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What kind of reception would the first active gay baseball player receive?

Dec 21, 2010, 4:28 PM EDT

John Amaechi

Andy Hutchins of SB Nation — working off an observation from Yahoo!’s Jamie Mottram in the wake of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal — wonders when we might see the first gay athlete in one of America’s major sports leagues come out while still active.* His closing thought:

When the first NFL (or NBA, or MLB) player trusts his teammates, league, and fans enough to tell the world he’s gay, there will be much hubbub, plenty of ink spilled, and many, many hyperlinks. But then that player will be accepted as a trusted teammate, like he always was. And he’ll keep on playing. And he’ll show the world that there’s no reason he can’t do it, and prove that there’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to do it.

He’ll also prove that there never was.

I don’t disagree with any of that.  But I have always had a slightly skewed take on the biggest challenge that would face an active gay athlete.  I wrote about it a couple of years ago, but in Internet time that may as well have been ten years, so let’s revisit it, shall we?

I don’t think the challenge of acceptance or the angry voices of haters would be the biggest concern of a gay ballplayer contemplating coming out. Indeed, while any given blog’s comments section would soon become a mess of bad jokes, innuendo and hate, I think it would be relatively easy for a person as famous as the first active gay ballplayer to tune out the haters himself.

I say this because I believe that in this day and age there is an inverse relationship between the vehemence of anti-gay rhetoric and the specificity with which the gay target is identified. Bigoted jerks hate non-specific gay people to whom they can attribute the worst stereotypical behaviors and to whom they can ascribe an “agenda” with impunity.  Put a name on the person, and the voices grow quieter (e.g. the gay neighbor down the street). Put a famous name on the person and they’re quieter still (e.g. the gay celebrity). Bigots are even more likely to accept gay family members. The point is that the more prominent any given gay person is, the less likely they are to receive an overt negative reaction. Mostly because bigots are cowards.

No, the real problem would be the volume of the reaction, be it good, bad, or indifferent. And actually, I think the positive reaction would be the worst part of it. How many interviews would the gay ballplayer have to sit for? How many photo ops? Awards show invitations? Cameo appearances on TV shows? How large would the paparazzi contingent around this guy be? How many people would fall all over themselves in order to show just how much they accept the gay ballplayer and show everyone else just how open minded they are? The baseball season is already a huge grind. It’s hard enough to deal with the current amount of media attention a ballplayer gets. One can only imagine that adding a media circus to it — not to mention the new burden of being a national spokesman/role model — would make it damn nigh intolerable.

If there’s a gay man playing ball today, he has probably already dealt with hate and intolerance on a personal level, and if he reads the newspapers, he has already engaged it to some extent on a societal level. That stuff would be old hat. What he wouldn’t be used to is being on the receiving end of the hype and overexposure orgy this great nation is truly capable of when it puts its mind to it. I can’t imagine the player who wouldn’t be utterly crushed by that, and because of it, I can’t imagine the player who would want to subject himself to it, even if it presented itself to him with open, loving and accepting arms, as I believe it would be.

Because of that, I don’t think we’ll see a ballplayer come out while he’s still active. At least any time soon. If the player is marginal, he doesn’t want to stick out. If a player is established, he doesn’t want the added distraction and attention. No matter who they are, they just want to do their jobs.  Players that come out will likely only do so after they retire or at the very tail end of their career.

I think it’s possible, however, that someone may try to “out” a gay ballplayer. I have some thoughts on that too, but I’ll save that for another post.

*Whether Glen Burke was truly out while playing in the late 70s is an open question. Teammates knew and ownership reportedly knew, but it wasn’t generally known by the public. Heck, it’s probably the case that most people had no idea who Glen Burke was at the time. That’s still probably the case, actually.

  1. Jonny 5 - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    Depends. Is he pitching or catching?

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:46 PM

      win.

    • Gobias Industries - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:03 PM

      I read the title of this post and immediately scrolled down to the comments to see who was gonna be the first one to make this obvious “joke”. Why’d it have to be you, Jonny 5? Why?!?!

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 11:02 PM

        Are you trying to paraphrase Cindy Lou Who?

  2. Jonny 5 - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    I need to become more sensitive I guess. I would venture to say it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The fact is after coming out a celebrity probably has a better time dealing with life. No secrets. No nagging questions. Just truth.

  3. hollywoodmeme - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    Interesting post! Speaking of DADT – http://OutMilitary.com is a new social network for Gay & Lesbian service members & supporters.

  4. sdelmonte - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    I think it might be more likely for someone who is openly gay to make his way up through the ranks. It will take someone with the sort of fortitude and self-control that Jackie Robinson showed in similar (though clearly different) circumstances, but I can see it happening. Especially if it’s someone who has superior skills and who decides early on “I am going to be true to myself and also a Hall of Famer.”

  5. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    Ten elite ballplayers need to come out simultaneously. That would help relieve the pressures you spell out above.

    Also, I argue, that the first black ball players had to withstand all types of positive and negative scrutiny. The scrutiny must happen at some point b/c that’s what the media does. Sure, gays are already part of the league and were never outright banned to play, but someone SHOULD come out during their active days just to make a statement so others will have a path to follow. It’ll not be easy or likely fun, but that player will go down in history. It’s simply not right that they would feel like they must keep their mouth shut while at their job. Same goes for the military.

    • Panda Claus - Dec 21, 2010 at 4:53 PM

      The biggest determining factor on overall acceptance, not that it matters, would depend upon his/her skills as a player. It’s a shame that makes a difference, but it really seems to in the court of public opinion.

      The player’s level of “eliteness” would be directly related to the level of acceptance in my opinion. Also whatever other personal baggage someone carries around could lower their approval ratings.

      A player like Tom Brady could probably get away with a lot of things right now, more than most athletes. Winning and excellence in sports as we know, makes off-field circumstances easier to accept for most fans.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:03 PM

        I surprised you didn’t cite Mike Vick. He’s exactly the type that is being forgiven more easily b/c of his badassness on the field. That said, I’m from the camp of: Vick paid his dues to society and seems to be seeking a new, better life so let him live it. I believe many aren’t as forgiving as myself, but have been forgiving b/c he’s potentially the league’s MVP. I think my camp would be more lonely if Vick was sucking it up or riding the bench.

      • Panda Claus - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:21 PM

        I almost did bring up Vick, but I didn’t want to go down that long and dangerous path. You’re absolutely correct that the difference in how Vick is being treated this year vs. last year is night and day. He was universally panned and mocked for being out of shape, no skills left, you name it. Now all those haters with short memory love him.

        And I agree with you about Vick’s time served too, but just figured Tom Brady was a safer example. Couldn’t think of any baseball players that quite equal Brady’s success, although Pujols comes to mind. In terms of trophies you could mention Jeter, but I dismissed that because some might hate on him because of his age (and that his contributing years and high value are almost done).

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:34 PM

        Hmmm, Tom Brady is too safe isn’t he? He’s just a little too perfect. He must have eaten a baby seal or killed twenty puppies to achieve that aura of perfection. Something is lurking underneath! There must be!

  6. Reflex - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    “If there’s a gay man playing ball today”

    Of course there is a gay ball player today. Statistically speaking there are at least 50 of them. Chances are teammates even know in some cases. That statement is like implying there are no gays in the military. My brother was Army, and despite policy he would tell you that every unit had a couple of gays, and everybody knew who they were, and it was really no big deal. I’m sure the same is true on sports teams.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:03 PM

      I agree. My wording there was not meant to imply that I thought there wasn’t. Bad wording on my part.

      • schlom - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:36 PM

        Just because a certain percentage of the general population is a gay does not mean that the same population is present in pro sports. I’m not sure why people don’t make this distinction. It’s certainly possible (though unlikely) that there isn’t a gay man in pro team sports – if you were around a locker room you’d know why.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:50 PM

        No way. It is statistically impossible that there isn’t a gay athlete in each and every major sport. To think otherwise is redonk.

      • Reflex - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:19 PM

        schlom – No, it is pretty much impossible. Attitudes in locker rooms and locker room culture are irrelevant to that fact. Being around a bunch of macho guys does not make a homosexual ‘straight’. As I stated before, my brother was in the Army, there were gays in his unit. You would be hard pressed to find a more ‘macho’ culture than the Army, and the official policy was that being gay could get you booted from the service. Yet they still existed. You cannot convince me that pro sports in some way magically ‘gets the gay out’ of people who are born gay. No matter what the locker room culture.

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:27 PM

        You’d think there would be some sort of antibiotic or something to cure the gay by now, but sadly there is not. Though there are rumors of a resort or two out west somewhere that’ll rehab it out of you in 28 days or something.

      • elibolender - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:54 PM

        Highly improbable? Yes. Statistically impossible? No.

        I don’t think it has to do with the locker room atmosphere “getting the gay out” so much as it has to do with gay individuals going a different career path from the get go. To become a professional athlete, the amount of unbelievable hard work and dedication required is unfathomable to those of us who have not achieved that status. A gay athlete would have had to put up throughout youth leagues, junior high leagues, high school, college and then the pros with all sorts of obstacles and anti-homosexual attitudes that are pervasive in the masculine world of professional sports. My guess would be that many gay individuals would decide at an early age against putting themselves through all that and being forced to constantly deny who they are and instead choose a profession where they could be happy and not have to put up with the crap.

        I would imagine there are a few professional homosexual athletes today, but I would be willing to bet the actual number is quite a bit below the national average.

      • Reflex - Dec 21, 2010 at 7:06 PM

        All of those obstacles exist in any career path for a homosexual. Want to be a business executive? Good luck dealing with the ‘good old boy club’ on your march up the ladder. Sure there are some progressive companies where that would not be held against you, but try it in banking or insurance. Yet plenty of gays exist in those roles, even if the fact that they are homosexual is hidden.

        If somebody decides they love baseball, they will try their best to become a professional ballplayer. I highly doubt that they give up on that dream simply because they are gay. I know I wouldn’t, and if my son or daughter expressed such desires, and were gay, I would encourage them just as strongly to pursue those goals as I would pursue them myself.

      • elibolender - Dec 21, 2010 at 7:22 PM

        The odds of becoming a professional athlete are infinitesimal to begin with. The odds of becoming a “business executive” are MUCH higher since the number of those jobs FAR exceeds the number of professional athletes.

        If both take extreme hard work and dedication, then I would have to assume that the average homosexual would likely rather focus their efforts on the one where they don’t have to deal with a masculine, homophobic subculture their entire waking existence. You can succeed and climb the corporate ladder avoiding the locker room mentality in most industries (excluding a few companies here or there). Please don’t compare the everyday business world attitudes towards homosexuals and the attitudes of those in professional sports. Those are NOT comparable.

        I respect the comments regarding following your dreams and all that, but I don’t like the implication that someone who realizes their shot was tiny to begin and decides to focus somewhere where they have a higher probability to succeed is “giving up on their dream.”

      • Jonny 5 - Dec 21, 2010 at 8:39 PM

        Schlom’s right though. The percentage of Gay men in the population does not correspond directly to that percentage being in major league baseball. Of all the gay people I know, half act like the sex they were born as. The other half kind of more resemble the opposite sex with their interests, actions, etc. So I’d say the percentage is much lower in the game because most don’t like to play sports, but yes, they must exist to some extent.
        But to be honest, I really don’t give a damn. And I never understood the reasoning behind the big “coming out” announcement either. I don’t need to know, or judge people by their preferences. I don’t have to announce to the world that i enjoy hopping in the sack with women, so why do you have to announce you like hopping in the sack with men? I don’t care. It’s all ridiculous and borders on flagrant. It’s personal business. I don’t think there should be any level of shame in it either, just some humility like most of us when it comes to bumpin’ uglies and how we go about it.

      • Reflex - Dec 21, 2010 at 9:03 PM

        elibolender – All of the challenges you mention exist equally for a straight person. None of those things aside from the ‘special’ level of persecution that will exist in some locker rooms, are specific to gay people. And as I pointed out before, they have not proven to have an impact in other ‘macho’ environments, such as the military, where plenty of gays quietly serve, independent studies have demonstrated that the percentages mostly line up with the general population.

        Jonny 5 – The problem with using your observations to determine these things is that it is subject to your own biases, including selection and confirmation bias. The fact is that most people are not even aware of who is gay in their circle of friends and acquaintences specifically because of what you stated: Its nobody’s business except them and their partner. Many are closeted or in marriages where they are pretending. Many more are out, but only to certain circles of friends/family. And some, are ‘out and loud and proud’, but that is a tiny minority of the overall gay population. Furthermore, the ‘loud and proud’ types are noisy and as a result people assume they represent a significant proportion of the gay population. The fact that you seem to think its around half is indicative of this effect.

        In reality, the vast majority of gay men share the same interests as straight men. The vast majority of gay women, share the same interests as straight women. The only difference is who they are sexually attracted to. As a result, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the number of gays in professional sports roughly mirrors the general population, differences in this would relate more to the nature of a small sample size than any inherant difficulty for gays in that population, since for the most part, they would simply fit in and nobody would be the wiser.

      • Jonny 5 - Dec 22, 2010 at 8:43 AM

        Reflex, I was talking about the Gay people I know personally. I wasn’t speaking as if i can see who is,and who isn’t gay. I know a couple of Female couples that are married, and some male couples who are not. And with them alone there is a 50/ 50 split with personality. One is more feminine, the other is more a-typical with interests and actions. My only point was I’d bet the rate in baseball is less than 50% of the rate in the general population because of this.

      • Reflex - Dec 22, 2010 at 1:46 PM

        Jonny 5 – You seem to be missing my point. The reason you see a 50/50 split is because you only know the self-selecting group that has decided to make themselves known as homosexual to you. That is not a representative sample. The overwhelming majority of gay people do *not* have non-traditional behaviour, such as males acting effeminate. They have the same amount of testosterone, interest in sports, etc that straight males do. The vast majority hide this aspect of themselves or reveal it only to a small circle because in the fields they are in it is a negative to be homosexual.

        My first realization about this came when I was 14 and I realized that at my father’s weekly poker group several of the guys arrived in pairs. It was not until I was much older that I realized that they were gay. They were all in thier 60’s and 70’s, many were into sports, into collectible cars(one had a vintage Vette from the 60’s I believe), and were as ‘manly’ as you can possibly imagine. But, at least six of them were homosexual. Nobody outside of that group would have realized that if they met or even knew these guys well.

        Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that this is the majority of the homosexual population. Guys who would fit in in any locker room, any mechanic’s garage. Given that, I see zero reason to assume that the gay population in pro sports is any lower than it is in any auto garage, any military unit, any sports club, etc. They may be further in the closet due to outside considerations(endorsements, teammates, etc), but they are there, and they are just as prevelant as they are anywhere else.

  7. rockycolavito - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    honestly, does it really matter if someone is gay or straight? grow up and let people enjoy their lives.

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:05 PM

      It shouldn’t, but it clearly does. Were you born on 12/20/10?

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:08 PM

        At about the time the turnip truck turned the corner.

  8. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    …and pie is sooo much better than cake.

    • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:11 PM

      Repeated epic fail. How many flippin’ times do I have to tell you that cake has icing?

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:20 PM

        ICE YO PIE!

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:25 PM

        In an attempt not to be insensitive to this post, I will reserve my comment on the Webb post re brownies.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:32 PM

        Here allow me!

        “Of course I like the fudge style brownies, too, so there’s that.”
        -Utley’s Hair

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:36 PM

        Well, at least it wasn’t me.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:51 PM

        ahahahhahahahaha, that was fun.

      • phukyouk - Dec 21, 2010 at 10:58 PM

        you guys are Phils fans so i have to hate you on principle. but i LOL’d. over an over.

      • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 11:11 PM

        (Awaiting Heyward’s inevitable explosion at the idea that he’s a Phightins Phan as opposed to a Cox lover….)

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:46 AM

        BRAIN EXPLODING! ALWAYS RESPECT OUR COX!

  9. Loren - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:15 PM

    I have always envisioned the big press conference where a major league player “comes out”, but reading this I think it might happen another way. There are more and more openly gay teens these days. What if a gay HS player gets drafted? If a player is already out as an amateur , the decision is no longer “do you want to be the first openly gay player?”, it’s “do you want to play professional baseball?” Because of the problems with coming out that Craig mentioned, I think this may well be the route to the first openly gay active player in MLB.

  10. aaronmoreno - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:19 PM

    Wasn’t there a Japanese pitcher for the Indians a couple of years ago who made gay pornography when he was younger? Not nearly the same thing, but there’s something approaching a precedent.

    I think Craig is right, the athlete who comes out will have much more trouble dealing with all the grandstanding and “not that there’s anything wrong with that” from everyone than actual hate. Hell, the man who comes out isn’t the kid who got beat up by the jocks. He WAS AND IS a jock. Gay or straight, a pro athlete can beat the average idiot to death, so I don’t think they’ll fear for their safety.

    • Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:31 PM

      “…Gay or straight, a pro athlete can beat the average idiot to death…”

      Crap….

    • Rosenthals Speling Instrukter - Dec 22, 2010 at 7:56 AM

      Yeah I remember hearing about that. Think it was back around 2003.

    • hossenfefer - Dec 22, 2010 at 12:35 PM

      just google “japanese gay porn pitcher”. i’m sure that will tell you everything you need to know. you could probly just do it at work

  11. Utley's Hair - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    It shouldn’t matter. But it does and it will.

    Unfortunately, the first several will be met with scorn and fear—which is what drives the negative reactions. It’s a sad testament to human nature that it would take a handful of “outings” to get people used to the idea that gays and lesbians can, in fact, be called athletes and play sports other than those stereotypically “assigned” to them like golf and tennis.

  12. Richard In Big D - Dec 21, 2010 at 5:33 PM

    The first player to come out needs to do so in his HOF induction speech. He won’t have to deal with all the hoopla while trying to play a 162 game season, and how could you give more credibility to being a gay player than by being inducted into the HOF?

    • The Common Man/www.platoonadvantage.com - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:53 PM

      The first gay former players have already come out. Google Glenn Burke. Or Billy Bean (not the A’s GM). Craig’s talking about active players.

    • fquaye149 - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:11 AM

      That would more or less do nothing to solve the supposed problem, insofar as it would just go to show that even a HOFer was ashamed/afraid/disinterested in to come out while he was playing

      • Richard In Big D - Dec 22, 2010 at 6:54 PM

        I understand that, I’m just saying that it would grease the wheels for when an active player DOES come out.

  13. umpire6 - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:10 PM

    I think the media circus that would accompany the first openly gay active athlete would be assuaged by the incredible marketing opportunity and endorsement possibilities that would come with it. I’m also pretty sure one of these athletes has the personality to handle the overexposure that would accompany that status. What if that person was already super-duper famous and already heavily scrutinized? Like a Lebron James or Alex Rodriguez? I don’t think a baseball version of Dennis Rodman is too far-fetched.

  14. dluxxx - Dec 21, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    If you want to read a great piece on the subject, check out SI’s article on Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player who came out. It’s a good read.

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1168953/index.htm

  15. mgflolox - Dec 21, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    I think they should just release all the names, after all, it’s going to come out eventually…wait what were we talking about?

  16. wonkypenguin - Dec 21, 2010 at 9:37 PM

    As always, Craig, I appreciate your comments and thoughtful reflection on the subject.
    ~the gay girl :-D

    • handsfour - Jan 6, 2011 at 3:30 AM

      Ditto. (including the gay girl part.)

  17. Cyn - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Back in 2001, when he was with the Cardinals, Mike Timlin’s response to a reporter’s question about whether players would accept gay teammates was “I already have, knowingly, and it wasn’t a problem.”

    It’s been nine years and I’d be interested in hearing the responses from current players.

    I’ve maintained that if an MLB player were to come out it would have to be a superstar. If Derek Jeter came out, folks would be forced to accept him. If, say, a AA player came out it would be much less acceptable to those who are offended by such things.

  18. fquaye149 - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:13 AM

    Gay athletes are all well and good but we won’t know we’ve truly turned the corner until we start getting openly gay rappers. Hell, even Omar Little couldn’t make a dent.

    • fivetoolmike - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:22 AM

      There are openly gay rappers.

      • fquaye149 - Dec 22, 2010 at 1:56 PM

        Did I really have to say “platinum” rappers? Because okay. Platinum rappers.

  19. elmaquino - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:51 PM

    he’d be accepted. “Don’t Tell” just got repealed. Lib nation = openly gay athletes.

    • Utley's Hair - Dec 23, 2010 at 1:11 AM

      And the problem with that would be…? Seriously, what would be the problem with openly gay athletes—or even troops? Or the “lib nation” as you so smugly and disdainfully called it? Lashing out like that with no specific target or argument kinda sounds like the whole asinine obstructionist, filibuster or hold everything possible party of no crap that the Repugs have been pulling since 2008.

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