Is 'out' the new 'in' in sports?
by Roger Brigham

Over the years, the stories blur together as their authors fill in the blanks of seemingly templated scripts. "(Name here) revealed this week he is gay, becoming the first active athlete in (pro sport here) to publicly disclose his homosexuality."

Last week, Swedish pro soccer player Anton Hysén became the latest professional athlete on a team to inform news media he is gay, coming out in an interview with the Swedish soccer magazine Offside . His disclosure came less than a week after Steven Davies, a British rising star in international cricket, became the first active athlete in that sport to come out.

Hoorays and salutations from colleagues and management alike have greeted both athletes. Promises of support have been made. Joy reigns. But is this headline news? At what point do events cease to be salutary milestones and become tiny type footnotes, expected steps on an evolving path?

I have been arguing for a better part of a decade that LGBT sports news should be about a helluva lot more than just reporting who is out and who is not (which seems to be the sole extent of coverage such as it is by the mainstream media), or bare-chested photos of young Caucasian men (the fallback for far too many alternative media outlets). I see an LGBT sports world that is rapidly transforming as barriers fall while remnants of hostility persist, but I don't see much of the process being recorded by the news media.

How, for example, are we supposed to gauge what kind of support or backlash a high profile athlete coming out in the NFL or NBA would receive if all we go by are suppositions? We are told that homophobic slurs are commonplace in training camps for those sports, but reporting on such slurs rarely makes it into the daily coverage of the mainstream press unless it happens in a press conference, with microphones on and cameras running.

Just months after Gareth Thomas came out in rugby in 2009, the Castleford Tigers were fined 40,000 pounds ($65,000) for failing to control fans' homophobic chants and behavior when Thomas played against them. But there is no way for the average reader to gauge if the fan behavior that day was any worse or any better than it had ever been before.

An interesting backstory to Hysén's announcement is that his father, Glenn, is the coach of his team and gave the opening address at the 2007 Stockholm Pride Festival, much to the outrage of local LGBT community leaders because of a slugfest he had gotten into with another man in an airport restroom allegedly over an unwanted sexual advance. But the elder Hysén had really wanted to speak at the festival.

"That was the funniest thing when my dad made that speech," Hysén said. "When he was talking about 'a 16-year-old who didn't want to come out because he feared what his teammates would think,' that was me. And people thought it so bloody strange that he was allowed to speak at the Pride Festival, that he was a homophobe and so on. Shit, they were so wrong."

The announcements by Davies and Hysén sandwiched a hilarious and insightful blog by Toronto writer Joe Clark (www.blog.fawny.org) on the myopia and complicity of news media on keeping athletes in the closet. Arguing that major media reports on gays in sports are really focused almost entirely on white male American celebrities in professional sports, Clark writes, "The discussion is all about American pro sports. Not even Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, or anyone in the British Isles particularly cares about gay footballers and ruggers. ... All those countries have at their disposal are the sports pages in tabloids and a few marginal TV networks. Sports media are an American phenomenon. All they really care about are football, baseball, and basketball. Any kind of Olympic or amateur sport just isn't on the radar.

"Hence when we talk about coverage of gays in sports, we are talking about gays in sports covered by oligopoly sports media. A gay cricketer is of no value whatsoever in this narrative."

So, we leave the narrative and extract what we may from the footnotes. Soccer player Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990, encountered persistent homophobia and racism after coming out, and died by suicide in 1998.

What is so different for these announcements and other similar comings-out in jockdom from those of Fashanu 20 years ago â€" or for that matter, from David Kopay's historic coming out in the NFL 35 years ago? Probably the biggest change is the rise of the Internet, which gives young athletes alternatives to television and newspapers for access to opinions and comments: interactive resources in which they can explore their thoughts and find out they are not so very alone after all.

Twenty years after Fashanu's emergence from the closet, European soccer has programs to battle its homophobic culture. Davies is 25 and in the peak of his career; Hysén is 20 and a minor leaguer just starting out. We are told the younger generation is more accepting and the youth of both athletes would seem to illustrate that. Let us hope 20 years from now, we will see these announcements not just as footnotes, but the close of a chapter.

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