We're so close, people. So so close to current gay athletes coming out (or being outed), and more importantly, close to gay athletes feeling comfortable with being out.
But we're not there yet. Here is a non-comprehensive list of events that will not make it happen: a marginal MLB player coming out after his career ends; an NBA role player coming out after his career ends; a former college football player coming out; a straight NHL player saying he supports gay marriage; an NBA executive coming out; a former college basketball player coming out; an MLB team making an "It Gets Better" video.
These are all wonderful, wonderful things for mental well-being of the gay men in question, and should be encouraged for preparing the way, and also for exposing the intolerant. But they don't mean that pro sports is a job where it's acceptable to be a gay man, like for teachers or nurses or plumbers or bankers or welders or politicians, or any other job in the world besides than athlete or clergyman.
Retired athletes, college athletes, journeyman players, front office people, they're not good enough. They foster an atmosphere of acceptance that simply can not and will not exist until 1)a current professional athlete comes out in the middle of his career and 2)that athlete is good.
We turn for truth, as we so often do, to Charles Barkley. From two different interviews today:
They make it sound like we're animals, and if somebody came out as a gay player, then we would shun him or whatever. First of all, we only hate guys that can't play. Let's get that straight.
Quit telling me what I think. I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play."
It's true because the athlete is concerned with himself above all else. A valuable teammate helps, no matter who they have sex with at night. An insignificant player can be discriminated against and find themselves out of work not because a potential employer hates gays, but because they're not willing to take on the media circus that could follow.
The list of gay athletes who couldn't come out during their careers is coterminous with the list of bad gay athletes who couldn't come out during their careers. ("Bad," in this sense, indicating that while they're in the 99th percentile of athletes on earth, they're not among the everyday players in their sport.) Players like John Amaechi, who related one tale of his playing days:
I played for a team in Utah for example where our owner, I think he has passed away since, ran into our locker room when the film ‘Brokeback Mountain' came out and screamed at everybody that he wasn't going to let that film play on his cinemas and he happened to own most of the cinemas in Salt Lake City. That's a not too subtle way of letting everybody know where he stands on the position of homosexuality and it's not the kind of thing that inspires you to then stand up and say yes I'm gay. I absolutely was convinced that at that point I would've lost my job."
He would have, too. Larry Miller would have found a reason not to re-sign an openly gay Amaechi and his six minutes a game. But Miller is a businessman before he is a bigot: he would not have found the same reason to let, say, Karl Malone go had Malone been gay and openly so. Teammates would not have shunned a gay Karl Malone, because he made them and the team better.
Here's why Amaechi never came out:
"It's not just money, it's the career. It would've cost me the job that I had worked at for so long. Such an improbable job to have, especially if you go from a fat geeky kid from England and then in six years to transform myself into an NBA player, it just didn't seem right that I would lose that opportunity to play never mind the money."
The closeted gay athletes in sports, whoever they are, are statistically likely to be clustered among the average, replaceable players — that is, the vast majority of them. They can't change the world, because they simply don't have the influence. They also stand to forfeit their livelihoods, a risk that's just not worth it to them.
But there are gays among the stars, the irreplaceable ones who are beloved by their fans, treasured by their teams, and would be supported by the vast majority of both just because we want them to keep playing at their level. Those are the players — those gay stars — who have all the power right now. To come out would force the discussion, force biased observers to overcome their prejudices. The Billy Beans and John Amaechis of the world have helped build a foundation for tolerance, but the world waits for a true superstar, a gay man beloved and valued enough to survive being a pioneer.