Commentary: Kevin McClatchy hopes coming out will helps sports become more tolerant

The Sacramento BeeSeptember 26, 2012 


Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.

SCOTT LORENZO — Sacramento Bee/MCT

Every time a public figure steps out of the closet to trade years of pain and loneliness for living openly as a gay person, there is a typical reaction from some.

"Why are you in the media making this a big deal?" Or you'll hear: "How dare you demean a person by saying he is gay?"

I got a lot of those when I wrote about Sally Ride, the pioneering female astronaut who had kept quiet about her homosexuality. Her website named Ride's longtime partner as a survivor of Ride upon her death.

Some were horrified that I would defame Ride by mentioning her "secret."

I'm sorry, but stating that someone is gay is defamatory only if you think it is.

There is nothing wrong with being gay.

What's wrong is being forced to keep it a secret. What's wrong is concealing your orientation fearing it will negatively affect your dreams.

What's wrong is that in 2012, in phases of American life, people remain in the closet out of fear.

On Saturday, I talked to a man who kept the secret, was the picture of success in the most public of industries – and yet couldn't even talk to his family for a time about who he was.

"We tell kids that they should tell the truth, but if a kid is different, he's not supposed to tell the truth," said Kevin McClatchy.

"(When that happens) you go into a deep hole. It's a scary place."

You might have heard of McClatchy. He is the chairman of the board for The McClatchy Co., which owns The Sacramento Bee and many other newspapers across the U.S.

He was also born in Sacramento. At 33, McClatchy became the youngest owner in Major League Baseball when he led a group that bought the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1996.

By that point, McClatchy was clear in his own mind about his orientation – and that he had to keep it secret.

"We were in a very tenuous position," McClatchy told me by phone. "Two other groups were trying to buy the Pirates and I was convinced that if we weren't successful, they would have moved somewhere else.

"You understand you've got to keep the team there and (sexual orientation) is an issue that wouldn't have played well. That's just my opinion."

It's a well-founded opinion. There has never been an openly gay athlete to come out of the closet while still active in one of the four major team sports for men – baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Like McClatchy, a number of athletes came out after they stepped away from pro sports. There is one openly gay NBA executive, and that's about it.

Gay Americans serve openly in the military. Law enforcement agencies, such as the San Francisco Police Department, are promoting tolerance, with gay officers doing the talking.

If you've never seen this, please do: com/watch?v=6RMunYfzlGs

But the locker room remains America's darkest closet.

Just last week, Yunel Escobar, a player with the Toronto Blue Jays, was suspended for wearing homophobic slurs written on the eye black that he and other players wear on their faces to cut the sun's glare.

Machismo and homophobic slurs remain part of the culture of pro sports. Any distraction from the single-minded obsession with winning and performing is viewed in the locker room as anti-team and a negative influence to be eradicated.

The primary reason McClatchy has come forward, first in an interview with the New York Times, is that he hopes his story can give strength to young people pursuing the dream of a career in sports.

"This could be a systemic problem within sports," McClatchy said. "The best thing that could happen is that the leadership in all the leagues had a dialogue. … This needs to go down to the coaches, the college coaches, the high school coaches."

As McClatchy spoke, I could hear the relief in his voice and the strength of someone who had stepped out of the shadows and wasn't afraid anymore.

"There has to be some sensitivity," he said. "You might have a kid who is a little different, but who has a dream of playing sports. If that person can help us win, let's not care who he loves."

McClatchy, who turns 50 in January, said he lived the last 25 years preparing for this day. He bought the Pirates and built a gorgeous stadium, but McClatchy's personal success played out while he despaired privately.

"It's a lonely spot when you feel you can't talk to people about your life," he said. "Not even being able to talk to family members was draining.

"My hope is for a kid never to have to go through that again – for that kid not to hide or to live a lie."

Not every kid in McClatchy's position has the wherewithal to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. A recent study by the journal Pediatrics found that homosexual and bisexual kids were much more likely to commit suicide than straight kids. A Columbia University study showed that the suicide rates for gay kids plummeted in supportive environments.

When his story became public Saturday, McClatchy said the immediate outpouring of support heartened him. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who remains a close friend, was very supportive when McClatchy called to tell him his story was going public.

"Honestly, I've been overwhelmed," he said.

McClatchy's hope is that one day soon, baseball will be honoring the first players who come out about who they are and are accepted publicly while helping their teams win.

"Baseball is a game of stats," he said. "If a player can hit and pitch, he should be able to play without having to defend who he loves."

That is the truth and the truth will set us all free.

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