UPDATE: Michael Sam signed with the Dallas Cowboys to join the practice team today, Sept. 9. This article was posted Feb.26.
Remember Esera Tuaolo? Billy Bean? Roy Simmons?
Maybe not. They all remained closeted during their professional sports careers and came out as gay only in retirement, to little fanfare. But they can remind us how much things have changed.
Simmons, who spent four years in the NFL, died last week at 57. A few days later, the NBA’s Jason Collins played for the Nets in his first game since coming out last year; and openly gay prospect Michael Sam performed in the NFL Combine. (It’s worth noting that Sam and Collins each made the cover of Sports Illustrated after coming out; the other three, not even close.) Some people applaud, some shrug, some remain hostile.
Below is an edited version of a column I wrote for ajc.com, the website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in 2002. I’m sharing it because of how it contrasts with what we’re seeing now. We used to wait for “the gay Jackie Robinson.” Was that too much to ask? Are we seeing that sometimes, heroic goals are accomplished by multiple individuals over time, building on the steps of the others? That history can come in trickles, and narratives unfold in lurches rather than bounds?
Gay Ex-Falcon Comes Out — But is He Famous Enough to Change Anything?
Bryant Gumbel let me down.
For at least a week, Gumbel has been promoting his HBO show’s “coming out” interview next Tuesday with a former NFL player. Speculation sprouted all over Internet chat rooms and even in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where rumors had been whispered about a former Viking. Who would it be?
Gay folks are always hoping celebrities will come out of the closet publicly. We get downright giddy about a glamorous, male athlete doing so because — well, because it’s never really happened before. And because big-time sports appears so homophobic. And because it would break a lot of stereotypes about masculinity and homosexuality. And because, admit it, it’s sexy and empowering to think about.
On Thursday, we learned the player’s identity: Esera Tuaolo, a nine-year defensive lineman who played the Super Bowl season with the Falcons in 1998 and otherwise played outside the limelight.
Tuaolo, 34, said players routinely told gay jokes in the locker room. “They made me go further and further into depression, further and further into shame,” he said. He even considered suicide.
A former teammate, Shannon Sharpe, says on the show that Tuaolo would’ve been “eaten alive” and “hated” if he’d come out while playing.
Pro athletics remains one of the worst scenes for gay men, who still fight stereotypes about being effeminate, ineffectual and predatory.
But think about how great an athlete must be to make it to the NFL, regardless of how long he stays there or how successful he becomes. How manly? Clearly, Tuaolo had the right stuff. But he says he cut short his career largely because of the stress over staying hidden.
I was hoping Gumbel’s interview would describe a happy life in sports — the fun of being young and wealthy and sought after; a supportive, if discreet, group of other gay athletes and straight friends on the team and in management. Maybe even acknowledgement of deciding to stay closeted at work but being able to find happiness in spite of it.
I expect Tuaolo’s coming out will nudge everybody along just a little bit more.
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