook reaching millions of followers who end up knowing so much about them they almost feel like family.
We have seen what can happen when an immediate family member comes out. Over time it usually forces a change in how a parent or sibling thinks. So when a sports hero comes out, millions will take it personally and that can only be good in the long run for promoting acceptance and understanding.