I would like to think of myself as someone reasonably attuned to unintended insults*, but somehow with hockey all of that was out the window. Hockey natter is replete with homophobic “jokes” and casual sexism. Yet I for a long time didn’t see them as such. I would go along with it, making idiotic (and not even mildly funny) comments to members of the guys’ team about picking up the soap in the shower. Or call someone failing a shot a “girl”. Or ... the examples are simply too numerous to list.
I hang my head in shame.
But at least I’m in illustrious company! The examples in this regard are also too numerous to list, but I’ll give just a few for tasters: A college basketball coach whose usual practice techniques included physically abusing players and calling them faggots and a professional baseball player writing a homophobic slur on his eye-black strips during a game.
When the atmosphere in professional team sports is what it is, it is no wonder that no athlete in such sports has come out as gay, like, ever. In football (or soccer in American) one player came out decades ago and then committed suicide, and another one did so this year, but felt the need to end his career at only 25 years old as a result. Football is not even the most macho of sports, so one can imagine how much worse it must be in basketball, rugby, baseball, American football and hockey of course.
Considering that the stereotypical gay guy is pretty athletic, how likely is it that there really never have been any gays playing any of these sports professionally? Extremely unlikely. But as long as idiots like me are making the atmosphere totally hostile for them, no wonder that they prefer to stay in the closet. Many have probably also chosen not to pursue a career in the sport they love and excel at.
Enter my hero of the week, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Superbowl winner Brendon Ayanbadejo. Mr Ayanbadejo wrote a superb op-ed piece for USA Today shortly after the Superbowl, using the media attention to raise awareness about homophobia in professional team sports. He said poignantly that “the sports world – my world – is the last closet in America” and encouraged athletes to be the rolemodels they could and should be and create a safe environment for gays in sport. He likened our times to 1942 when Jackie Robinson broke the colour line and became the first black player in Major League Baseball. We are still waiting for the “gay Jackie Robinson” in men’s professional team sports, according to Mr Ayanbadejo, but hopefully not for long.
So momentum is starting slowly to build. Mr Ayanbadejo is a member of Athlete Ally, an organisation supporting gays in sport, and I was pleased to see Sean Avery, a former NHL goon, also on the Board of Directors. In Europe, the professional football player Matt Jarvis has just become the third of his kind to pose for the gay magazine Attitude (after Freddie Ljungberg and the trailblazer (already in 2002) David Beckham) and Olivier Giroud did the same for Têtu last year.
Apart from creating a more positive attitude in general, and via publicity, there is something to be done at the grassroots level as well. Just like in the armed forces, there appears to be an entirely mistaken fear in some sports circles that gays on a team would somehow threaten team cohesion or create awkward situations in the changing room. Professional male athletes will find it hard to be told that they could learn something from their female counterparts, but this is one area where they really could. Lesbians are obviously not an uncommon sight on the field, pitch or ice in women’s team sports and I can assure all boys on the basis of years of personal experience, that it is not a problem AT ALL.
*I try to mean them when I make them...