10 years and 2 days later, the first openly gay athlete in team sports history

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By John Moore
April 29, 2013

TMOTODDTMOGRACEIt’s hard for me to believe it was 10 years and 2 days ago that I wrote the following story about the new Broadway play “Take Me Out,” which imagined the serious repercussions of the first openly gay male athlete in the history of team sports. As of today, there is one: Jason Collins, who says in the May 6, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” 

Here’s a link to this historic story.

In many ways, the story I wrote a decade ago put me on the map as a serious theater reporter. I had originally returned to Denver as a sports editor asked to imagine how The Denver Post might cover its first-ever major-league baseball team. So later, when I was the still the green new theater critic at The Post, and playwright Richard Greenberg wrote “Take Me Out,” it was natural for me to explore the very consequential reasons this had never happened before in real life – and was unlikely to anytime soon. Look no further than Colorado Rockies pitcher Todd Jones’ quote, which made a little bit of history of its own at the time:

I wouldn’t want a gay guy being around me. It’s got nothing to do with me being scared. That’s the problem: All these people say he’s got all these rights. Yeah, he’s got rights or whatever, but he shouldn’t walk around proud. It’s like he’s rubbing it in our face. ‘See me, Hear me roar.’ “

On the day my story came out, it was the lead item on both espn.com and gay.com at the same time. Fairly certain that has never happened before, or since — until today. By the time I finally saw (and wrote about) “Take Me Out,” the play had been open for several months. My favorite response to the story came from the play’s New York publicist, Juliana Hannett. “I can’t believe no one here (in New York) ever thought to write about that before you got here,” she told me then. One year ago, she wrote me: “That was such a wonderful and important piece. I just went back into the archives to read it again, and the years have given a fresh perspective on the kind of dialogue we were able to create with that show – and your dedication to continuing it. I wish, as a nation of sports fans, we could have put this particular prejudice in the past by now. But, alas, it seems we still have a lot of ground to cover on that front.”

Here’s a look back at how this highly volatile issue was shaping up in 2003. At the time, it was difficult to imagine a player coming out in the almost organically supportive manner Collins’ news is likely to be received. That’s due in large part to historically rapid recent shifts in public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, and the laws that are coming with that. Back then, a much lonelier, frightening and inescapably violent landscape appeared to await whoever Jason Collins turned out to be. Even Collins says in his essay today, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”

But in the story, actor Daniel Sunjata, who plays a Derek Jeter-like player who comes out as gay, said of the play: “It encourages the times to catch up a little bit.”

Just now, Denver Nuggets player Kenneth Faried Tweeted: “Wow this is amazing. All smiles. So, so happy Jason Collins came out & announced he was openly GAY. ALL SUPPORT OVER HERE.”

I think the times just did.

 

Fear and loathing in America’s locker rooms

Why Broadway’s portrayal of openly gay ballplayer runs counter to reality

By John Moore
The Denver Post
April 27, 2003

NEW YORK – In the few first seconds of the most controversial new play on Broadway, a young, handsome and cocky major-league baseball superstar casually and unashamedly mentions to the media and his teammates that he is gay. His talents are so god-like, his life to date so charmed and insulated from hatred, it never occurs to him to care what anyone else might think about that.

Art, in this case, certainly does not imitate life. Because in the entire history of the four major American professional team sports, not one player ever has come out as a homosexual while still collecting paychecks and banking endorsements.

In the real world, this is what really happens when an athlete turns out to be gay:

Last year, when retired NFL player Esera Tuaolo revealed his homosexuality, Sterling Sharpe told a national television audience that his 6-foot-3, 300-pound former teammate would have been hated and “eaten alive” by his own kind, had they known. Tuaolo would have been “taken out” on a Tuesday, Sharpe vowed, before he could
ever make it to a game on Sunday.

How ironic that Richard Greenberg’s Pulitzer-nominated new play is titled “Take Me Out” as both an homage to America’s pastime and a reference to the lead character’s sexuality. Like a baseball triple play, Sharpe’s attitude reveals an unintended third entendre that speaks to the consequences any real-life ballplayer might face: He would be taken out.

“I think it would be an enormously difficult thing to do,” said Greenberg, “and I think it will probably be hellish for whoever does it, no matter who he is. There is nothing but disincentive.”

Not only would the player likely lose endorsements and face tension in his own locker room, he would be hounded by the media in every city he visited, and he would be constantly subjected to verbal and even physical abuse. Last year, a father and son rushed the field in Kansas City just to attack an opposing base coach.

“You can imagine what a gay player would be up against,” said Greenberg, an openly gay man. “You’re endangering his life.”

The only incentive for doing it anyway, he said, “is if the player just can’t stand it anymore. When living the lie becomes impossible.”

An irony is that even a terrified player taken to the brink and involuntarily shoved off likely would land in a vast safety net held up by supporters he cannot possibly yet imagine, and not just from the gay community. A lifetime of celebrity and speeches would follow, as well as mail from suicidal gay teens crediting him with saving their lives. That doesn’t qualify as incentive, but it would certainly counter the inevitable negative fallout.

Greenberg grew up on Long Island with no interest in baseball until the 1998 World Series, when, at age 38, with the help of his fanatical brothers, he became intoxicated with the New York Yankees and baseball’s ability to reveal the heart and mind of America.

His play gets to the heart of America’s love for the game (“baseball is unrelentingly meaningful”) but also shows how it can be unrelentingly mean (the protagonist gets a fan letter from a father who would be proud to have him as his son’s scoutmaster or teacher … “but do you have to play baseball?”).

New York Empires ballplayer Darren Lemming’s teammates are fairly accepting of his homosexuality, but that might be because they are so enormously dependent on his talent. What stirs up the chalk line is the promotion of a minor-league pitcher named Shane Mungitt, who sounds like John Rocker and looks libelously like menacing mullet-head Randy Johnson. The conflict builds to a violent end, and not just for the two antagonists.

In real life, a hostile reception of some degree certainly awaits whatever player decides to become the gay equivalent of Jackie Robinson – if the decision is actually his.

Colorado Rockies pitcher Todd Jones, a 6-foot, 3-inch pitcher from Marietta, Ga., said an openly gay player would create a hostile locker-room environment, and that opposing pitchers would likely throw intentionally at his head.

“I wouldn’t want a gay guy being around me,” Jones said. “It’s got nothing to do with me being scared. That’s the problem: All these people say he’s got all these rights. Yeah, he’s got rights or whatever, but he shouldn’t walk around proud. It’s like he’s rubbing it in our face. ‘See me, hear me roar.’ We’re not trying to be close-minded, but then again, why be confrontational when you don’t really have to be?”

That kind of attitude “speaks volumes about America,” said actor Daniel Sunjata, a Jeter lookalike who plays Lemming in “Take Me Out.” “Sports are the last bastion of sanctioned homophobia in this country. The fact that something like sexual preference can so adversely affect your career and your income is depressing. If I were a pro baseball player, and I was gay, I might not come out, either, for those exact reasons.”

Mark Grace, a 38-year-old first baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said most ballplayers are less threatened by the idea of a gay teammate. “I’ve played for 16 years, and I’m sure I’ve had homosexual teammates that I didn’t know about,” he said. “If one out of six or seven men are homosexual – do the math.”

Any problem, Grace said, would manifest itself not so much in the field but in the locker room and in the showers – where, not coincidentally, the majority of “Take Me Out” takes place.

“I think the perception in the clubhouse would be one of, for lack of a better word – fear,” Grace said. “Fear that they’d be stared at or (that a gay player might fall) in love with them. But I think if you’re intelligent at all, you’d understand that homosexuals are just like us. They don’t think everybody’s attractive. Just because this guy’s homosexual doesn’t mean he’s attracted to me.”

 

(Please click “Page 2” below to go to the next page of our story on the Broadway play “Take Me Out.”)