The locker room within

Never mind fire and brimstone. In the world of out gay athletes, ignorance is the greater danger, writes Adam Goldenberg


Michael Dwyer/AP

The bigots are never the problem. The zealots aren’t, either.

After Jason Collins announced, in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated, that “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” ESPN’s Chris Broussard replied with religious condemnation. “I don’t agree with homosexuality,” Broussard said. “I think it’s a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is.”

Broussard’s indignation might once have been well worth worrying about—and, to the extent that young people of faith might still be swayed by such bigoted bravado, it still is. But even religion has, with time, become less of a safe harbour for homophobia. It’s now possible to write off reactions like Broussard’s as just plain loony, a somewhat more presentable variety of the odium that we expect from the “God Hates Fags” crowd. As it gets lonelier out there on the margins of the religious mainstream, we can finally consign such misplaced fervour to the dank basement of the marketplace of ideas.

But, in the brave new world of out gay athletes, fire and brimstone are less dangerous than simple stupidity. I’m thinking, in particular, of the old, ignorant assertion that gays in the locker room would be—and now are—a “distraction” to their teammates.

So said David Pratt, a radio host and sports commentator on Vancouver’s CKNW, on Tuesday morning. Discussing Jason Collins, Pratt trotted out that asinine old canard: a gay player is a “distraction,” and, as a consequence, a detriment to his team. Follow Pratt’s logic and you arrive at an inescapable conclusion: having a gay player on your roster makes you more likely to lose.

Sorry, quick correction: gay players aren’t the problem, openly gay players are. The issue isn’t identity, but honesty. You see, it’s not that Pratt and his ilk don’t like gay people—no doubt some of his best friends are gay—but why do they have to be so in-your-face about it all the time? Jason Collins gets paid to play basketball. Why should his teammates have to hear about his personal life? The bedroom has no place in the locker rooms of the nation. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

I used to listen to the morning sports highlights on CKNW in the car on my way to school. I was still deep in the closet then, a scared-witless gay kid at a jock-y all-boys school. Listening to David Pratt on Tuesday morning, I was back in that car, my rugby gear in my gym bag, being told that I was a weakness, a liability—a distraction.

This week, I was outraged. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been; I would have been too busy being ashamed. Rest assured, every young gay athlete listening to CKNW on Tuesday felt the same way.

Coming out is one of the toughest things that any gay person will ever have to do. There will always be a million reasons not to—not now, not yet. The last thing a gay athlete needs is another reason to wait.

This isn’t to say that gay athletes who come out won’t attract attention, as David Pratt and others suggest. Jason Collins was a hot topic at water coolers and in locker rooms everywhere this week. For a few hours, he was certainly the most tweeted-about professional athlete in North America. “Maximum respect” from Steve Nash. “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” Kobe Bryant wrote. Even Bill Clinton joined in: “I’m proud to call Jason Collins a friend.”

We can look forward to the same sort of buzz for the next few gay professional athletes who follow in Collins’ footsteps. But don’t forget that word: professional. These guys are the best in the world at what they do. They get paid to do it. If a gay teammate would render them incapable of doing their job, then they would—or should—soon be out of work. Because, as locker-room diversions go, this one’s laughable; if another guy’s sexual orientation is a distraction, just wait until you see what they’re saying about you on the sports page.

What grates the most about the suggestion that gay athletes are a distraction is not the humiliating message that it sends to young people, or the insulting assertion that professional athletes won’t be able to focus on their jobs in the presence of locker-room diversity, or even the fearful, half-joking assumption, which all of us have heard, that the gay guy in the showers is constantly sizing up his teammates a little too literally. (Don’t flatter yourselves, boys.)

No, what stings the most is the idea that—for gay athletes, at least—coming out is a choice in which others should have some say. It isn’t. It never should be.

Gay athletes don’t get to choose who they are, but they do get to choose where to be who they are. Sexual orientation can be concealed. But no gay person makes that choice himself; biology does, with an assist from society’s heterosexual norms. Secrecy is the default option—the gay birthright—and it’s a brutal burden to bear.

And yet, too many men with microphones still ask gay athletes to suffer in silence, rather than break the omertà of the team just by being themselves. Too many commentators—and coaches, and parents, and athletes—are stuck in some inner locker room of their own imagination, a place where wilful blindness still showers beside silent shame, where homosexuality is an unwelcome intrusion, someone else’s problem, and a foreign phenomenon that belongs somewhere, anywhere else. These attitudes aren’t just anachronistic; they’re dangerous. Why are they still on the air?

As a gay person, you always know that coming out is within your power. You know that the words are within you, all bound up in that one little sentence that’s so impossible to believe, then so impossible to deny: “I’m gay.” But what keeps you up at night, sleepless with self-hatred, isn’t that first question—“can I come out?”—but the awful, unanswerable one that comes next: “what will happen when I do?”

You imagine yourself hated and rejected by those whom you love and respect. You see yourself disappointing your family, your friends, your platoon, your team. The thought of being looked at differently—of being a “distraction”—can be crippling. For most of us, none of it ever comes to pass, but none of it is ever within our control, either. That’s the most frightening thing of all.

Jason Collins did a brave thing this week, unprecedented and historic. The rest is up to us.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.


The locker room within

  1. Pro-athletes train to deal with distractions in all aspects of their sport… if the additional knowledge that one of your teammates is different from you should not play a factor in your game or even your life. If it does then it’s YOU who have the serious problem, possessing the inability to accept someone else for who they are. Do you think it would be more of a distraction to the team if one player was struggling having to lie about his sexual preference for the sake of public opinion? I do and I feel horrible that so many in our society express hatred toward others with such non-sensical justification.

  2. “…. ESPN’s Chris Broussard replied with religious condemnation. ‘I don’t agree with homosexuality,’ Broussard said.”

    NY Times – In Search Of True Self:

    Mark Pierpont used to be an important figure in the evangelical Christian effort to help “cure” gay people of their homosexual desires. He started out just printing up tracts and handing them out in gay bars, but his ministry grew over time, and eventually he was traveling the world and speaking to crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. There was just one problem. Mark Pierpont himself was gay. He continued to feel sexual desires toward other men and was constantly engaged in an effort to suppress them.


  3. “I’m thinking, in particular, of the old, ignorant assertion that gays in the locker room would be—and now are—a “distraction” to their teammates.”

    CNN Apr 2013 – In Search Of A Gay Soccer Hero:

    In football, homosexual players remain scarce.

    There have been a couple of players who have “come out,” most recently Robbie Rogers, the former Leeds United and United States forward, who took to his website to announce that he was gay … and promptly retired from the beautiful game at the tender age of 25.

    It was unfortunate for football and the gay community — football is in desperate need of a gay icon — yet was completely understandable.

    “They (the players) often don’t mean what they say,” Rogers said. “It’s that pack mentality. They’re trying to get a laugh, they’re trying to be the top guy. But it’s brutal. It’s like high school again — on steroids.”

    Rogers was talking about a changing room that doesn’t know that it has a gay player in its midst.

    But I’m as certain as I can be that a changing room that does know that it has a gay player in its ranks would be a very safe place for a gay footballer.

    That pack mentality works the other way, too. The group protects its own. It doesn’t matter whether you are white, black, straight or gay. I’m as certain of that as I can be.


  4. Opinions coming from the likes of Broussard and Pratt are not worthy of discussion when it comes to this subject. Collins is a brave man and should be aplauded for his bravery.

  5. Just wanted to say great article, well written and well argued, from a straight ally former rugby player who would have been happy to have you in the locker room with him. Also, David Pratt is a tool.

  6. The focus on gender preference (stated or hidden) misses the point that locker rooms and sports culture stifle any kind of departure from conventional jockery. It isn’t just gay athletes that are being tormented, but athletes who might prefer classical music to gangster rap or refuse to accept or participate in aggression or violence as an acceptable dispute resolution method or engage in any kind of behaviour that doesn’t meet the false notion that there is a norm to subscribe to. Gay athletes are a lightning rod, but once they are off-limits for tormenting, the same way that racism became uncool, the prevailing culture in sports means the bullies will just turn their sights on someone else.

  7. He did a brave thing this week? Really? Go to Iraq, Afghanistan or any peace keeping mission country. That’s brave. When someone speaks openly about their sexuality, they are being open. Just open. Definitely not brave!

    • Ever hear of Matthew Shepard? Some people get tortured and murdered when they “speak openly about their sexuality” so actually this man is not just being open, he is being brave.

    • why should the definition of brave be mutually exclusive? saying that jason collins was brave doesn’t mean that soldiers aren’t. bravery is not binary – it comes in degrees. a soldier who fought in iraq and afghanistan is brave. a soldier who fought only in iraq is brave. a kid who stands up to bullies is brave. and jason collins, most certainly, is brave.

  8. “But no gay person makes that choice himself; biology does”. This claim is quite debatable. As a person who doesn’t believe in biology determinism, I think we should respect people’s choices. Even if “being gay” is a choice, and a person decides to be ‘gay’ on odd days and ‘straight’ on even days, we still have to respect his/her choice. To be fair, until we don’t demand gender-neutral locker rooms and gender-neutral professional sports team, David Pratt has a point about distractions. No gender discrimination. No separate and equal. Together and equal.

  9. I heard the show.
    Think what you want of Pratt, but he, as every person, deserves to be judged on what he actual said. On the show I listened to, Pratt gushed about the courage and character of Collins, and then conjectured/worried whether this incredible sporting moment might not be
    lost a bit next season as this older fringe player seeks his next contract (as
    his newfound celebrity status will obviously be involved in the contract
    decision; not just his skill). That’s it. At least that’s how I heard it.
    Although Pratt may not have said it as eloquently as he wanted, he certainly
    wasn’t coming off as a nut-job homophobe on any level. Your portraying him as such
    is wrong…it is simply not the truth according to what I heard on the show. As a
    journalist you have a responsibility to separate the facts from your opinions.
    Your piece reads of projection, you are apparently somehow conflating your own
    experiences with that of Collins and using it all to further your own agenda. Your
    article should have been more about how the vast majority of people, including Pratt
    himself, came out in support of Collins, and how positive this is in moving us
    along towards tolerance and equality.

  10. No offense to Jason Collins, but if you want to see athletes displaying courage, Robert Griffin III displayed more courage by trashing the “tyranny of political correctness” than Collins.

    Who do you think got attacked more? The gay man who comes out as gay, or the black man who comes out as not willing to follow the left’s dogma on race?

    It ain’t Collins

  11. (this may have been said, but) Hey, Broussard, where’ve ya been in commentary about the wild lifestyles of nearly all athletes!? You’re in the wrong field, IMO, unless you want to expand your pulpit and create a show all about these anti-biblical behaviors (or so you interpret them to be). The money athletes generate by their actions and even their shenanigans drives your industry and makes your salary possible, maybe you need to rethink that employ, as well, if you’re so in tune with what’s empirically right and wrong. And then there’s the rest of that darn book that you keep ignoring: gluttony should be up there, I’m sure the junk food ads that pay for time on your show are another topic you could raise, if you’re serious about addressing non-biblical activities. Hypocrite is the word for this story. Get off the gay and onto all of the other issues that really matter re making the world a “better” place in your mind, if you’re serious about righting what you think is wrong; you just look homophobic and, again, hypocritical to the rest of us.

  12. he never played rugby at saint George’s tho…. Adam is an attention seeking clown. He was bullied in highschool for being obnoxious and arrogant.

  13. I wonder why people are so preoccupied with others knowing their sexual orientation. Why do they need to board cast it to the world? Why do they need to draw attention to themselves? They may not have chosen a sexual orientation but they have chosen a life style so may they get on with their life. They will be responsible for reality of their choices and the many young people that they will also influence.

  14. There have been too many heterosexual basketball players throughout history who have famously not concealed their sexual orientation. And many of their teams have gone on to perform rather well. It is a sad state of affairs that this is even still an issue that we must deal with.

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