Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Jocks aren’t gay. Been that way since the beginning of time. Everyone knows that.

Don’t mistake the manly hugs and affectionate locker room nicknames for anything but team spirit, that extra oomph that might mean The Cup, The Ring, The Title will finally come this year. Yes, we all love Kesler (“Kes”, because Kesler really is a mouthful), but in the manliest of ways. It’s about body checks, dekes and goals and certainly has nothing to do with this.

There has never been an openly gay, active player in the NHL, the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball. Never. Like I said, jocks aren’t gay.

Oh, there was an injured minor league rugby or soccer or hacky sack player from England or Belgium or Brazil who came out last year. It generated a lot of buzz on the internet for about ten minutes. Even when I view the world with fuchsia-colored glasses, I know that’s not much. It doesn’t set the precedent that prompts elite athletes to blow kisses in the stands at ever-loyal best buds named Chaz or Stewart.

Australian Matthew Mitcham won gold at the 2008 Olympics. That should have amounted to something. But, of course, it didn’t. Divers shave their bodies, strut about in teensy Speedos and spend too much of their day practicing pointing their toes. Diving isn’t much of a sport. Everyone knows cannonballs make a bigger splash.

Even Johnny Weir, donning a flamboyant getup at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver played coy over his sexuality. Why should he admit to anything? Save it for the income-generating book when he’s relegated to being the warmup act at the ice capades.

After retirement, jocks can stray. Every so often a retiree will hold a press conference, announcing he is gay. (Yes, it’s usually a brief public statement. “I talk about it in depth in my forthcoming memoir.” Only retirees say things like forthcoming.) How do current jocks handle the coming out party of a retired jock? Not sure but I wonder if it can be attributed to a side effect from frequent concussions. I mean, something’s gotta be messed up according to jock logic.

Okay, so let’s review: jocks are not gay.

But wait, you say, what if they are? A few, at least. If not ten percent, then maybe one or two. Gosh golly, it must be pretty uncomfortable for them in the locker room. Maybe even more uncomfortable than it would be for the straight jocks, unknowingly showering alongside closeted gay jocks.

Hooboy, someone insert a dropping-the-soap joke. (That never gets old.)

Yes, I have no doubt that locker rooms are among the last bastions of sanctioned homophobia. Behind closed doors, I am sure many coaches resort to references about “playing like girls” and “queer/fag/gay” references to the opposing team. All that after-the-whistle trash talk on the field/rink/court? If the guys had mikes attached to their jerseys, I am certain we’d hear all sorts of gay putdowns.

That is why I find the newly launched You Can Play campaign a small, yet significant step forward. Regardless of what you think of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke as a general manager or an ex-coach, I give him kudos for stepping up with his son Patrick to honor Brendan Burke, Brian’s gay son who died in a car accident on February 5, 2010. Burke made headlines by appearing in Toronto’s Gay Pride parade in 2009 with Brendan and in 2010 and 2011 in Brendan’s honor. For many, that might have been enough. But the Burkes have continued their public advocacy of accepting homosexuality. Their first commercial featuring a number of NHL players sends a simple message. Hockey is about skills. Sexuality is irrelevant. Gay or straight, just play.

The initiative supposedly finds some of its inspiration from the It Gets Better project, but I admit that “If you can play, you can play” message feels watered down, similar to the Don’t ask, don’t tell “breakthrough” that Clinton negotiated with the U.S. military twenty years ago. (Yes, back then, it was real progress.) The reality is that professional sports are significantly behind the times. Yet this is a starting point.

The website explains that the initiative aims to end “casual homophobia” that occurs on sports teams. By “casual”, the message is that most athletes are not blatantly homophobic; rather, the gay taunts are part of institutionalized trash talk banter, comparable to “That’s so gay” references heard in hallways in many high schools. While I do not find any homophobic remark to be casual, I acknowledge that this campaign first attempts to raise a consciousness about what players and coaches say. In time, the rhetoric may be eliminated. Looking forward, there may come a time when active athletes, revered by many, may step forward and come out. Imagine the positive impact this will have.

I see that as a long way away. But progress often begins with a single step, however small. If and when more athletes from a range of sports join in the campaign, more small steps will be made toward ending sports-sanctioned homophobia. In time, a series of small steps may amount to a considerable distance moving forward.

Thank you to the Burke family for taking the lead.

1 comment:

Rick Modien said...

Couldn't agree more. As always, beautifully written.
I watched the video, and I was impressed. I didn't take it the way you did. I'm not sure it suggests you can be gay, just don't talk about it and play the game. I'd like to think it says being gay isn't an issue, one way or the other, as long as you can play the game well.
On the other hand, it would be great if big, tough sports teams and players could simply accept sexual orientation in the same way other differences are accepted. Don't ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist. Accept it as an integral part of whoever is. I think the video is a good step in that direction. I applaud them for making it.