Breaking the Barrier

Today is the birthday of Jackie Robinson, who would be 94 if he were still alive. In 1947, he famously broke the color barrier when he was called up by the Dodgers as the first black player to integrate the all-white league. During this period of growing racial tension in the United States, he was possibly the most hated national sports figure. Yet today and forevermore Robinson is considered a legend and hero.

But in the world of professional sports, while the glass ceiling of sexual identity is beginning to crack, embracing an LGBT national sports figure has yet to happen.

More and more, professional athletes are opening up to embracing same-sex marriage and equal rights for LGBT families, displaying an incredible wave of change in acceptance for this country. Just last weekend, Denver Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried came out in support of same-sex marriage in a video sitting between his two mothers who raised him. Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo who is heading to the Super Bowl this Sunday recently reached out to LGBT advocates to see what he could do with the extra media attention he would get in the days leading up to the big game to see how he could further the cause of marriage equality and anti-bullying campaigns.  And next weekend the Family Equality Council is honoring NFL punter Chris Kluwe from the Minnesota Vikings who has been a vocal advocate defending the freedom to marry for same-sex partners in Minnesota.

But these are all straight allies, since we are still a nation where most LGBT professional athletes feel that they have to veil their sexual identity in the world of sports. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, former NFL cornerback Wade Davis explained what it was like being a gay professional athlete and why he waited until his retirement to publicly come out. “I didn’t know what the response would be, I didn’t know if it would change the team dynamic, I didn’t know if I was ready to own it in front of other people, too.” He explained. For Jamie Kuntz, former linebacker with the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) Wildcats, that fear was confirmed when he was kicked off of his team after admitting to his coach he was gay when a teammate witnessed the eighteen year old athlete kissing his boyfriend. And yesterday cornerback with the San Francisco 49ers Chris Culliver stated “No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”

So there are a variety of opinions from straight professional athletes on the subject, but how do most players feel about having an openly gay teammate? “I think the real issue is that the idea that a gay man could play sports is an attack to straight guys’ masculinity,” Davis added. “This gay guy can play my sport better than me? What does that say about me as a straight guy? I think that’s why people had an issue. I think the world is evolving around the idea of what is masculinity.” But until the world does evolve, who do young LGBT athletes have to look up to? Who will show young gay athletes of tomorrow that sexual orientation in fact does not stand as a barrier for reaching your full potential on the field?

Athletes like Wade Davis confirm that indeed there are LGBT professional athletes who are not out publicly. When an athlete or athletes decide to publicly come out, hateful and homophobic backlashes on websites, twitter, and Facebook questioning the player’s strength or the potential distractions to the team may temporarily dominate the conversation and overshadow the talent that brought that individual to the heights of their career despite this one fact about their identity. But I believe most of America is ready to welcome gay athletes to their favorite teams.

Jackie Robinson endured a lot of hate when he crossed racial barriers to become the first black player in Major League Baseball (an instant hero to black youths everywhere and eventually revered as a hero by the entire sports world). For the LGBT community, a Jackie Robinson has yet to emerge.