CAT | Athletes Coming Out
What an amazing topic to write about for my first blog post for the 3rd year of this blog: Dave Testo, a former MLS player of the Columbus Crew, comes out! I first saw the news in Outsports, which linked to two news sources: a Canadian news article (unfortunately in French, so you’ll have to run it through a translator to read) and an interview.
Outsports quoted a portion of Testo’s remarks as translated:
“I really regret not having said publicly earlier. I fought with it all my life, my whole career. Living the life of a professional athlete and being gay is incredibly difficult. It is like wearing a secret in his bags but never yourself. It saps all your energy to you, in addition to having to perform, having to play.”
From the interview segment, Testo added:
“It’s made me realize that life is so much greater than just soccer and winning and losing. It’s about the relationships you build with the people around you. In the end, when you’re laying down on your death bed, it’s not about how much money you’ve made, how many wins you have, any of that. You want to know those connections you had to people and the difference you made in people’s lives.”
Testo becomes the first American professional soccer player to come out, and in doing so, MLS joins MLB (Billy Bean), NBA (John Amaechi), and NFL (Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, Roy Simmons) as having a former player come out. Come on NHL!
Unlike the other athletes who have come out after retiring Testo is still active in his professional pursuits. While he is not currently on an MLS roster, he most recently played with the Montreal Impact—a team joining the MLS next season.
It’s a shame he is no longer on the Impact roster, as his coming out would be even more groundbreaking if he was openly gay and on an active, professional, male-team-sport roster. Regardless, at only age 30, he still has a chance to make it back to the MLS ranks, and I hope he is able to do so!
Testo’s coming out contributes to the incremental tearing down of the gay-barrier in sports. The incremental progress lends to the question: what could be next?
A retired NHL player
An obvious progression would be for a retired NHL player to come out. In many respects the NHL has shown to be the most accepting environments of the main professional sports leagues. Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers (and the subject of my previous blog post), cited to a 2006 Sports Illustrated study that nearly 80% of NHL players would support an openly gay teammate. He attributes this significant percentage to how the NHL is different from the other major professional sports leagues in America: many of the players are foreign, coming from more liberal countries.
As the culture of hockey is more progressive (contrary to the rough-and-tough image of the sport/players), I think this could happen easily within the next year.
A “big-name” retired player
While everyone is waiting for the first active player to come out, I think a step that needs to (and will have to) happen first is a “big-name” retired player coming out. “Big-name” being a name those who follow the sport only superficially would know. A player that is a regular starter, that makes the all-star tournament, that might go to a hall of fame.
To date, the names of those who have come out are really only known because they came out. Bean, Amaechi, Kopay, Tuaolo, Simmons, and now Testo, were not household names during their playing careers. They weren’t All-Stars, Pro Bowlers, or Hall of Famers. These are the types of players that would have legitimate worries about coming out while still playing. They were expendable.
In order for a player of comparable caliber to feel safe coming out while playing, a big-name player needs to come out, even if while retired, to send the message, “Yeah, I’m gay, and guess what, I was an all-star, am in the hall of fame, and helped my team win championships.”
In some respects, it’s sad that we value winning and success so much that this matters. We—the fans, media, society, teammates, etc.—should support a guy on the verge of being cut as much as we’d support the player we’ve known and cheered for years. But the reality is that the amount of impact a coming out has is proportionate to the caliber of the player.
So, with that, we need that “big-name” player to come out. And believe me, they’re out there.
Like a retired NHL player coming out, I think this could happen in the next year.
An active player
Many consider an active male player on a professional American team coming out to be THE story. It could be the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and maybe even MLS (or, for soccer, an EPL player coming out would have even more impact, especially globally).
That is going to be, supposedly, the quintessential moment that officially marks “the gay barrier” being torn down. At that point, all of those questions that people have only theorized about are faced: What does the team/league do? How do teammates react? What about the locker room and the showers? How do fans react (both supporting the team and rivals)? How do opponents on the field/ice/court react? How does the player play? How does the media cover the player?
So far, all of these questions have been answered with speculation.
And that speculation continues in trying to answer when this will happen and what sport it will be in.
My opinion: it will happen within 5 years, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if I read about it tomorrow.
Yesterday’s National Coming Out Day produced two great coming out stories in the world of collegiate athletics: (1) Ohio State rugby player Nevin Heard came out as gay to his team and publicly as part of MTV’s special “Coming Out” and (2) the Harvard wrestling time showed came out as allies by wearing pins and t-shirts affirming the LGBT community.
(1) Here’s the video promo of Heard coming out to his team (I imagine there was more story to fill in pre- and post-coming out in the full episode):
Heard’s coming out is awkward. First and foremost, you can tell how nervous he is–breathing heavily, stammering a bit, etc.
But to be fair to Heard, coming out is nerve-wracking. You agonize over it for years. You imagine the number of ways that conversation could happen. And then it hits you: “am I really about to say this?!” You think if you could turn back now, but you realize you can’t. Then mix in some cameras (and I presume some guidance from a director to give a speech) to the equation and the nervousness and awkwardness is amplified.
After he says the magic words, there’s a long pause where Heard seems to be waiting and hoping for a response from his team. Not getting one immediately, Heard continues with a little more speech and makes light of the situation saying how he’d still be open to jokes (and he would continue to joke around himself).
After an awkward conclusion to his speech and a courtesy clap from the team, finally, we get the great response from a teammate that you’d hope for (at 2:55 in the video):
“I’m sure no one cares. You’ve always got a place on this team. You’ll always be my boy, dude. At least for me; I don’t know about anyone else.”
The team then reallies around Nevin and there’s the great “Go Bucks!” chant, which I have to love as a fellow Buckeye!
Nevin also acknowledges that the first guy to speak up was especially great because the guy just came off the army (so I’m guessing, and perhaps for other reasons too, Nevin thought he’d be one of the least receptive teammates.)
Go Bucks, indeed!
(2) Harvard Crimson: “On National Coming Out Day, Athletes Come Out as Allies”
The Harvard Crimson, the schools renowned student-paper, published this great article describing the wrestling team coming out as allies on National Coming Out Day.
According to wrestler David Lalo, the team was inspired to participate to show their support for an openly gay tutor, R.J. Jenkins.
After Jenkins brought up the idea casually to the team and getting some support, he said he “started to imagine it as an opportunity for them to come out as allies.” Jenkins
continued, “To think about a day for allies to come out and say, ‘I accept these people in my life. I accept them for who they are.’”
To show their support, the team donned buttons and a couple players wore shirts created by the in-your-face advocacy group FCKH8. The shirts, visible in several of the photos, read: “SOME KIDS ARE GAY. THAT’S OK.” and “SOME DUDES MARRY DUDES. GET OVER IT.”
What I love so much about these affirming actions by allies is that it sends the powerful message: any gay players would be welcome on the team. So often, for those in the closet, this is the biggest fear, and the quickest way to ease that fear is an explicit statement of support.
That’s all I got. Go Bucks and go Crimson!
My buddy Ryan ZumMallen over at the Long Beach Gazettes wrote an excellent feature on Patricia ‘Peanut’ Manuel, a lesbian boxer hoping to represent the United States in the 2012 London Olympics.
“There aren’t too many out athletes, so it’s important to stand up and say that I’m gay and I’m out,” Manuel says. “When I was growing up there weren’t people to look up to as an example. If there are young girls out there who feel the way that I felt, I want them to be able to look to me.”
ZumMallen writes that “[Manuel] decries recent hate crimes, regularly works with the non-profit Brown Boi Project and hopes to one day start her own organization to assist the LGBTQ community.”
Women’s boxing is becoming an official Olympic sport for the games in London in 2012. Only twelve women will earn berths, and Manuel is hoping to be one of them.
I hope she makes it too! Having such a powerful (literally), proud, and vocal Olympian would be great for the community.
Be sure to check out the full feature and learn more about Manuel’s journey from early success, considerations of going pro (which would have made her ineligible for the Olympics), injuries, and recovering from injuries to make this push.
Vincent Pryor, who was a linebacker at Texas Christian University in the early 1990s, set the team record for most sacks in a game (4 ½) and came out to his team in 1994.
Outsports’ Jim Buzinski tells Pryor’s story 17 years later in the piece, “TCU’s Vincent Pryor set school sack record after coming out as gay.”
It’s an absolutely phenomenal read with Pryor telling his story of coming out to his team and the response he received.
It’s amazing that someone was out to his team that long ago, and yet today, we are still waiting for a prominent pro male athlete to be out publicly.
I’ve excerpted my favorite bits, but for excellent pieces like this one, I’d highly recommend reading it in its entirety.
On when he knew he was gay and was first discovered:
”There was a person I was picking on one time and I remember I was going to go to the bathroom to give him a hard time,” Pryor says. “When I got into the bathroom, I called him faggot, gay and other stuff. He just looked at me and he said, ‘Vincent, why are you calling me all these things when you’re just like me?’ And I went ‘Whoa! What in the world?’ He then kissed me on my lips right there and I went, ‘Uh-oh.’ It was weird because it kind of brought down my defense shield a little bit.”
On why he didn’t come out until now:
Vincent Pryor has no reason why he waited 17 years to recount his coming out. It wasn’t shame – he was out on his team and has lived as an openly gay man since. . . . Seeing the rash of gay teen suicides and wanting to make a difference inspired Pryor to reach out to Outsports and tell his story.
On how he remained in the closet at TCU and how his coming out challenges stereotypes:
“It really was kind of amazing the way it all worked,” said [social work professor Linda] Moore, who has been at TCU for 30 years and has worked extensively with the athletic program as an academic adviser. “What is he? 6-3, 260? Something ridiculous. D-end, big, huge, black guy. So, of course he can’t be gay. And he put up a great front for the first three years he was at TCU. He was sneaking off to Dallas to go to the gay bars, but he was womanizing at TCU, then was involved with a woman for a couple of years.”
On coming out to his team (my favorite part of the piece):
Midway through the 1994 season, Pryor decided he had had enough of hiding. He was ready to come out and found his vehicle. It was an ecumenical exchange held on campus, a meeting of students from area schools from various religious denominations. The subject that year was homosexuality. “This was going to be my stand and how I was going to come out to the world,” Pryor said.
The idea was for people who were gay to raise their hands and then go up on stage and introduce themselves. “I walked up and said, ‘Hello, I’m Vincent Pryor, football player for Texas Christian University.’ … I then forget what happened after that point. I was probably too stunned to remember anything.”
There were a lot of football players at the conference since they got course credit, so Pryor’s news spread quickly. A few days later, Pryor came out as a special guest in one of Moore’s classes, where he spent 20 minutes discussing his journey. Among the students were several football players and one assistant coach. Moore remembers the day vividly.
“One of the assistant football coaches came in. You could see the students thinking, ‘Just try it. Say one negative thing and we’re gonna kick your butt.’ We were all prepared to defend [Pryor]. … The coach raises his hand and the whole room turns towards him, and he says, ‘Well, my brother is gay.’ And he deflated the entire room. And he said that it was just so important to be supportive. I think Vince was a little bit shocked by it too.”
Pryor remembers the level of support he received in the class, with one teammate saying, “ ‘I don’t care. As long as he makes tackles I don’t have a problem with that.’ It was very, very nonchalant.”
. . . He did hear from his position coach, who ominously called Pryor into his office days after he had come out in Moore’s class. He described the coach as a tough, no-nonsense man with a military bearing.
“Vincent. Is it true? Did you go out and tell everybody you were a homosexual?” Pryor remembers the coach saying. His reply: “I didn’t tell everybody I was homosexual. I told them I was gay.”
“As he’s chewing his tobacco, he says: ‘Man, that’s huge. You got a huge set of balls to be able to do that. I respect you. Me and my wife were thinking there was something wrong with you. We thought that this was what it was, but we didn’t really know. I’m glad that you were able to come to terms with that.’ ”
On Pryor’s performance on the field after coming out:
“He was a beast” on the field, said Marcus Allen, Pryor’s teammate and the team’s middle linebacker. “I do believe that once he came out of the closet, he did feel relieved. You did notice something different about him. He was always happy, he felt good about himself, he felt like didn’t have anything to hide.”
Akil Patterson told his coming out story as a former college football player at Maryland, anonymously, through Outsports in October 2010. He attached his name to the story, becoming fully and publicly out, in January 2011.
And now, he’s asked me to pass along the following message:
“A Call for All”
I make this call to all, but mainly for the LGBT youth and athletes in this world. I make this call a challenge if you will to start living life as one can best do; A call where we are active in working with one another and for one another. To better the lives of those who will fallow and those who are leading the pack.
We are athletes on the field of war and each day we battle against ourselves, our teammates, others who just don’t get it. It’s not a war won in a night after we have given it our all but a war won with courage and strength from within and without. We cannot keep our words to our self we must share them with others and start conversations that others would not want us to start. Oppression is of the mind and not of the body we can only keep us down and in the dark. As a song from the 90’s says “come into the light where you belong”. Let you lead a charge from one side of the country to the other and let no mortal man stand in your way as to progress into the light.
So I issue the challenge that if you take it you hold yourself to higher standards than you would of anyone else. You are making a vow to help all in need no matter what the look like on the outside, to stand with a brother or sister who is being bullied no matter race or religion. I ask that you stand up for the weak when they are being pushed down by words of hate and words of disrespect. I ask that you show respect for those who may dress different and those who don’t act within the same walls society has made.
As I make this call this challenge as you will to stand for something I ask that you become the change you are looking for. I ask that you show your face that you speak with a voice and that you of all people let the world know that you aren’t different you are equal in every way and that you are the change that this world has needed for so long. Be the change, Make the call and stand for who you are as others can only fight so long for you before you are to fight for yourself!
“Nothing changes, if nothing changes”
Akil S. Patterson
Facebook: Akil Patterson