I write about a lot of different topics, from politics to film to even business, but as most of you know, I primarily write about sports. I am comfortable with this because, well, I really like sports and they are extremely fun to write about.
But most of my friends don't care about sports at all, and I sort of like it that way. If I only talked about sports with my friends, then all I'd ever be doing is talking about sports. In fact, my friends who don't care about men throwing balls or hitting pucks often circle back to a primary question that I have trouble formulating an answer to: Why are sports still so backward when it comes to LGBT issues?
Now, it's important to note that there has been grand progress in the sports world when it comes to these issues, and it's progress that I've been writing about for years. There are hundreds of openly gay athletes -- a semi-comprehensive list can be found here -- and the major sports leagues all have gay-friendly initiatives and have shown to be supportive and inclusive. There are LGBT executives and coaches and reporters everywhere you look, and in 2014 Major League Baseball hired Billy Bean, one of two former players to ever come out as gay, as its Ambassador of Inclusion. He's since been promoted to Vice President, social responsibility and inclusion. We've come a long way.
But still: In the four major North American professional sports leagues, there still is not a single openly gay athlete. Not one. Five years ago I wondered if we were getting close. Two years ago I was baffled as to why it still hadn't happened. And here were are, in April 2016, and still we don't have a single one.
It's difficult to overstate how unusual this is. No other field has a problem like this. The New York Times does a whole (terrific) feature on DeRay McKesson, the Black Lives Matter activist who is running for mayor of Baltimore, and the fact that he's gay is such an afterthought that the story only mentions it to note that a gay dating app endorsed him. Apple's CEO is gay; there are seven gay members of Congress; almost every cable channel you turn on to watch election coverage will be anchored by a gay person. Out's listing of the 10 most powerful people in LGBT America looks largely like the most powerful people in America, period. When North Carolina passes an anti-LGBT law, the entire creative world, not to mention the corporate one, shuns it. (And those of us in Georgia are relieved that our governor had the good sense to veto a similar bill.) The rest of the world is on board. The rest of the world has come so far, so fast.
Yet sports continue to lag. In a corporate sense, the sports world is aligned with the rest of the world: The NFL's threat to never bring the Super Bowl back to Georgia if the anti-LGBT bill passed was one of the primary reasons that the Georgia governor vetoed it. But that threshold of an openly gay athlete playing in one of the four major North American professional sports remains stubbornly persistent. You've had Jason Collins' two seasons in the NBA -- a span in which nothing happened, and nobody seemed to mind -- and that was it. You had Michael Sam, who was the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, but he was promptly cut before playing a down during the 2015 season. And there has been nothing since.
I'm reminded of something John Ameachi told me five years ago. "I came out three years after finishing a reasonably average career, and everybody freaked out," Amaechi says. "Imagine if I had been good."
There obviously have to be gay players in the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB. But they remain hidden. There is literally no other remaining field in America that is like this. Not politics, not business, not entertainment, not even religion. Only sports.
And I think that you can point to days like Tuesday to help explain why this is.
Curt Schilling, the now-former baseball analyst for ESPN (who I don't think, as a baseball analyst, was particularly bad) and a former player (who should be in the Hall of Fame), posted this to his Facebook page:
Curt Schilling responds to meme controversy: "I am not going to give you answers to make sure you like what I say." pic.twitter.com/B4iPXACmze- Stephanie Coueignoux (@StephanieFOX25) April 20, 2016
He later deleted it and denied that he ever posted it, and Wednesday night ESPN fired him. Schilling's post was exactly the sort of ugly fear-mongering that has helped bills like the one in North Carolina -- which is not about bathrooms at all, but about equal treatment under the law -- pass in the first place. It was the latest in a long line of questionable posts by Schilling. OutSports and other outlets pressured ESPN to take action, and the network did. But, regardless of the consequences, Schilling's post was exactly the sort of mindset that is more prevalent in sports than any other public field: Just ask Lance Berkman or Manny Pacquiao.
But more disturbing was the Blackhawks-Blues game Tuesday night, in which Chicago center Andrew Shaw appeared to scream an anti-gay slur from the penalty box. Here it is, if you want to see it.
We have been down this road before: Kobe Bryant was fined by the NBA $100,000 for calling a ref that word five years ago, and Joakim Noah received a $50,000 fine for saying the same thing to a fan. Both men paid their fines and apologized. (Rajon Rondo, suspended for a game earlier this year for calling a gay official that word, had a couple of tries at apologizing and finally got it right the second time.) Shaw initially said, "I don't know what I said," but on Wednesday apologized. The NHL suspended him for one game and fined him $5,000.
Hearing this language being used in a game -- and a heavily scrutinized game meant for the public at that -- is astounding, and baffling in any other context. Even the most anti-gay congressman doesn't toss that word around. It is something that is unique to sports. And I don't think it's difficult to see the connection between that uniqueness, and the uniqueness of there being no openly gay athletes in the four major professional North American sports.
Again, sports have made some great progress, and even some people who have said bigoted things have made progress. (Tim Hardaway, years after his comments about gay people, has actually become a pro-gay rights advocate.) Groups like Athlete Ally are working within the world of sports to make a difference. But every year I think this is the year, and it is never the year. Sports leagues are taking incremental steps forward while the rest of the world is making massive leaps. It's abnormal. And it's increasingly a disgrace.
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Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.