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Taking One for the Team

Taking One for the Team


He might make the game-winning play in the 2011 Rose Bowl. He might lead his team to the Final Four this spring. He might still be in high school, one of the top pitchers among the nation's 10th-graders. Somewhere a gay athlete en route to turning pro and breaking ground by being out in his prime is lacing up, doing sprints, and possibly hiding his sexuality in a locker instead of a closet. Still, filmmaker Dee Mosbacher is determined to find him.

Mosbacher and her producing partner Fawn Yacher have created the documentary Training Rules, about sexuality and women's college basketball, with the focus on Rene Portland, the tenacious Penn State women's basketball coach who was ruthless on and off the court. While pushing for exceptional athleticism, Portland also enforced a strict antigay policy: There were to be no openly gay players on her team, and especially no dating between players. Despite being rejected for a screening at the NCAA Final Four Coaches Association Conference, the documentary has screened at film festivals across the country and abroad, including at the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver. Now Mosbacher is developing another sports-related documentary, but focusing on a gay male athlete -- whether he plays football or tennis -- ready to come out and possibly go pro. After years of searching for a subject, the field is still looking sparse.

"Of what I do know about college athletes who are being primed to be [the first openly gay male professional athlete], there's very little information out there to begin with," she says.

Across the pond, Gareth Thomas is also looking for his American counterpart. You know him as the world's only gay male professional team-sports athlete to come out while still playing. Thomas, a Welsh rugby player, asked why there were no openly gay male athletes in the "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave" in a May Sports Illustrated profile. SI senior writer Gary Smith, who wrote the article on Thomas, told The Advocate he believes the first openly gay pro in the states will be "an athlete who came out as gay as a teenager, through high school, or even though their college years, so it's just a progression instead of taking the big step at age 30, when he has so much to protect at that point."

University of Massachusetts professor Pat Griffin, who advocates for social justice in sports, agrees.

"I think it's going to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary," she says. "I think it's going to be a high school athlete who is going to be out and then go to college and then be drafted into the pros. And I don't think we're that far away. "

As the experts interviewed agreed, we can't expect a current Yankee or Laker to just come out, because there's too much at stake, especially for male athletes, who generally earn far more than their female counterparts. In college there are no endorsements (as per NCAA rules), and typically, headlines on the day-to-day lives of student athletes stay on the pages of the campus newspaper.

"When Billie Jean King,and Sheryl Swoopes came out, they still got endorsements from Olivia cruises, and Nike stuck by Sheryl," says National Center for Lesbian Rights sports project director Helen Carroll. "The difference of the guys coming out is losing huge endorsements. We're talking about $100 million for every $1 million a woman makes."

Also at stake is the less lucrative nature of women's pro leagues in comparison to the moneymaking powerhouses of the NHL, NFL, MLB, and NBA. On average, about 16,000 people attended an NBA game during the 2009-2010 regular season. Conversely, an average of 7,800 people went to WNBA games in 2010, a 3,000-fan decline from the league's inaugural year, 1997. According to Griffin, women's pro sports is so marginalized already, the management focuses more on how many people are in the stands and fears alienating more potential fans with openly gay players.

Adds Mosbacher: "Women would try to come out on their team, and their teammates would try to shut them up and shut them down because of that fear of being charged with being a lesbian themselves. And that is a big part of what is the pandemic of ponytails. That's really a huge difference. Not only the teammates but the coaches live in fear of being called a lesbian and basically losing their job."

So if you're waiting for a team to root for with an openly gay star player, it's time to start looking at colleges. While there have been some openly gay players at the Division II and III levels like Oneonta State lacrosse captain Andrew McIntosh, the major college teams in America's most prominent sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) have yet to feature an openly gay star. And it will take a star, so that he can not only bear the brunt of being the first but also be drafted into the pro leagues.

"I think fans are ready to accept an openly gay player," says Griffin, "However, the first guy who is out is going to have to be a special guy. It takes a Jackie Robinson, in a way -- that kind of pioneering takes a lot of energy."

And not only the energy to weather the jeers, the missed opportunities for endorsement, or the likely salacious headlines splashed on front pages of tabloids. That player will have to be good. Damn good. Because, Griffin says, "if you have a player able to make the championships, it won't matter." A borderline player, who is merely "good enough," may be too much of a liability for a team.

Carroll, who once coached two successful women's basketball teams, says encouraging gay athletes to come out starts with their mentors. As coach of the University of Nebraska's team, she remained closeted, and she says it affected her players' ability to connect with each other well enough to win any titles.

"I grew up at a time when all our role models were closeted," she says, "So you learn that's how you have to be."

But she decided to make a change once she transferred to the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Carroll says that from the moment she took the job, she decided to be open with her athletes, while encouraging them to also embrace the diversity of the team. By 1984, Carroll's third year, Asheville won the NAIA national championship, and she credits the team's openness and cohesion for the big win. Her story is a clear example of how it will take a village of Hoosiers or Gators to break one of the glass ceilings for openly gay professionals. The Jackie Robinson of gay athletes will require a more accepting sporting world.

"We shouldn't put the burden of changing sport culture on one athlete who isn't necessarily ready to take that role," Griffin says.

Carroll says the NCAA has improved its outreach over the years to coaches and athletic directors with advice on how to welcome and cultivate players from all walks of life, including gay and lesbian students.

"I go to many conferences where we really do work with the coaches to make an atmosphere to welcome LGBT student athletes." she says. "It's not a debate about right or wrong, but a conversation about how to be fair and inclusive. We address what to do if you have a couple on a team that are riding in the van to a game together. It's just like Susie Q. who has Johnny as a boyfriend. She's not holding his hand as she's playing."

The result of this work is reflected in how much more accepting the current generation of players is, even compared to those of the past decade, Griffin says.

"I think the athletes are more comfortable than their coaches are," she says. "It's just everyone else who has the baggage."
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