The Gay Jackie Robinson?

I want to give a special shout out to World Football Daily and especially Kenny Hassan for being so committed to this story.  I was totally wrong about WFD, and I will definitely continue my subscription.  (Also, a farewell to Steven Cohen.  You will be missed.)

A few weeks ago, world football was recently . . . shook up is too extreme a word . . . surprised when Anton Hysén, a Swedish football player publicly announced his homosexuality.  Hysén is the son of Glenn Hysén, a former Liverpool player and Swedish international.  Anton Hysén’s announcement came shortly after a similar one by Steve Davies, an English cricket player.  To date, the most famous openly gay team sport athlete is Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas.

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Contrary the straight macho image of sports, gay players exist everywhere.  Some have even been extremely influential.  Bill Tilden, tennis’s first truly great male player.  Tilden popularized and masculinized the sport.  Yet, Tilden was gay, and in his later years remarkably effete.  Tilden was also closeted; his sexuality became widely known only after he was twice charged with and imprisoned for soliciting sex with underage teenagers (one a prostitute and the other a hitchhiker.)

Tilden was not the only successful gay tennis player  in the Interwar Period.  The gentlemanly German champion Gottfried von Cramm was also gay, as was one of America’s top female players Helen Jacobs.  Although men’s tennis has yet to produce another top gay player, some of the greatest champions of the women’s game have been lesbians–most notably Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

Although gay men perform well in some individual sports, team sports still seem a bridge too far.  (Lesbians however, have a significant presence in women’s team sports.  Whether that speaks to a more accepting locker room, more open-minded fans, less of a presence in the media and the public eye, or some combination thereof I cannot say.)  Prior to Gareth Thomas, only a few male athletes came out while they were still playing, such as Ian Roberts, the Australian rugby league player and Donal Óg Cusack, the Irish hurler.  And, of course, there was Justin Fashanu, the gay footballer whose career was undone by homophobia and who eventually committed suicide.

No sport can compete with the worldwide popularity (or fanatical fan devotion) of football (the soccer variety.)  In terms of marketing and money, only the three major American sports–and possibly ice hockey–can compete.  Baseball, basketball, and American football had (and most likely still have) gay players.  However, only a handful have come out after they retired–Billy Bean in baseball; John Amaechi in basketball; and Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo in American football.  Glenn Burke was openly gay while he played but was effectively driven out of baseball.  Others now known to be gay never came out.  No hockey player has ever come out, active or retired.

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I am very happy that Anton Hysén felt comfortable enough–and safe enough–to came out.  I want to support him in every way that I can.  If I can buy an Anton Hysén jersey, someone please point the way.  Having said that however, Hysén is not a major name.  He plays for a fourth division team in Sweden, and ultimately, he is and will always be a journeyman.  There is nothing wrong with this; if only we could all do what we love.  Yet because he will never be one of the game’s great stars, Hysén, for all his skill and dedication, will never escape the the gay player label.  Were he not openly gay, no one, save for his family and fans of his team, would care about Hysén; his sexuality alone distinguishes him.

Nevertheless, Hysén is important because he is the gay footballer.  By having a good career, if not a spectacular one, he can  lead the way for others who are still in the closet.  Hysén will, for the rest of his life, have a built-in fan base and a pioneering status that will never fade.  Any fans he may have lost for coming out, has already been offset by the adoration he now has from fans worldwide.  Journeyman even in stronger leagues simply do not get that king of media attention or fan adoration.

Yet Hysén is not the great gay hope.  What gay fans want (and what sports need) is the first gay superstar.  In football this is someone who is on the level of a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo–or better yet someone who can the pantheon of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, and Di Stéfano.  (Or in American sports analogies, a player on the Michael Jordan/Willie Mays/Jim Brown/Wayne Gretzky level.)  Essentially, gay sports fans are waiting for the gay Jackie Robinson.

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The gay Jackie Robinson meme is a lazy shorthand that has been embraced by gay fans and the media alike.  It is also extremely inaccurate.  Most Americans who know nothing about sports still know that in 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black player to play in Major League Baseball in about sixty years.  In the late 1880’s the white establishment of professional baseball deliberately segregated black players into the Negro League.  It was nothing short of pernicious, but it also prevented some of the greatest players from playing each other.  Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball signified the clear end to Jim Crow in baseball and hinted at complete desegregation in American society.  As a pioneer and a civil rights icon, Robinson is second to none.  (Although world football continues to have horrific problems with racism, from the beginning of the modern game in the mid 1920’s, black and mixed-race players played at the highest levels.  José Leandro Andrade was a star of the great Olympic and World Cup winning side of Uruguay (1924-1930).  Before Andrade, the talented Isabelino Gradín also played for Uruguay.)

To call an openly gay sports figure the gay Jackie Robinson is to ignore the social and political milieu of Robinson’s era.  When Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jim Crow was still strong.  Brown v. Board of Education was seven years away, and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act were nearly two decades away.  There was not yet a Martin Luther King Jr., a Rosa Parks, or a Malcolm X.

Robinson and the other players in the Negro League had been excluded by the establishment simply because they were black, a fact they could not hide.  Because sport is a largely visual experience, Robinson’s race could not be overlooked by anyone in or out of the game.  Needless to say, the reactions were not universally positive, and Robinson had to endure racially-tinged abuse–abuse that would never be tolerated today.

Compare that to the gay player.  If he exists (and he does), he is not actively segregated out.  Rather he has made the conscious choice to live a lie.  He is afraid to potentially subject himself to the same abuse that Jackie Robinson did.  Because he can hide, he chooses to do so.  Yet this is not 1947, or even 1997.  Although the United States is not a perfect country by any means with regard to LGBT rights, one cannot compare what a black player had to face over sixty years ago with what a gay player would face today.

In world football, the first top-tier gay star will probably be from civilized areas like the United States or Western Europe and not some homophobic hell hole like Iran or Saudi Arabia where being homosexuality is a death penalty offense.  Therefore, the pressures keeping that player in the closet are internal not external.  When the first openly gay top-tier player does come out, either willingly or because he was forced out, he will be honest, he will be brave, and he will be  role model.  But he will not be an icon of a civil rights movement.

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Every once in a while there is a mini-scandal about gays in sports.  In 2001, Brendan Lemon, the then-Editor-in-Chief of Out Magazine, caused a tempest in a teapot when he claimed that he was dating a closeted professional Major League Baseball player (the irony that the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine called Out was dating someone who was closeted was lost on no one.)  It caused a lot of hand wringing in the LGBT community, the same kind of hand wringing that happens every time a retired professional ballplayer finally comes out and then prattles on and on about how impossible it is for a gay player to come out of the closet.  It’s rather annoying actually.

The media, as is its wont, turns to polls to see how Americans feel about gay players.  Nothing is more ridiculous than the media turning to polls on this topic.  Polls are deceptive indicators–they are clumsy attempts to quantify complex and nuanced situations.  Moreover, polls (even accurate ones) can only tell what is, not what will be.  Yet, it does seem like as a society we have turned a corner.  There is more support for the theoretical gay player than ever before both from the fans and in the locker room.  This is not to say there is universal acceptance, but I would bet that most of the teammates of an openly gay player would rally around him like Anton Hysén’s or Gareth Thomas’s teammates have.

What gay athletes (and the sports establishment) are most afraid of though, is fan reaction.  At least one professional football player has written eloquently and accurately about how the fans are primarily to blame.  Will fans accept a gay player?  Will they purchase a gay player’s jersey?  How would they react in the stadium?

World football has the additional problem of fan violence.  In football, passion is such that, in some places I would fear for the life and safety of the gay player, particularly when he goes into a stadium in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, certain parts of South America, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa.  Fans attacking team buses is not altogether rare.  Even in the so-called “civilized” countries, fans have been known to throw things onto the pitch and injure players and officials.

And then there is the chanting.  Racism in football is a huge embarrassment for football at every level from FIFA on down.  Yet these incidents keep happening.   I doubt that homophobia causes that kind of embarrassment, so I don’t even see the football establishment even giving the same half-hearted lip service to stamping out homophobia that they do for racism.  Quite frankly, these organizations are run primarily by old men who more likely than not share the same squeamishness if not outright dislike of homosexuality as the fans.

And then there is the chanting.  The songs in football stadiums can be vicious.  This is not just chanting things like “faggot” or “maricón” or whatever other obnoxious puts downs each language has.  I am talking about what happens when the gay player travels to an unfriendly stadium (even in his own country) and tens of thousands of opposition fans start singing about the gay player’s sex life–specifically that the gay player is the penetrated partner in anal or oral sex.  This is not good-natured banter, it is an attempt to emasculate or feminize the gay player.  To humiliate him in a way that really hits home in the ultra-masculine world of sports.

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I am not sure a gay football player will come out any time soon, but I am hopeful.  If it does happen, I suspect it would happen in ice hockey first.  Ice hockey is as brutal and masculine as any sport out there, and many players come from homophobic backgrounds.  NHL fans are as passionate and violent as any this side of world football.  Yet I still believe that ice hockey is closer than any other sport to accepting a gay player.

Ice hockey has already had a pioneer of sorts.  Brendan Burke, the sons of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager (and also General Manager for the United States men’s ice hockey team at the 2010 Olympics) Brian Burke, came out as gay in November 2009.  Although Brendan was not a player, he nevertheless made international headlines.  Brendan was a visible presence in the sport, his family and his college team rallied around him, and his coming out began a dialogue in ice hockey, the likes of which no other sport has seen.

Sadly, Brendan died in a car accident on February 5, 2010.  Yet hockey has internalized both Brendan and his loss.  The US men’s Olympic team wore dog tags with his name inscribed on it.  The Chicago Black Hawks, after winning the Stanley Cup, marched with the Cup in the 2010 Chicago Gay Pride Parade.  Brian Burke has continued his son’s activism and has become a strong advocate for gay rights.  I believe that the NHL establishment is sending out signals that the league is ready for an openly gay player.

I hope so.  Even if the first openly gay active player is not a Jackie Robinson, he will still be a hero.  And there are still plenty of young gay boys and girls who would love to look up to him.

One response to “The Gay Jackie Robinson?

  1. Pingback: David Testo | tracingthetree

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