Gays and professional sports: Sir Charles stands up for what's right. Again.

A few days ago, Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts revealed that he is gay. And the whole sporting world exploded yawned.

Okay, that’s not precisely true. There has been a bit of comment and analysis. But so far, no controversy. No homophobic ranting, no athletes stepping up to say that Jesus doesn’t approve, none of that. This is a wonderful thing. That the public response so far has amount to a collective shoulder shrug is evidence that America is finally getting over the idea that sports just isn’t ready for gays in the locker room.

That’s what sports talker Jim Rome said back in 2007, when former NBA player John Amaechi came out, and at the time I sort of agreed with him. Subsequent dumbassery from Tim Hardaway and LeBron James lent credibility to Rome’s argument, although perhaps we were underestimating locker room culture because it is by no means clear that Hardaway and The Decision represented a majority viewpoint even at that time.

In any case, we may now be on the verge of a tipping point regarding gay athletes. As today’s Washington Post column from Mike Wise notes: “sports has undergone a very gay spring.”

First the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was hit with a $100,000 fine for uttering a gay slur at a referee, an incident Bryant later called a “teaching moment” as he and the club partnered with a gay-rights group to educate others.

Then, there was the New York Rangers’ Sean Avery’s endorsement ad for the Human Rights Campaign’s “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Campaign,” an instigator in the most testosterone-laden of sports, no less.

Over the weekend, Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, coincidentally two Phoenix Suns players, participated in an NBA public service announcement that denounced the use of the term “gay” as acceptable trash talk on the playground.

It was also revealed that former Villanova player Will Sheridan came out to teammates during his career with the Wildcats, with no ramifications whatsoever.

There’s more. Just announced yesterday: “The San Francisco Giants will become the first professional sports team to jump into the burgeoning anti-homophobia campaign with an upbeat ‘It Gets Better’ video designed to bring hope to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people.” And while Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell unleashed a homophobic tirade against some Giants fans, which is bad, his actions earned him a two-week unpaid vacation to reflect on how he might be a better citizen in the future. That the institutions of the sports world are implementing zero-tolerance policies is a welcome development, to say the least.

Wise interviewed NBA Hall of Fame player and popular TNT analyst Charles Barkley for that story, and Chuck’s thoughts should go a long way toward dispelling the myth that jocks cannot and will not abide an openly gay teammate. Barkley, who just a few days ago praised Sean Avery’s support for gay marriage rights, doesn’t mince words in explaining the salient points:

  • On two of the three teams he played for he had teammates he knew were gay.
  • It was no big deal.
  • They were professionals who contributed to the betterment of the team.
  • Talent matters more than sexual orientation.

“I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”

So, how many gays are there in America’s pro locker rooms, anyway? In the 2007 post I link above, I ran some numbers.

Estimates for how many gays there are in the US vary wildly, but it looks like the most reliable number for men is in the 2.8% range. So let’s take that as our working estimate.

There are 32 NFL teams, and each carries around 60 players. So that’s 1920.

30 NBA teams, 12-man rosters: 360 players.

There are 30 Major League Baseball franchises (if you count the Colorado Rockies) and they have 25-man rosters for the bulk of the season. So that’s 750.

NHL teams dress a 20-man rosters for each game, and there are 30 teams, so that’s another 600.

Note: I’m being conservative here. If you factor in practice squads, injury lists, minor league call-ups and the like these numbers get significantly larger. But for the sake of discussion, let’s just stick with active roster numbers and see what happens.

By my math, this means we can expect the following to be about right:

  • NFL: 54 gay players
  • NBA: 10 gay players
  • MLB: 21 gay players
  • NHL: 17 gay players
  • Total in “Big 4″ American sports leagues: 102 active gay players

I don’t know that Sir Charles has done the math, but he clearly understands the reality:

“Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot,” Barkley said. “I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”

Perhaps the two most refreshing insights of the interview came when Barkley linked discrimination against gays to other forms of discrimination and then fingered those responsible.

“First of all, society discriminates against gay people,” Barkley said. “They always try to make it like jocks discriminate against gay people. I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”

The first people who whine and complain is them Bible-thumpers, who are supposed to be non-judgmental, who rail against them. [emphasis added]

As I said back in December, it’s only a matter of time before a major star comes out of the closet. Thanks to the courage of people like John Amaeche, Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo, Glenn Burke, Billy Bean, Dave Pallone, Rick Welts and dozens of others, I expect the furor to last about five minutes – and that will be due to the “major star,” not the “gay.”

Meanwhile, thank the gods for smart, no-BS media personalities like Charles Barkley, huh? I don’t know that he ever set out to establish himself as a progressive cultural icon, but he always does his best to tell the truth. And, as they say, the truth shall set you free.


Also, if you have a minute, read Frank DeFord’s comments today on gay athletes coming out at NPR.

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