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Vanquishing the silence: journalists, leagues must create conversation, end sexual orientation stigma

I remember 14 years ago, superstar comic Ellen DeGeneres risked a multi-million-dollar career by stating on the cover of Time magazine a fact anyone knew if they were paying attention:

“Yep, I’m gay.”

And now, more than a decade later, the sports world seems poised on the edge of a similar moment.

Both Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts and former Villanova University basketball player Will Sheridan revealed they were gay in high profile interviews, sparking expressions of support from across the sports universe.

These were the latest declarations in a spring filled with so many major gay-centered stories in sports, the website Outsports.com dubbed the last four weeks “the gayest month ever.”

But what struck me most about Welts’ and Sheridan’s circumstances, is that both men admitted that everyone in their life knew they were gay for years before they made it official.

Sheridan told Outsports.com that he dated men in high school and went to a prom with a romantic partner. Welts told the Associated Press that, even though many co-workers knew he was gay, he never discussed the subject.

“Never once in the 40 years I’ve been involved in sports has anyone ever asked me if I was gay,” said the 58-year-old businessman. “There’s something like a conspiracy of silence about it.”

Which tells me one thing. It’s time for the media to get off the sidelines.

I decided years ago that anti-gay sentiment is the equivalent of racism, and it should be treated as such in my columns. That meant, I wasn’t going to treat people who oppose homosexuality as if they had a valid viewpoint anymore than I would get a comment from the Ku Klux Klan if I were writing a story about the lack of diversity in media.

But professional sports have long been an area of modern life we have allowed to lag behind our collective consciousness. At a time when actors and politicians can declare their sexual orientation with little fanfare, there still isn’t an active athlete in America’s four biggest professional sports who has come out.

Statistics and history – and blunt-speaking retirees like Charles Barkley – tell us there must be gay players in the pros, even after the “gayest sports month ever.”

The conspiracy of silence rears its head again.

But the great thing about working as a professional journalist is that it is literally our job to bust up these polite social agreements. When America wanted to turn its eyes away from the brutal enforcement of segregation laws in the South, it was the TV cameras and newspaper columns of righteous journalists who made the country look anyway. And, eventually, take action.

I think it’s time for media types to step up again. This time, by refusing to allow the conspiracy of silence to continue muting the voices of gay athletes who may be yearning to live in the open, unfettered by the prejudices of teammates, fans or the sports establishment.

First, I’m hoping journalists start encouraging active players in general terms to be open about their sexual orientation.

Yes, in the end, it should be a private matter who you choose to bring into your bed. But we also know it’s just not natural to go through life without talking about that great date you went on last weekend, the wonderful vacation you took with a romantic partner or the horrible moment when you forgot an important anniversary or birthday.

This isn’t about outing people against their will. It’s about encouraging people in columns like this to be more public at a time when every significant coming out story can help another fan realize how stupid it is to worry about a player’s sexual orientation over his scoring record.

Secondly, I’m hoping we become more aggressive about challenging the lazy homophobia that lurks in many corners of the sports world.

If a section of fans called a black player the “n word,” someone would write an outraged column on it. Time to bring that attitude to all the knuckleheads in the stands willing to toss the three-letter “f word” and spit out the term “gay” as if it were the worst adjective you could apply to a successful athlete.

The backlash against recent slurs slung by Kobe Bryant and Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell is a good start. But it is just that: a start.

Third, its time for sports leagues to put their money where their rhetoric is. Professional athletes have led public service campaigns for everything from environmental issues to curbing the spread of bullying among kids.

Now, its time for athletes to speak on camera about this issue. Having a LeBron James or a Drew Brees on videotape talking about how little they care about a teammate’s sexual orientation may help a lot when that first active pro basketball player or football star decides to come forward.
If you think that idea is silly, consider for a moment how many young black people started playing tennis because of the Williams sisters or golf because of Tiger Woods. This is a tale old as sports itself; athletic role models matter.

Finally, its time for journalists to write about this issue more. One of my favorite journalism educators, Poynter Institute president Karen Brown Dunlap, often says the goal of a journalist is to keep a community in conversation with itself.

That’s how silence conspiracies get broken down; by a commitment to continue the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO’s "Real Sports," acknowledged as much during his closing commentary Tuesday, applauding hockey player Sean Avery for recording an endorsement on the legalization of same sex marriage.

Still, Gumbel admitted some ambivalence about speaking on the issue, asking, “Did you ever feel like not making a big deal out of something because it shouldn’t be?”

But the landscape of professional sports tells us this is most certainly a big deal. And, its time for journalists to step up once again, to help a voiceless minority vanquish the silence once and for all.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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