Youth sports not so gay, even if participants sometimes say it is
John Buccigross at ESPN.com has a nice piece about the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager and overall NHL icon Brian Burke coming out to his family, and to the college hockey for which he serves as student manager — and about how basically nothing changed as a result.
Unfortunately, Brendan Burke’s story counts as news not only because of his father’s prominence but also because an athlete coming out as gay is news, and nothing changing as a result would be an even more unusual story. Look at all the amazed coverage when Corey Johnson came out to his high school football team in 2002, and his teammates supported him.
Even in Brendan Burke’s story, there is a key part that shows just how much homophobia still reigns in the lockerroom. He quit his high school hockey team before his senior year because of the pressure he felt over being found out. He suspected, like most gay athletes, that the response in a lockerroom ringing with offhand homophobic slurs would be more like Greg Congdon, the Pennsylvania football player run off his team for coming out, than Johnson.
On one hand, you would think that sports and homosexuality would be less of a big deal than it used to be. A 2005 Sports Illustrated survey showed that 78 percent of fans said it would be OK for openly gay athletes to participate in sports, and 76 percent of fans disagreed with the statement that they would be less of a fan of a certain athlete if the player were gay. On the other hand, the gay marriage debate has shown that people are worried about gay marriage because they’re not so big on gay people. Even if you live in Liberaltown, USA, there are still plenty of people waiting to make your life hell because you’re gay. Double that if you dare do that in the environment of sweaty, musky, shower-sharing, naked-wrestling, totally-not-gay-in-any-way environment of men’s sports.
(Women’s sports certainly has its own issues — cough, Rene Portland, cough — but to the society at large, there are still a lot of people who assume if a woman plays a sports it’s BECAUSE she’s gay.)
A few years ago, in a piece for MSNBC.com, I interviewed University of Missouri lacrosse coach Kyle Hawkins, who had recently come out of the closet after two years as “Frustrated_Coach” anonymity on the Outsports.com message boards. Hawkins comes from a Southern Baptist upbringing and was surely worried (as it turns out, with reason) what his family would think. But that wasn’t what Hawkins feared most.
“If you put yourself in a gay person’s shoes, the outright fear is not what people think of you, but what people can do to you,” Hawkins said.
That was before the 2006 season. After that year, a dozen players left the club-level team, and before the 2007 season started, Hawkins was fired — by his players, who have ultimate control in a nonvarsity sport. No one said any of it was because he was gay, but it seems hard to believe them, particularly after an Associated Press story that ran a month before Hawkins’ firing described explicit, homophobic langauge between high school players at a Hawkins-run camp and quoted a Missouri player and team vice president saying having a gay man as coach was “awkward.” Hawkins is now coaching lacrosse in Germany.
It’s not what people think of you, but what people can do to you.
So what is going to take to make youth sports more gay-friendly? I may as well ask, what it’s going to take to make society more gay-friendly? Of course, athlete sexuality generally isn’t an issue at the elementary level where I coach. However, what is an issue is the language that parents and coaches use. Not that fourth-grade coaches are calling their players fags, but homophobic language about players being girls and sissies can slip in. The first thing that can be done is that at least people coaching boys can stop defining manliness as something that’s not being anything a girl is.
The tougher issue is at the high school level, when sexuality of all kinds is a big deal. At the least, coaches should also not allow homophobic language in the locker room. But their fight is an uphill battle in a country where a large number of the population still thinks of homosexuality as a sinful abomination, and where “don’t ask don’t tell” is still the law of military. My guess is the reason most coaches don’t deal with it is because they just don’t want to step in sexual discussions in general. They ultimately get paid to coach and win. The next youth coach who gets fired for not putting the clamps down on homophobia will be the first.
What would help tremendously is if professional athletes would come out. Not after their careers, but during, or even before. That wouldn’t solve the problem of homophobia and youth sports, but it at least would send a message to all the mouth-breathers that some goddamn faggot can be the manliest of men after all. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. In this excellent video below, news accounts of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier are edited to show what would happen to the first out player.