Last month, I talked to Travon Free, a former basketball player at California State-Long Beach who came out as bisexual after his career ended, about what an openly gay athlete would mean both to sports and to the overall movement for equality, and he told me that the first openly gay male athlete would be equivalent to Jackie Robinson. But the NFL may be even more ready for an openly gay player than baseball was for Jackie. Players like Scott Fujita, Brendan Ayanbadejo, and Chris Kluwe have endorsed the fights for gay rights both in and out of sports, and players pushed the league to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination provision in 2011. Even negative events — Chris Culliver’s anti-gay comments before the Super Bowl and reports that teams were asking draftees like Manti Te’o if they “like girls” — were greeted with positive responses from players, the union, and the NFL itself. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a gay brother, could see the breaking of this barrier as a positive part of his legacy.
With that in mind, here are four lessons from Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball that could allow the first openly gay player to overcome challenges and have the broadest impact possible:
Be a quality player: Being a top-notch player isn’t a requirement for the first openly gay player, but it would maximize the social impact and minimize the risk of facing backlash from management, fans, and opponents. Less prominent players may run into problems with their teams or fans as the first open player, but no one will care about sexuality if, say, a gay wide receiver catches 85 passes and scores 10 touchdowns next year. A recognizable player also would broaden the social impact, both inside and outside sports, of having an openly gay athlete, just as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier would not have had such an immediate impact had he not also become a star. Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947; by 1949, he was the game’s Most Valuable Player. In three years, Robinson proved not only that blacks could compete with whites but that they could be the best player in a league full of people who thought blacks were racially inferior, and that star power stretched his outcome outside the game as well. A prominent player won’t only face less risk, he’ll make it easier for others to come out in his wake while boosting the LGBT movement outside of sports as well.
Be in a conducive locker room: One of the lasting images of baseball’s integration came when Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ white southern shortstop, embraced Robinson in the middle of the field. It was a message to players and fans that Robinson, no matter his skin color, was welcome to play the game. How white players would accept a black teammate was certainly a major concern then, and much has been made of football’s “locker room culture” preventing the game from becoming an inclusive place for gay athletes. This is somewhat overblown, in my view, and Free told me that he never heard teammates say they wouldn’t play with a gay teammate and that blaming the locker room culture was a “cop-out.” Still, it would help the first openly gay player to be in a locker room that is as welcoming as possible. That could be in a locker room with a fierce advocate for LGBT equality, like Minnesota, Baltimore, or Cleveland, or in any other where the player knows he has support. Having both the public and private support of teammates is paramount to help address issues and opposition the player may face from other teammates, opponents, and fans.
Be able to ignore fans (and opponents): Robinson was famously told by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey that early in his career he had to ignore the racial slurs fans and opponents hurled at him and prove them wrong on the field. That same dynamic will come into play for the first openly gay player, and Freeman reported that the “true concern” of the player who is considering coming out is that he “fears he will suffer serious harm from homophobic fans, and that is the only thing preventing him from coming out.” That’s understandable. But as Free told me, taking verbal abuse from fans is part of the game. Players already hear nasty taunts about their supposed sexual preferences, their mothers, and anything else drunken fans can come up with. Opponents will also say anything — no matter how nasty — to get under a player’s skin, though the NFL can easily enforce harsh penalties on players who utter gay slurs at opponents. It will be up to franchises, stadium security, and other fans, meanwhile, to make sure that slurs and unruly behavior that may threaten a player’s safety aren’t tolerated.
Be willing to be an icon: As easy as that sounds — aren’t all professional athletes aiming to be icons? — it isn’t easy for a player to carry the burden of an entire movement, especially one that is inherently political in nature. When activists were asking Latino baseball players to take a stand against Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law during the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, David Ortiz, the Dominican star of the Boston Red Sox, responded, “I ain’t Jackie Robinson.” Fair or not, breaking this barrier will mean more media attention, more heckling from fans, more worries about being a distraction to the team. Not all players are Jackie Robinson. But the first openly gay athlete in major American professional sports has to be.