Around the same time that Magic Johnson disclosed that he had HIV, a far less luminous star in the NBA cosmos gave thought to disclosing that he was gay. He decided that lugging around the secret of his "lifestyle" like a spare tire was, finally, less burdensome than facing the consequences of revealing it. A friend of the player's told SI that the potential for disrupting that ineffable, all-important team chemistry figured into the decision. But the most important factor was the fans' potential reaction. "He had visions of getting booed when he touched the ball and being subjected to slurs every night," says the friend. "And the road games would have been worse."
That was in the early 1990s. In the decade since, attitudes toward homosexuality in sports have ... well, it's hard to say what they've done. In response to the buzz created at the Sundance Film Festival by Ring of Fire, the documentary about Emile Griffith, and in anticipation of its telecast on April 20, NBC and USA Network commissioned a national poll last month on the issue of homosexuality in sports. Responses reveal that the subject not only cleaves public opinion -- which, of course, was already known by folks on both sides of the red state-blue state division -- but is also a source of deep conflict for individual respondents.
Consider that of 979 people interviewed, 86% agreed that it is O.K. for male athletes to participate in sports, even if they are openly gay, yet nearly a quarter of the respondents agreed that having an openly gay player hurts the entire team. "It was like, I'm O.K. with this, but if you press me, I have some doubts," says Doug Schoen, whose firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, conducted the poll.
In the face of such data it comes as no great shock that while homosexuals are thought to compose anywhere from 4% to 10% of the general population, among the 3,500 or so men active in the four major professional sports not a single homosexual is "out." The few pro athletes who have divulged their homosexuality have, tellingly, done so in retirement, long after they depended on teammates to pass them the ball or execute a block and long after they depended on fans to, effectively, pay their salaries. The gay lifestyle may be increasingly accepted -- embraced even -- in a mainstream popular culture that beams Will & Grace's Jack McFarland and a not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it ethos into our living rooms. But in a sports culture that hemorrhages testosterone and is widely read as a barometer of machismo, homosexuality remains the love that dares not speak its name.
Examples of athletes showing hostility toward gays are many and varied, from running back Garrison Hearst's declaring, "I don't want any faggots on my team" to Allen Iverson's rapping about "faggot tendencies" to Sterling Sharpe's telling HBO that his former Seattle Seahawks teammate Esera Tuaolo was wise to have concealed his homosexuality while he was an active player. "Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices, he'd have never gotten to the other team," Sharpe said.
Even professed tolerance can be revealing. During his disastrous appearance before Congress last month, Mark McGwire read a statement claiming, "I do not sit in judgment of other players, whether it deals with their sexual preference, their marital problems ... including whether or not they use chemical substances." McGwire clearly meant to convey open-mindedness, but it did not go unnoticed that he grouped sexual preference with ills on the order of domestic strife and drug use.
Says Giants pitcher Jason Christiansen, who says he has a gay relative, "I don't think attitudes of ballplayers have changed over the years."
Compounding the dilemma of a gay athlete is the virtual certainty that the first active player to come out will do so at his financial peril. Those Red Sox fans clad in shirts reading JETER'S A HOMO and those NASCAR gearheads who frequent the website -- note the acronym -- Fans Against Gordon are also consumers. According to Schoen's poll 18% of Americans would be less likely to purchase footwear or apparel endorsed by a gay athlete. (Roughly 4% would be more likely.) "If I were a marketer looking at this data," says Schoen, "I would say, 'Boy, if I have an openly gay athlete, I may well have problems I don't need.'"
Adds Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports-marketing expert, "The question isn't whether coming out would have a negative impact on an athlete as an endorser. The question is, how much of a negative impact."
With that as a backdrop, it's no wonder that Kordell Stewart, when he was a Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, called a team meeting to scuttle rumors that he was gay. ("You'd better not leave your girlfriends around me," he allegedly warned, "because I'm out to prove a point!") Or that, in a truly postmodern moment, Mike Piazza called an impromptu press conference to announce defiantly, "I date women." Or that, after it came to light that he had appeared in a gay porn video, Indians minor league pitcher Kazuhito Tadano tearfully apologized but insisted, "I'm not gay. I'd like to clear that fact up right now."
The wheels of change may spin slowly in sports, but they do spin. A full 79% of the poll respondents agreed that Americans are more accepting of gays in sports today than they were 20 years ago. Reality bears this out. Owing to her status as an avowed lesbian, Martina Navratilova was commercially radioactive in the 1980s, when she was the best tennis player in the world; she now endorses products from Under Armour to Juiceman. During spring training Johnny Damon, Tim Wakefield and three other Boston Red Sox players taped a segment of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, replete with back waxings and spa treatments. (Maybe it's not the most compelling evidence of a cultural shift, but try for a second to imagine Ted Williams submitting to an afternoon with Carson Kressley and the gang.) Asked last week whether he would accept a gay teammate, Ken Griffey Jr. laughed and said, "Wouldn't bother me at all. If you can play, you can play."
Who knows? With attitudes like Griffey's, there will come a day when locker rooms and clubhouses cease to double as walk-in closets. But as Schoen's poll confirms, we're not there yet.