Opinion

Commentary: Bravest man in sports is still in the closet

We hear about sacrifice in sports. Heard it a lot lately as Dwyane Wade spoke of the Heat's superstars agreeing to take less money. That's sacrifice like a billionaire agreeing to downsize from 10 luxury cars to nine.

We hear about courage, too, usually applied to athletes rehabilitating from injuries. "Hero" we also hear a lot; apparently it takes only a walk-off homer or winning touchdown to qualify.

Well, the bravest man in sports for real — we will meet him someday.

He will have courage and sacrifice in him and be a Jackie Robinson of his era, with all the adulation and venom that might bring. He will be heroic in a way that recaptures the word from overuse.

The bravest man in sports is out there somewhere, but he is hiding.

We are waiting for him.

Waiting for him to come out and play.

In 2010, we still wait for the last taboo to fall, for the first prominent player in the NFL, NBA, baseball or hockey to reveal in midcareer that he is gay, done pretending.

The intolerance that exists less and less elsewhere remains stubborn in sports, the last frontier, where a pervasively macho culture still foments old prejudices.

Even gay advocates admit they can understand why nobody wants to be first.

"It's easy to walk into your backyard in the middle of the day," Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, told us Tuesday. "It's not as easy if it's a forest in the middle of the night with no moonlight and you're wondering what is out there that's going to get you. It's like walking into the unknown."

John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out in 2007 after he retired, said athletes in basketball, baseball and soccer have come out privately to him but that he is not sure he would advocate they do so publicly.

"They would get burned at the stake," he once said. "Does that help anyone?"

On Tuesday, he elaborated.

"Unequivocally being out for an individual is better emotionally and psychologically than being in," he said. "But being out and under a barrage of media pressure and holding the weight of an entire community? We shouldn't be at a stage where people are martyrs for a cause."

The Jackie Robinson analogy will rub some folks wrong. Being of color in America in the 1940s surely was treacherous. But breaking down barriers is the point. And the first star gay athlete will be in a position to shatter prejudices even Robinson didn't face.

Said Amaechi, who is black: "Every stereotype suggests we're good at playing sports. For all the racism, that lent in the direction of that guy being good, of accepting him on that level. What about being gay suggests excellence in a male team sport? The stereotypes work in the opposite way."

The issue intertwines a person's innermost being with sports' testosterone culture, all in a 24-hour news cycle. You thought LeBron James coming to Miami was big? Imagine if LeBron was coming out at the same time?

Amaechi said the first current American team sports star to do so would have to accept that "a life that brought him to sporting fame would now be reduced to a sexuality he didn't choose." He calls the absence of athletes coming out in the prime of their careers "not a function of cowardice, but a calculation -- a risk/reward analysis."

Zeigler said he knows of a well-known college athlete "who is out to his team and has an excellent shot at the NFL" and predicts that player will come out publicly.

Amaechi's timetable is that a star player will be outed within two years.

"But when will prominent Player X come out on his own?" he said. "When we deserve it. When there are not laws that criminalize gay people. When as a country people can have civil discourse about disagreeing about who people are. If God is the excuse for your homophobia, it's unlikely a gay LeBron would make a difference."

Progress -- sports inching toward acceptance -- remains so slow that even small examples of it feel noteworthy.

San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili, in his native Argentina, this week came out in support of that country's law to allow same-sex marriages, saying, "I think we all have the same rights. Let them be and do whatever they want."

Yet Tim Hardaway's infamous "I hate gay people" rant (for which he apologized) and football star Larry Johnson's use of the word "faggot" speak for as many athletes' beliefs as does Ginobili.

Just Wednesday, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Marcellus Wiley was quoted in the Huffington Post saying, "It would be really tough for a gay guy in the NFL.

The fear of coming out of the closet and more so coming out in the locker room would be too tremendous to overcome. Right now, the NFL culture has no tolerance for it."

But wouldn't athletes come to ascribe coveted traits such as courage and integrity to a man willing to risk so much by admitting who he is? After what Amaechi calls a "shock wave," wouldn't teams and fans rally around and respect such a player?

LeBron said this a few years ago after Amaechi revealed himself as gay: "With teammates, you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and not admitting that you are, then you're not being trustworthy."

I suspect society and its macho microcosm of teams and fans are getting close, if not ready, to handle the truth about that bravest man in sports, the one still hiding.

The question is when that player will be ready to handle that truth, too.

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