Monday, December 09, 2002
by Wayne Besen
The anti-gay comments made by 49ers running back Garrison Hearst were shocking. An athlete on a San Francisco team disparaging gays is about as smart as a Utah Jazz player deriding Mormons.
Yet, homophobia is so pervasive in the sports world that Hearst was seemingly oblivious at first to the fact that he might have said something offensive. Unfortunately, the sentiments he expressed are shared by many in the professional game, and these prejudices filter down to locker rooms at the most grassroots level of team sports across the nation.
For instance, during senior year on my high school basketball team (in which I was most valuable player), we lost badly to our rivals. Although I had 25 points and 15 rebounds, as a team we were clearly outmatched. Afterward, the coach launched into an ear-shattering locker-room tirade. "You played like a bunch of faggots, except for Wayne," the coach yelled.
While I stood in silence, I wanted to scream, "If we had all played like faggots, we might have won the game!" After all, I had been to a gay bar for the first time only hours before tip-off. Unfortunately, like thousands of athletes across America, I was too fearful to speak up, and once again, an ugly myth about gay people was perpetuated.
Recently, former National Football League player Esera Tuaolo came out of the closet. A series of homophobic comments in the media following his coming- out should make all major professional sports leagues address the serious problem of anti-gay attitudes and discrimination. This last bastion of blatant homophobia must end for the sake of the many professional players, as well as the countless high school and college athletes who are sent the false and destructive message that gay people and sports are incompatible.
Last month, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, wrote NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to clarify where the NFL stands on harassment and discrimination.
HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch sent a letter to the commissioner after hearing about the intolerable anti-gay atmosphere endured by Tuaolo, which included frequent anti-gay jokes and comments. Tuaolo, according to news reports, also believed that if he came out, he might get cut from a team's roster or be intentionally injured.
Comments from former and current NFL players seem to confirm Tuaolo's reservations about coming out while still in the NFL.
On the HBO "Real Sports" segment in which Tuaolo came out, Sterling Sharpe, a former NFL player and teammate of Tuaolo's, said that if Tuaolo had come out while playing, "he would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it." Sharpe then suggested that a gay player might be intentionally injured, even by his own teammates.
According to a Minnesota Viking player quoted Nov. 18 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "I remember a coach told me once, 'There are two things to get you out of the league real fast: drugs and being gay.'"
As we now know, the 49ers' Hearst was asked by a Fresno Bee columnist how he would feel about playing with a gay teammate and responded: "Aww, hell no! I don't want any faggots on my team. I know this might not be what people want to hear . . . I don't want any faggots in this locker room." (Hearst later apologized for his remarks after considerable criticism.)
These comments make it clear that a serious problem needs to be dealt with in the NFL. While the NFL includes the term "sexual orientation" in its official nondiscrimination policy, many players must not be getting the message. The Human Rights Campaign suggests that the NFL addresses this issue at the yearly rookie symposium, where social issues faced by players are discussed. Another way the NFL could send an unmistakable message about where they stand on this issue is by offering domestic partner benefits.
Of course, the NFL is not alone in its failure to create safe workplaces for gay athletes. In the history of professional team sports, no athlete has publicly come out while actively playing. This is not from a lack of gay players, but a palpable fear among those players that coming out means getting run out of their often lucrative careers.
I'll never forget the time I walked into a popular San Francisco gay bar and saw a National Basketball Association player standing alone in a dark corner. As a fellow athlete, I was excited to see a gay NBA player. But when the man realized I recognized him, he was visibly nervous and tried to hide his 7-foot frame behind his long-neck beer. How sad when our gay sports giants have to shrink from who they are and erect barriers to hide their true identity.
In the final analysis, professional sports leagues are workplaces and ought to be governed by the same rules as any other work environment. The employees of these multimillion-dollar companies should know that if they perform well and do their jobs they will succeed -- regardless of their sexual orientation. All gay and lesbian people ask is that they be treated fairly and equally -- whether they are in the stands, in the board room, on the sideline or on the field or court.
Gay and lesbian athletes are succeeding in silence in most high school, college and professional sports teams in America. It is time for professional sports leagues to show some leadership, recognize the contributions of gay and lesbian athletes and send the message that harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation will not be tolerated.