Open Season?

St. Louis 1998-Cardinal's first baseman Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run last night, breaking the long time record of 61 held by Roger Maris. In the post-game celebrations, McGwire thanked his teammates, the city of St. Louis, the Maris family, and his longtime life partner...

Of course, that is not what really happened. Mark McGwire does not have a longtime gay companion; he is heterosexual and in fact recently married. But what if he had been gay? Would that have changed how you felt when he broke Roger Maris's record? Would you have silently, or openly rooted against him? Would he have received hate mail like Hank Aaron did before breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record? No one is really sure, because there has never been an openly homosexual active player in any of our major sports.

This topic is being discussed in the sports world because of an interview in Details magazine where N.Y. Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said that he believed that baseball and America was ready to handle an openly-gay player.

The New York Post took this to mean that he was laying the groundwork for one of his players coming out, and a gossip columnist took it upon himself to broadly hint that it was All-Star catcher Mike Piazza.

This led to a press conference from Piazza where he announced, "I'm not gay." Piazza agreed with Valentine that he thinks an openly-gay baseball player would be accepted, both by the public and his team, but the furor created over the attempted "outing" of Piazza makes it seem that we are not as close as they would like us to believe.

There are openly-gay celebrities. Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, David Sedaris, and Rupert Everett are all successful in their chosen fields, openly gay, and accepted by the general public.

Athletes are not viewed in the same manner as members of the entertainment world.

The image of the successful athlete is that of a "warrior" giving his all on the playing field. The fan base is overwhelmingly male and sports is very much a macho world. These men on the field are seen as heroes and role models. Kids daydream about being them when they grow up.

Will and Grace is a funny and top rated show featuring gay characters, but your son does not have a poster of Will on his bedroom wall. In the culture of sports, where even Christian players are whispered about as being soft, it would make it very difficult for an active player to declare his homosexuality.

Sports fans are notoriously vicious to opposing players, heckling for alcohol or drug abuse, domestic problems, and any other off-the-field situations they know about. Why would it be any different for sexuality? Homophobic chants and epithets would likely echo throughout sports stadiums all over the country. Call-in shows would be inundated by fans blaming a gay athlete's sexual preference for any problems he or the team is having, and there are probably some talk show hosts who would agree. The more conservative religious-right groups would likely boycott the team and have a large bonfire of the player's merchandise. Through rose-colored glasses, we can pretend we are a more open and accepting society, but look around: John Ashcroft, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Cal Thomas ... how open do you think these people would be toward an openly-gay athlete?

The coming out of an openly-gay athlete would be the biggest line crossed since Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey and Happy Chandler to be the man who broke the color barrier, because they knew he would be strong enough to face the challenge on and off the field. There is no league of gay baseball players. If a player comes out willingly, he will have to have a lot of Jackie Robinson's courage, but for him to survive he will need a Pee Wee Reese.

Reese was the All-Star shortstop, and most popular player, for the Dodgers, who was Robinson's double play partner. One afternoon, when Robinson was being viciously heckled by Brooklyn fans, Reese strolled up next to him and put his arm around Robinson's shoulders. He stared down the fans and dared them to say anything to him or Robinson. After that, the heckling for Robinson in Brooklyn stopped. Reese underplayed the incident, simply saying that Robinson was his teammate and that is what you do for a teammate. Will any of today's star athletes be willing to stand beside their teammate, or will fear of losing endorsements or stature stand in their way?

The Big Three of Baseball, Football, and Basketball have never had an active openly-gay player. There have been athletes who've come out, such as Greg Louganis and Martina Navratilova, but no one in the Big Three.

When you weigh the consequences of what would happen to an openly-gay athlete, it's hard to imagine why they would want to put themselves through such a potential ordeal. Then you think of the number of homosexuals in the country and what they have faced in their life and it starts to become clear how much of a role model and hero this athlete would be for the gay community. This person would have the opportunity to change the way some close-minded people think about homosexuality.

The Piazza reaction highlights the fact that freedom of sexual preference may be the next big barrier to be faced in sports.