Last year Jason Collins became the first “active” player in the NBA to come out as gay. The response was overwhelmingly positive and Collins found himself held up as how progressive our society now is in accepting a gay professional athlete.
This season Collins finds himself as an unsigned free agent. Despite many players, owners, coaches and teams professing to not having an issue signing or playing with a gay player, no team in the league has signed Collins. This may be more as a direct result of his low career averages of 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, and 41 percent shooting from the field. He has never averaged more than seven points or seven rebounds in a season. He was never a star athlete, just a small role player.
So the question becomes what would it take for a star athlete to come out as gay? In particular in a sport like football which involves a lot more contact between players. Could such a tough manly sport handle having a gay athlete amongst its ranks?
Many former NFL players have come out as gay. Even as recently as last year when former San Francisco 49er offensive lineman Kwame Harris was outed in the media after an altercation with an ex-boyfriend. Not long after the incident rumors and stories began swirling that anywhere from one to four gay NFL players were going to come out. As of this date not one has done so.
Coming out as gay may be seen on some levels as more socially acceptable. We like to think of ourselves as progressive, tolerant and forward thinking, but even this being the case our society has strong beliefs in what is considered masculine. Being athletic is considered masculine. Being athletic and gay is not.
Many gay former NFL players admitted to being scared to come out while they were actively playing. Fear of repercussions and being ostracized by teammates, opponents, fans and the media have been enough to keep them in the closet until long after their career in the league is over.
There are far more repercussions for gay players than just hate mail, teasing, torment, bullying, ostracizing and physical violence, they face unseen long term punishments. Such is the case with former NFL player Jerry Smith.
Smith was a tight end with the Washington Redskins in the 1960s. During his 12 year playing career, the two time pro bowler made 421 receptions for 5496 yards and 60 TDs, a record for tight ends that would stand for more than two decades. Smith never came out as gay during his playing career but it was not unknown around the league. Smith would later die of AIDS in 1986.
Despite retiring with several records for a tight end Smith has never been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite having similar numbers to other tight ends of that era who are in the HOF. Many believe that this is punishment for Smith being gay, an allegation the league of course denies. Whatever the case, Smith being held out of the Hall of Fame is enough to keep many players quiet about their sexuality.
While we can claim to be willing to accept a gay professional athlete, there are still certain sports that it would be hard for us to do so. The NFL is one of those sports. While statistically speaking the likelihood that a gay player currently plays in the NFL is beyond likely, we have a hard time accepting a homosexual playing such a hegemonic masculine activity.
Until we break the stereotypes of what a gay athlete can do and being gay is more widely accepted, no active player will risk the long term repercussions of what coming out will do to their career even after they retire.