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Sports Culture Suppresses the Identities of Gay Athletes

Illustration by Gina Ledor

On November 7, 2017, Robbie Rogers, former member of Major League Soccer (MLS) team the Los Angeles Galaxy, announced his retirement. Rogers enjoyed a successful eleven-year career, winning two MLS cups and earning multiple All Star honors. 

Yet, the retirement of Robbie Rogers was more than just a sad day for Galaxy fans. With his retirement, there are now no openly gay male athletes in an any of the five major men’s North American Sports: Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Soccer (MLS), and the National Football League (NFL).

The key here, though, is that this statistic refers to male athletes because this is not true of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), where there are openly lesbian and bisexual female athletes.

This  cannot be a surprise to men who have endured the environments of competitive or even recreational sports. Yet it is interesting to ask: what creates this environment? Is it coaches, parents, players themselves, or the media? Or is it a depressing formula of all of these things added together that produces an environment that does not allow athletes to feel comfortable in coming out?

This is an issue of coming out, not an issue of there actually being gay athletes in sports. We know they are there, but we will likely never know their names. While sports have no direct correlation to the real world problems of everyday life, the publicness of North American sports offers a perfect parallel into  political issues that divide our continent. The discrimination in our schools, offices, and houses of worship towards gay men are reflected in sports today.

When this  topic comes up, everybody wants to talk about Pop Warner Football, and how the environment created by football coaches for young players is the worst environment for gay athletes, and, while this may be true, football is not responsible.

It’s the notion that players have to be tough and “manly,” the coaches who  believe that they have to be powerful, assertive and angry, and the parents, typically fathers, who don’t want to see their son be a “wuss.” This isn’t just football because if you cry at a little league game, show unmanly emotion at a soccer game, or do something in any sport that doesn’t comply with the strong young man you’re supposed to be, then, in many cases, coaches will whisper, teammates will laugh, and parents will wonder.

Admittedly, there are parents and coaches who allow their sons and players to be who they want, but it is a serious problem. It’s the reason why the gay athletes in North American sports are typically only openly gay after their career because at the professional level everything you do is on camera, and any actions that were “gay” in sports as a kid are  taboo when an athlete reaches the national spotlight.

It’s the reason why Billy Bean didn’t come out until after his career.

In an MLB special in 2012, Bean discussed how heartbreaking it was when his partner died mid-season in 1995, and no one on his team knew what had happened. Imagine losing the love of your life and having to suit up the next day and pretend nothing happened.

To those who say that gay athletes need to take more initiative, understand what you are asking. You are asking an athlete to admit a very personal thing about himself that is still not widely accepted, and you’re asking him to do it on a national stage, in an unforgiving industry.

Before we ask athletes to come out we have to create an accepting environment for gay athletes, and this starts at the youth level. We have to make it understood that it’s okay to be a gay and “manly” athlete, and if someone isn’t “manly” at all, then that has to be okay too.