Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Field fearlessness


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Fair Play by Cyd Zeigler, Akashic Books, $15.95

There has always been a great divide between the LGBT community and the sports arena, and much of it relates more to the politics of masculinity and locker room homophobia than to the challenge and rivalry of the games themselves. Sports journalist and Outsports online magazine co-founder Cyd Zeigler understands this and has spent a great portion of his career "in a continuous struggle to balance the two worlds in which I came of age: sports and the gay community."

Zeigler denotes the 2000s as the pivotal decade when the climate of organized sports began to change, though not always for the better. He vividly describes a defining moment in 2007 when Tim Hardaway, then a first-round NBA draft choice, was asked on a radio program what his thoughts were about the recent coming out of basketball player John Amaechi. Hardaway vocally and vehemently admitted to hating homosexuality and his open disgust for a gay teammate. Though he was largely criticized for his perspective, the "culture war" between the LGBT community and organized sports had escalated with just a few words.

In hindsight, the author writes, "After every storm there is an opportunity for growth." Great strides have been made to bring both communities together through the bravery of several gay athletes Zeigler profiles. Legendary football running back Dave Kopay came out in 1975, "years ahead of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, because it was the right thing to do." Derrick Gordon, a perseverant college basketball player, came out and remained in the game amidst the threat of ostracization. These are just two of the examples the author provides of outstanding athletes who paved the way for others in the LGBT community. The difference in many of these coming out stories is that some boldly revealed their personal lives while they were still active pro athletes, while others, like NFL defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo and baseball great Billy Bean, came out in post-career retirement.

A chapter on the controversy that surrounded the first openly transgender mixed martial arts professional, Fallon Fox, is a prime example of how provocative the LGBT sports arena can become. Zeigler admits that his involvement with athletes and coaches has mostly been with men, and his book largely reflects this. But a chapter on female sports pros and lesbian athletes proves just as illuminating as sections on their masculine counterparts. Both courage and fear are the common denominators in all of these stories, and pride and resilience win out on the playing field.

Late in the book, Zeigler discusses current sports figures like Tim Tebow, Troy Aikman, and Aaron Rodgers, who have not come out, but remain under public scrutiny for the possibility that they may be gay (or not). He mines the tricky subject of outing in sports, and reiterates that his magazine does not out anyone. But athletes should be prepared in advance for the ups and downs that result from exposing their private side to the world. By championing the lives of out sports figures, Zeigler hopes readers will understand the double-edged reality of LGBT athletes who have experienced both "the powerful acceptance so many of them have faced, and the limited yet enduring scope of rejection by people in power."

Part of Brooklyn indie publisher Akashic Books' imprint Edge of Sports Books spotlighting sports titles with a progressive political message, Fair Play presents LGBT history and shows how far the movement has come. It's also an important scrapbook of past and present-day gay athletes who have bravely tested America's social climate and come out, even when their careers were at risk.

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