Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, the number one overall pick of the WNBA draft, laughs during a news conference in Phoenix earlier this week.
It was in the locker room and on the field where Wade Davis felt most at peace with himself, which doesn’t sound unusual until he tells you that he was then a closeted gay man. “Sports was, for me, the safest place,” says Davis, an NFL and NFL Europe player from 2000 to 2004.
Davis used football as a sanctuary from the rigid social hierarchy of middle and high school. Away from the game, away from his teammates, he struggled to focus on anything other than his inner turmoil and whether it was evident to his fellow classmates. To conceal his sexuality, he wore baggy pants and talked “with a twang.” “Anything to make people feel as if I was like everyone else,” says Davis, who finally revealed he was gay in January 2012.
Little of Davis's experience squares with the prevailing narrative of the sports world—especially the NFL—as a bastion for homophobia, hyper-masculinity and heteronormative socialization. As society has grown more and more accepting and inclusive of gay men and women, many are waiting for the sports world to reflect that change. Last week, the WNBA’s top draft pick, Brittney Griner of Baylor University, revealed she was gay, had been open about her sexuality for awhile and encouraged others to “just be who you are.” Her announcement was mostly greeted with a collective shrug.
Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and gay-rights activist Brendon Ayanbadejo said as many as four NFL players were considering coming out to “take the pressure off one guy.” He later backed off the claim, saying that he had gotten ahead of himself, but there’s much more discussion in recent months about the possibility of someone stepping forward to become the first openly gay athlete on a major U.S. sports team. Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com has reported at least one current NFL player may come out publicly as gay in the next few months.
By and large, however, sports figures in major teams sports have stayed in the closet. Why are they waiting? What are the player’s concerns? Not with teammates or the reaction inside the locker room. “America is the greatest place in the world. But America is more homophobic than locker rooms,“ Charles Barkley said recently on The Dan LeBatard Show in Miami. Pro athletes “have played with gay players before. … The crowd is going to be shouting things more than it’s going to be uncomfortable in the locker room.” The particular player Freeman wrote about for CBSSports.com felt the same. “The player fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out.”
Fans are us.
Without question, there are legitimate concerns about the atmosphere of professional sports locker rooms—and their front offices. There are regular questions about whether an openly gay player could become a “distraction.” Several NFL teams recently dared to ask former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o if he’s gay—possibly flouting the laws of their respective states‚ following a highly publicized hoax-girlfriend saga. And seemingly every year, at least one NFL player embarrasses his team and the league with anti-gay comments.
Consider also that TV commentator and former Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who wields a lot of influence in the league, has previously been vocal about his opposition to marriage equality.
Players argue, though, that those attitudes don’t represent the majority of sports players. “I have to acknowledge there’s a vocal minority that makes it hard for people to give the whole of the NFL the benefit of the doubt,” says Stephen White, a former defensive lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets who has been especially vocal about gay rights and other progressive issues on his Twitter account.
He adds, however: “The majority of guys don’t feel like that, it’s just you hear about the [anti-gay comments from players] the most.” Some players have been roundly criticized by teammates and the media for anti-gay comments and homophobic slurs that once were considered standard locker-room language. Others have become visible spokespeople for marriage equality, including Ayanbadejo. The league’s rookie symposium will now reportedly include sessions on inclusion and tolerance. Officials from the NFL's front office met with LGBT rights groups recently about ending homophobia in sports. NFL security has said that it will work with any player that does eventually decide to come out, including monitoring public reaction and social media for potential threats.
The shifting attitudes in the league seem to mirror those of the broader society, where nine states and the District of Columbia have made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry and the Supreme Court seems open to striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). “As society gets more and more accepting, so will the sports world,” says Davis, who didn’t come out of the closet until nearly eights years after he left the league. “It’s not about the NBA, NFL, or the MLB; it’s about the people who are coming into these space with the ideas of what it means to be gay." "There weren’t the conversations out there then like there are now," Davis added. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have definitely come out."
White, who worries about the possibility of a media-driven "witch hunt" for closeted gay players, still thinks the time has come. "I’m hoping nothing happens, but I feel like it’s time to find out," White said. "There’s only one way to find out. That will start the process, even if it doesn’t go 100 percent well at first, get the ball rolling and see what it’ll take to get us there."
The NFL claims to be ready for it. The better question is whether we are. Davis said he still receives hate mail from football fans for his work as a LGBT activist. Gossip websites—and their comments sections—remain a sanctuary for the worst kind of homophobes who recklessly speculate about the sexuality of current professional athletes. Griner has endured well-publicized bullying, both online and from opposing fans, since emerging as the dominant force in women’s basketball several years ago.
"How many times have you heard about people yelling horrific things at her and no one has stopped it?" Davis said. "Even though it’s the NCAA’s job to protect her, they didn’t do a good job of it. There are people in the stands who are homophobes and racists who have a voice and they’re going to be heard."