I was asked to offer a few sentences about what I thought was the sports story of the year for The Barnstormer, a truly excellent and entertaining website. I thought about it for a while. There were some remarkable feel-good stories, such as the return of the Winnipeg Jets, the Toronto Blue Jays becoming an off-season powerhouse, and there were unthinkable and heart-wrenching tragedies. But I kept coming back to one story. It's the story of two progressive NFL players who united to take a stand against homophobia in the often backwards culture of professional sports. And it requires more than a few sentences to express how important this story is.
Linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens and Punter Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings became unlikely spokespeople for gay rights in America. And it all started with a letter by homophobic Maryland politician, Emmitt. C. Burns Jr., who took exception to Ayabadejo's endorsement of same-sex marriage.
Kluwe then responded to Burns with an extremely sassy and hilarious letter in support of Ayanbadejo. This letter took the Internet by storm. Later, when college football player Jamie Kuntz was kicked off his team for kissing his boyfriend in the press box, Ayanbadejo and Kluwe took to Twitter to offer their support. The spectre of homophobia looms so large in men's sports and specifically in men's professional sports.
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The 27-year-old U.S. Olympic soccer player spoke frankly about her sexuality in <a href="http://www.out.com/travel-nightlife/london/2012/07/02/fever-pitch" target="_hplink">an interview with <em>Out</em> magazine</a>, saying she is a lesbian and in a committed relationship with a woman. While her statement may seem bold, the 27-year-old Rapinoe told Out's Jerry Portwood that she'd just never been asked directly. "I think they were trying to be respectful and that it's my job to say, 'I'm gay,' she said. "Which I am. For the record: I am gay." Rapinoe, who's been dating her girlfriend -- identified in the magazine only as an Australian soccer player -- for three years, also took time to chat about homophobia in sports and, more specifically, female athletes' perspective on the subject. "I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out," she said. Still, she added, "In female sports, if you're gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It's very open and widely supported. For males, it's not that way at all. It's sad."
In 2007, Amaechi -- who played at Penn State and spent five seasons in the NBA with Orlando --<a href="http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=2757105" target="_hplink"> identified himself as a gay man</a> in his book "Man in the Middle." Four years later, Amaechi <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/14/john-amaechi-kobe-bryant_n_849231.html" target="_hplink">criticized Kobe Bryant after the five-time NBA champion used a gay slur</a> during a game. "There's only one contemporary meaning for that," he said. "We have to take it as unacceptable as a white person screaming the N-word at a black person. I can tell you that I've been called a f--got fairly routinely, and yet people seem to hold off on calling me the N-word. We've got to mirror that progress."
Thomas's decision to <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/19/gay-groups-applaud-gareth-thomas" target="_hplink">confirm his sexuality</a> while still an active rugby player was praised by LGBT rights advocates as a brave move. Though others have since followed suit, Thomas hoped people who eventually consider his sexuality as irrelevant. "What I choose to do when I close the door at home has nothing to do with what I have achieved in rugby," he told <em>The Guardian</em>. "I'd love for it, in 10 years' time, not to even be an issue in sport, and for people to say: 'So what?'"
The Prague-born tennis pro, who came out as bisexual in 1981, is credited with having "expanded the dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality in sports,"<a href="http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016378.html" target="_hplink"> according to ESPN</a>. "Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar," Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, said. "She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn't have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am."
The Olympic diver, who took home the gold medal in 2008 in the ten meter platform, revealed his sexuality in an <a href="http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/05/23/1211183107597.html" target="_hplink">exclusive interview</a> with <em>The Sydney Morning Herald</em>. Mitcham, then 20 years old, credited partner Lachlan with helping him battle depression and emotional burnout in the years before his Olympic triumph.
Known as much for his colorful fashion sense as his slick moves on the ice, Weir faced intense media scrutiny over his sexual orientation before<a href="http://www.afterelton.com/people/2011/01/johnny-weir-finally-really-out" target="_hplink"> finally coming out</a> in his recently published memoirs. "With people killing themselves and being scared into the closet, I hope that even just one person can gain strength from my story," Weir said at the time. "A lot of the gays got downright angry about my silence. But pressure is the last thing that would make me want to 'join' a community."
Unfortunately, the tennis pro's<a href="http://lesbianlife.about.com/od/lesbiansinsports/p/BillieJeanKing.htm" target="_hplink"> 1981 outing</a> was not her choice; she was forced out when her former female lover sued her for palimony and nearly lost all of her commercial endorsements as a result. But her career was far from over, and in 2000, she became the first open lesbian ever to coach an Olympic team.
The Australian hockey champ, who retired this year, came out earlier this week in an emotional YouTube video, <em>The Sydney Morning Herald</em> <a href="http://www.smh.com.au/national/playing-it-straight-20111022-1mdj3.html" target="_hplink">is reporting</a>. "I regret immensely that I wasn't strong enough as a leader, that I didn't step up when I was playing and share this about myself,'' he is quoted as saying in the video.
Originally from Quebec, the Canadian hockey champ<a href="http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/othersports/2003817138_goodread02.html" target="_hplink"> decided to stop </a>hiding her sexual orientation while still a freshman at Harvard University. "If they weren't going to accept me on the team," she told <em>The Seattle Times</em>, "I wasn't going to stay."
In 1995, the Olympic diving hero (who <a href="http://www.outsports.com/local/2006/0417louganis.htm" target="_hplink">became the first man</a> in 56 years to win two gold medals in diving when he captured the platform and the springboard events in Los Angeles 11 years earlier) shocked fans when he decided<a href="http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Greg-Louganis-Comes-Out-on-The-Oprah-Show-Video" target="_hplink"> to come out</a> as both gay and HIV-positive on <em>The Oprah Winfrey Show</em>. "People who were close to me -- family and friends -- they knew about my sexuality," he said in 2006. "I just did not discuss my personal life, my sexuality with the media. That was my policy."
Formerly of the San Diego Padres, baseball player Billy Bean came out in 1999, five years after he retired. Now, however, he says he has regrets about ending his baseball career after just six seasons. "If I had only told my parents, I probably would have played two or three more years and understood that I could come out a step at a time, not have to do it in front of a microphone," he<a href="http://outsports.com/jocktalkblog/2011/09/27/moment-7-major-leaguer-billy-bean-comes-out-still-regrets-retiring/" target="_hplink"> is quoted by</a> Outsports as saying. "And I was completely misguided. I had no mentor. I think that's where the responsibility comes in for people who have lived that experience, and we take for granted that everybody's adjusted and gets it."
The pro-golfer, who won 13 events during her 21 years, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/21/sports/golf/21ROSI.html" target="_hplink">came out in</a> a 2004 <em>New York Times</em> editorial. "You see, my sponsor, Olivia, is one of the world's largest and most respected companies catering to lesbian travelers, and this represents the first time a company like this has sponsored a professional athlete -- a gay professional athlete," Jones wrote. "Inherent in this sponsorship is my coming out. It's a bit of a curiosity, because I've never been in the closet. For more than 25 years, I've been very comfortable with the fact that I'm gay...I have never, until now, felt the need to discuss it in the news media."
The champion rider, who competed in six consecutive Olympics, says he's never had much of a problem with being open about his sexual orientation in the equestrian world. Still, as he he<a href="http://www.outsports.com/olympics/2004/0804robertdover.htm" target="_hplink"> told Outsports</a>, "I did not connect my social life to my work life for many years, and while I never ran away from the issue of my homosexuality, I must admit that I had no real interest in bringing attention to it, especially with the press...what changed everything was a combination of meeting my soul-mate Robert Ross, whom I was so proud to be with that I wanted everyone to know, and the AIDS epidemic which affected so many people dear to me."
The South African-born commissioner of World Team Tennis <a href="http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_445847.html" target="_hplink">has also been</a> the partner of Billie Jean King for more than 20 years. She also credits King with encouraging her to pursue her career. "I had an opportunity to hit tennis balls with Billie Jean King when she was in South Africa when I was 11," <a href="http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/jul/17/17kloss1o1/" target="_hplink">she said</a>. "She encouraged me to pursue my dream, and I did."
In women's sports, the tide has already started to turn. Olympic soccer player Megan Rapinoe came out this year and received an outpouring of support by her teammates and fans. The men are lagging behind. I believe this has to do with to an outdated code of secrecy, shame, and silence that pervades professional sports.
Men have been stunted by the notion of traditional "family values" that is conjured when participating in sports as fans or as athletes. Indeed, hatred (dressed up as traditional values) led to a Emmitt C. Burns Jr.'s repellant attempt to suppress another American's right to freedom of expression by claiming to speak for the traditional "fan base." As Frank Bruni points out, "The possibility that coming out might rankle management or sour fans ... keeps gay athletes in the closet."
It appears that the culture of professional sports is still largely a culture of bullying. But thanks in part to Ayanbadejo and Kluwe, as well as Patrick Burke's groundbreaking "You Can Play Project" (whose slogan "Gay Athletes. Straight Allies. Teaming Up For Respect" says it all), the culture is changing. These activists have elevated the discourse in a world that is notorious for its rigid, limited, and archaic notions of heternormativity.
There's much work to be done in terms of awareness and advocacy. Although it is widely acknowledged that there are gay athletes in all four major professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL) we are still waiting for an active player to come out.
Queer positive messages like Ayanbadejo's and Kluwe's get us closer to the day where a gay athlete will not have to endure the often-barbaric and hateful atmosphere of the locker room, where a gay athlete in one of the four major leagues will proudly be able to claim his orientation publicly and will not be demonized, but in fact respected and loved for coming out.
I long for the day when being on this list will not be seen by anyone as anything other that a point of pride. We are closer than we were. So, this is my sports story of the year. It's not about a game that was played on a field. However, it's about an important victory for activism and inclusion in the field of civil rights.
Follow Jon Paul Fiorentino on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stripmaller