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FEATURE: More sports figures coming out of the closet
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times, posted May 18, 2011
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2011-05-25

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Rick Welts. Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Suns


Gay men and women have been coming out in the sports world at a record pace in 2011, leading some sports-minded people to think it's like 1947—another year when something really big happened.

As of mid-May, 27 people with ties to sports ( athlete, coaches, team executives, media members, etc. ) have come out of the closet, more than in an entire year in the past. ( See sidebar for the full list. )

No doubt more will come out in the second half of 2011, perhaps a high-profile name, too, not just high-profile professional athletes supporting gay equality.

"My prediction for 2015 is, we will look back at 2011 as the year gay equality in sports made its seismic shift. While we might not have our Jackie Robinson, 2011 will be our 1947," said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the popular gay sports website Outsports.com .

Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947 and now, in death, is immortalized. Major League Baseball has held a Jackie Robinson Day in April every year since 2004 to commemorate and honor his life, not just his baseball career. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and his uniform number, 42, has been retired throughout baseball. In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Number 42 for all teams, thus, no future player on any major league team can wear number 42, although players wearing number 42 at the time were allowed to continue wearing it. New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera remains active and still sports No. 42 on his jersey.

Zeigler said, yes, the world is—and has been—ready for an openly gay athlete in one of the four major sports ( baseball, football, basketball and hockey ) . "A majority of athletes, fans and sports reporters are ready for it," he said. "The world wasn't 'ready' for a black baseball player in 1947, and they weren't 'ready' for gays to marry in Massachusetts in 2004. But [ each event ] happened and the earth kept spinning."

Added Shawn Albritton, president of the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) : "I am hopeful that we will soon see an active player in one of the major [ male ] professional leagues come out."

Ted Cappas of Chicago said there definitely has never been such a flurry of positive coming-out stories in the sports world.

"I don't think there is any specific catalyst causing all this activity, but more of a slow momentum of acceptance," Cappas said. "What Rick Welts has done is another positive step for the gay community. He should be commended and held up as a role-model. His comments about professional sports being one of the last frontiers of acceptance for gays and lesbians is, unfortunately, accurate. Hopefully, his revelation is another chink in the armor of homophobia.

"It was great to see the positive reaction by members of the NBA [ for Welts ] , but for every positive reaction, there is still [ an ] ignorant response to gay-related issues, such as the criticism of [ hockey player ] Sean Avery by agent Todd Reynolds.

"Unfortunately, team sports still has a culture that denigrates gays and lesbians. But one day we will have an out and proud athlete. It is going to take the right person playing for the right organization in the right city."

Rick Welts, the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in May that he is gay. His high-profile coming-out attracted supportive calls and/or emails from Charles Barkley, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill, among others. Welts told the Associated Press that, within 24 hours after the New York Times story hit, he had "a couple hundred" supportive emails, some from people he didn't even know.

The day after Welts came out, former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan, who graduated four years ago, revealed he is gay. Sheridan is only the second former Division I male basketball player to publicly come out as gay; John Amaechi was the first. Travon Free, who played at Long Beach State University, previously came out as bisexual.

Sheridan revealed to ESPN.com that he came out to his teammates and dated men while in college.

Sheridan was followed days later on the coming-out trail by Jared Max, a sportstalk host at ESPN 1050 in New York City. Max came out as gay in the final seven minutes of his radio show on May 19, talking about how the coming out of Welts and Sheridan, along with the supportive words of Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, pushed him to come out. Ironically, his radio show is called: Maxed Out.

"I'm taking this courageous jump into the unknown having no idea how I will be perceived," Max said on air.

The same day as Max' announcement, the world learned Scott Norton also is gay. Norton is the Professional Bowlers Association Rookie of the Year, and he wrote on the PBA website that chose to come out because it's "important to show people that being gay has nothing to do with one's ability to do anything as a man, least of all compete at the highest level of sports."

Many on the PBA Tour knew he was gay, Norton said.

"To me the impact of [ Welts' ] coming out is best measured by what he went through to get here," Zeigler said. "Welts sacrificed personal happiness to stay in the closet for decades. He mourned the death of a partner alone. He sacrificed a 14-year relationship. He sacrificed his own integrity. When he decided to come out, he went through hoops and over countless emotional and mental hurdles. And after all of that, he decided that coming out was too important to himself and to young people. Given that, it seems to me this is a pretty big deal on a deep personal level to him and to a lot of people in Welts' shoes.

"Unfortunately people like Welts, who are successful businessmen with strong legacies and deep pockets, continue to convince themselves that they have to stay in the closet. But Welts' coming out is a very big deal because we're seeing, yet again, that they don't have to [ worry ] . Welts didn't have to endure years of silence and the loss of a relationship. He has the support of his league commissioner, his team owner, and the star player on his team. He could have done this years ago with the same result, and his coming out is powerfully shining light on the increased acceptance of gay people in sports."

Zeigler said Sheridan's coming-out also is an important step forward for race relations; Sheridan is black. And the coming-out of CNN host Don Lemon, who is African-American, on the same day that Welts did also is high-profile, significant.

"People will pair up the coming-out of Welts and Sheridan and say, 'Look how much sports is changing.' And that's true," Zeigler said. "As more and more voices are heard, people are starting to realize what we at Outsports have been saying for a couple years: The sports world simply isn't as homophobic as everyone wants to think it is. It is far more accepted to be homosexual in college and professional sports today than it is to be homophobic. John Amaechi was accepted; Tim Hardaway was rejected. Billy Bean was accepted; John Rocker was rejected. And it's been like this for years, but people are just now starting to realize it, and as they do they're getting more courage to speak their minds."

Added Albritton: "I don't think we're all the way there yet, but it's promising to hear from three prominent professional sports figures—Sean Avery, Charles Barkley and Rick Welts—being supportive of gays.

"I think it's one of those things that snowball. With each passing day, more Americans realize that gays and lesbians deserve the same respect as anyone else. And it's become more and more clear that people you may have known in your life and respect might be gay too. I also think the general public is starting to finally see the hateful tactics certain groups are using to deny basic rights to LGBT people."

Zeigler said that over the past 10 years he has not heard one negative story of a college or professional athlete, active or retired, coming out of the closet publicly. "We're ready for him [ to come out ] , but whether he's ready to do it next month or next year, only they know."

Anti-gay comments are, though, still prevalent in sports. Think John Rocker. Think Tim Hardaway. Think Kobe Bryant. And others, many others over the past decade or so.

Julian Tavarez, who pitched in the major leagues from 1993-2009, including in 2001 for the Chicago Cubs, used the "F" word against a fan while with the Cubs. During an April game that year, Tavarez was booed by fans in San Francisco, stemming from a fight Tavarez had gotten into during spring training with the Giants' Russ Davis and for his hard forearm tag of Marvin Benard.

After the game, Tavarez said, "Why should I care about the fans? They're a bunch of assholes and faggots here.'"

Tavarez was roundly criticized for his remarks by the media, Cubs' president Andy MacPhail and then-Cubs manager Don Baylor.

Ironically, Tavarez pitched for the Giants from 1997-99.

"Did Tavarez understand what he was saying, the way he said it so calmly?" San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp wrote at the time. "He spent three years as a Giant. Surely, he knows that San Francisco is the gay capital of America. If someone wants to use the fashionable excuse that his remarks were 'ill-considered,' Tavarez will have to explain how, with so little consideration, he got his demographics right."

A sports agent this spring made anti-gay comments, not to mention Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.

McDowell received a two-week suspension from Major League Baseball for anti-gay slurs and gestures he made to fans at a game in April.

McDowell has repeatedly apologized for his comments and actions. In mid-May, McDowell read a statement. He said:

"These past two weeks have been very humbling, emotional, and a reflective time for me and my family to better understand about what has happened. I have and will continue to learn from this and have committed to being a productive member of the Atlanta Braves organization and to this coaching staff. in addition, I would like to apologize to anyone who was offended by my actions. I am not proud of the way I acted and I know it will not happen again."

The sports world also has its share of strong gay-rights supporters among straight men, such as, Patrick Burke and Hudson Taylor.

"There are still people who think blacks should be slaves, that women shouldn't work, and that gays should be sent to an island to die. There will always be backward people. No one should ever pander to them," Zeigler said.

"I think the biggest change [ since November 1999 ] has simply been how much people are talking about this issue. We launched Outsports in 1999 because no one was talking about it. Now it's a race to see who will get the next big coming-out story in sports. It's amazing."

Here's a look at people who have come out of the closet in 2011:

January

—Steve Buckley, Boston Herald sports reporter

—Travon Free, former Long Beach State men's basketball player ( bisexual )

—Akil Patterson, greco-roman wrestler

—Johnny Weir, Olympic figure skater

—Brad Usselman, Washington high school runner

—Ben Newcomer, high school soccer player

—Robert Scott, high school soccer player

February

—Craig Cassey, Philadelphia high school runner

—Steven Davies, English cricket player

—Jamie Loo, San Francisco high school wrestler

—Graeme Obree, Scottish cyclist

March

—Emma Dehlson, California high school basketball player

—Anton Hysen, professional Swedish soccer player

April

—Mari Burningham, University of Redlands women's head volleyball coach

—Brandon Stoneham, Adelphi University men's soccer player

—Nick Clark, Siena Heights University assistant men's volleyball coach

—Colin Joyner, Bowdoin College head men's tennis coach

—Ben Chadwich, Bowdoin College men's lacrosse captain

—Emerson Whitney, Transgender sports reporter

—Jeffrey Wammes, Dutch gymnast

—Mike Verschuur, Dutch race car driver

—Kevin Rohle, Adelphi University swimmer

May

—Seth Pamperin, Carroll University tennis captain

—Will Sheridan, former Villanova University basketball star

—Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns

—Jared Max, ESPN 1050 radio host

—Scott Norton, pro bowler

List compiled by Outsports.com


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