The First but Not the Last.

In 2010 Sports Illustrated published an interview with Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas titled The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete.  As of this past Monday, almost exactly three years later, Thomas is no longer alone; pro basketball player Jason Collins wrote an article for the same magazine that begins with the statement “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”.

Collins made history this week as the first current player in a major American sport to come out. Speculation has been developing in recent years, not about Collins specifically, but over who would be the first and when they would decide to come forward. In 2011 a Gallup poll proved that a majority of Americans (53%) were in favor of legalizing gay marriage; attitudes on the issue of sexual orientation have been changing rapidly in recent years, and support for the gay community has grown along with rising disapproval of homophobic attitudes.

Earlier this year San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made several anti-gay comments during a media session for the Super Bowl. His statement and discriminatory attitude were disappointing and hurtful; both the public and other professional athletes reacted by overwhelmingly condemning his remarks, and a day later Culliver issued an apology.

While preparing for the Sport in Society discussion course Out of Bounds, another intern and I contacted Aaron McQuade, the Director of News & Field Media at GLAAD, and had the opportunity to interview him about gay athletes and their portrayal in various sports media. We talked about the Culliver incident, and McQuade felt that it was actually a chance for a dialogue, especially when so many other athletes countered his homophobia. The support shown by various current and former athletes in pro American sports proves how attitudes about the LBGTQ community are shifting.

Ideally, Collins’ statement will only further this shift, and hence further the conversation about masculinity and homosexuality in sports. Except this time, the discussion won’t be ABOUT the gay professional athlete, and will instead be WITH one.  Three years ago, Gareth Thomas asked Sports Illustrated “All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?” Jason Collins can now answer that question as America’s first out pro athlete, but certainly not the last.

GForce Sports Presentation

Last night Sport in Society and Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies co-hosted GForce Sports as they presented their “Invisible Athlete” forum.  Boston’s Bean Pot schools were fully represented as the men and women’s ice hockey teams from each institution piled into the room.  The event was open to the public and many chose to stand in the back just to get a chance to listen to the panel.  Patrick Burke, current scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and brother of the late Brendan Burke, emceed the event.  Brendan courageously came out to his University of Miami hockey team in November of 2009 and was the first person associated with the NHL to be openly gay.  Not two months later, Brendan was tragically killed in a car accident.  Patrick declared, “Since that time our family has vowed to pick up where Brendan left off.”

The “Invisible Athlete” forum is both in memoriam of Brendan Burke and a means to discuss LGBT topics in a predominantly heterosexual environment.  An accomplished athletic trio made up the panel, including, Andrew Goldstein, former Major League Lacrosse standout and the first openly gay male athlete in professional team-sports, Lee-J Mirasolo, current assistant coach for Princeton University and former women’s hockey team captain at Boston College, and David Farber, who became one of the first openly gay college athletes while playing hockey for the University of Pennsylvania.  The panel spoke about their reasons for coming out when they did and the positive impact it has had in their personal lives as well as the world of sport.

Patrick asked the panel a series of questions relative to coming out, locker room atmosphere, their roles as leaders, and any negatives they may have experienced as a result of coming out.  Andrew, Lee-J and David were honest, poised, and relatable when answering sensitive questions.  The speakers were engaging and welcomed both public and anonymous questions from the audience.

The act of coming out to friends, family and teammates was a recurring theme throughout the evening.  Coming out is brave enough, but it was the athlete’s reasoning for coming out which was most admirable. The panel described coming out not solely for themselves but for any LGBT individual who may feel trapped.  For the college athlete scared to lose his/her spot on the team roster, the high school teen thinking that suicide is the only option, or the professional athlete who is ashamed to admit who they truly are.  Andrew, for example, announced on ESPN that he was gay.  This intrepid act was essentially for his younger self who longed for a gay role model in professional sports.  Andrew never had that role model growing up so he in turn became one for countless others.

“Invisible Athlete” couldn’t have touched a better audience.  College athletes should better understand their surroundings and that sometimes their words can be degrading.  Though they may not intend to offend their teammate, friend, coach or even their opponent, demeaning words and phrases are still demeaning.  I hope that the panel sparked a larger acceptance of LGBT athletes, as that is a fundamental component of a team’s growth and success.  If possible, I would ask that the “Invisible Athlete” group speak to every team at Northeastern in order to open the minds of college athletes and inspire those looking for resolution.

Posted by: Courtney Mortimer