As the 2014 NFL Draft neared its conclusion, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam waited anxiously. Surrounded by family and friends in his agent’s San Diego home, Sam watched as the Miami Dolphins—a team desperately in need of a reputation makeover—passed over him and selected Terrence Fede, a defensive end from Marist College. Sam, a co-South Eastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, grew increasingly frustrated when the San Francisco 49ers named Boston College defensive end Kaleb Ramsey the 243rd pick. With the 49ers’ selection, only eight spots remained.
Sam’s dwindling opportunities allowed some to question the NFL’s self-proclaimed dedication to tolerance. As Huffington Post writer Hank Koebler commented, “In today’s NFL full of pass-happy offenses and hybrid defensive fronts, football reasons alone can’t justify why an award-winning pass-rusher like Sam fell so far in the draft.” To support these claims of continued prejudice in the NFL, many highlighted the trajectories of other SEC Defensive Players of the Year. Since the SEC instituted the honor in 2003, all but two winners were selected in the first round. “You’ll never convince me there were 248 better college players and NFL prospects in that draft,” exclaimed sportscaster Dale Hansen. “Two hundred forty-eight better than SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year? There’s just no way.” Fortunately, a phone call in the seventh round saved the NFL from having to identify the non-football reasons for Sam’s exclusion. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher notified him that he had been selected by St. Louis with the 249th pick. With the monumental call, Sam became the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL.
It has been well documented that sport is an influential milieu in which conventional notions of gender and sexuality develop and flourish. Moreover, sport remains one of society’s last bastions of hetero-masculinity and homophobia. Boys and men utilize physical exertions and corporeal prowess to demonstrate strength, virility and conquest. According to sociologist Derek A. Kreager:
Masculinized sports then become socially sanctioned stepping stones toward privilege and power—sites where coaches, peers, parents, and the media encourage masculine identities founded on physical aggression and domination.
Historically, then, gay male athletes have been rendered invisible and/or oxymoronic in professional physical competitions, specifically in the “big four”: baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Lesbian athletes, on the other hand, have been assumed and largely welcomed in women’s sport, due to the social correlation with sporting success and masculinity. An overview of famous gay men in U.S. sport illustrates a nuanced interpretation of sexual norms and demonstrates the significance of context. As mores altered throughout the twentieth century, so, too, did society’s response to gay athletes in elite competition.
The Interwar Era: Bill Tilden
After the calamities and despairs of World War I, sport emerged as a national fascination. Peoples’ desires to forget the recent atrocities, coupled with a booming post-war economy, helped the 1920s earn a reputation as the “Golden Age of Sports.” Baseball developed into a national spectacle, supported by the grandiose persona of Babe Ruth. Knute Rockne revolutionized football with new rules and strategies, and Red Grange helped garner fans for the professional game. Boxing thrived as fans cheered Jack Dempsey’s multiple knockouts and Helen Wills dominated the tennis courts with steely confidence. And, throughout the decade, Grantland Rice deployed hyperbole and imagery to capture it all in print.
Along with the increased pageantry of and appreciation for sports in the 1920s, the Roaring Twenties encouraged men and women to embrace new norms. Sexuality in the interwar era was multifaceted and not defined by behaviors. As historian George Chauncey explained in Gay New York, a heterosexuality-homosexuality binary did not yet exist; moreover, opponents of Prohibition created deviant subcultures, in which same-sex sexuality was not overtly criminalized. The career and legacy of “Big” Bill Tilden, an iconic tennis player of the time, illustrates changing social norms.
Bill Tilden, born a wealthy Philadelphian aristocrat, dominated tennis in the 1920s. Ranked the number one player in the world for much of the decade, he won the U.S. National Singles Championship six consecutive times (seven total), earned six victories in the U.S. Clay Court Championships and proved victorious in Wimbledon three of the six times he entered—the first American to ever win the event. Tilden’s popularity amplified with every tennis triumph. As communication scholars John Carvalho and Mike Milford demonstrated, much of Tilden’s media coverage in the 1920s defined him as a tennis great and champion.
As Tilden enjoyed celebrity status during the 1920s, rumors regarding his sexual preferences circulated. Reporters hinted that Tilden favored certain male protégés but merely alluded to the significance. His sexuality was discussed by the media in whispers and not labeled abnormal. While this was common practice for the time—reporters rarely described Ruth’s known womanizing habits, for example—scholar Teddy Tinling also explained that such censorship and purposeful ignorance stemmed from class distinctions. He posited that the upper class “had the prerogative of indulging their eccentricities to the utmost.” Yet, regardless of class, Tilden’s supposed “eccentricities” would not be tolerated in the post-World War II era.
The Post-World War II Era: Bill Tilden
Sexual mores shifted in the wake of World War II. In the United States, heterosexuality was exalted to counteract the supposed threats from the Soviet Union. As historian Elaine Tyler May argued in Homeward Bound, “domestic containment,” the idea that the dangerous social forces of the atomic age could be combated within the home, privileged heterosexuality. Heterosexual interactions were thus normalized, whereas all other relationships were deemed aberrant. Resultantly, gays and lesbians experienced a reduction of rights during the Cold War, due to the hardening of the sexual binary and the criminalization of non-heterosexuality.
Tilden’s reputation and legacy was correspondingly altered. In 1946, he was pulled over and arrested when an officer found a 14-year-old boy in the driver’s seat. The adolescent alleged that Tilden had fondled him. Against the wishes of his attorney, Tilden pled guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to nine months in prison with five months probation. While the New York Times ignored the arrest and briefly mentioned the sentencing, the University of Pennsylvania, where Tilden attended as an undergraduate but did not graduate, expunged his name from all records. Fans similarly turned against the former tennis star.
After serving his time, Tilden published an autobiography, My Story, to chronicle his tennis career and explain his sexuality. According to Carvalho and Milford, in the book, Tilden embraced postwar-era norms to recast his arrest in a less negative light. Tilden explained that sports encouraged same-sex relationships and noted that the intimate nature of competition fostered “occasional relationships somewhat away from the normal.” Notably, he seemed to internalize the terminology of the period when identifying same-sex sexuality as medically abnormal. Moreover, Tilden argued that many celebrated individuals shared his “condition,” and suggested that his sexuality stemmed from a “psychoneurosis or other psychological disturbance.” Tilden deployed medical terminology to both rationalize his behavior and present a derogatory interpretation of same-sex sexuality. Despite an attempt to bolster his reputation, the tennis community continued to ostracize Tilden.
The situation worsened three years later when Tilden was arrested for picking up a 16-year-old hitchhiker, which violated his parole. During the trial, the prosecutor portrayed him as immoral and deviant; however, Tilden’s criminalization may have stemmed from his sexuality rather than pedophilia. As Carvalho and Milford noted, “the sexual exploitation of children, operating under the same code of society’s silence, seems to have been subsumed by the greater condemnation of homosexual behavior” (p. 564). Tilden returned to jail and was banished from tennis. In 1953, he died in a run-down boarding house, his legacy largely erased.
The 1970s: David Kopay and Glenn Burke
Two decades after Tilden died alone and penniless, sexuality norms again shifted. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, the Gay Rights Movement fought for gay rights and countered the ideology of heterosexuality as normal. While equality for gays and lesbians expanded, sport grew in popularity and emerged as an avenue to combat these new social upheavals. Gay male athletes, therefore, were not openly accepted on the court, diamond or field by teammates, coaches and fans. Accordingly, gay men in professional sport largely remained closeted, fearful of violent and/or professional retribution.
David Kopay, an All-American running back for the University of Washington, signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1964. Despite his popularity in a city with a thriving gay and lesbian community, Kopay hid his sexuality, concerned that coming out would damage his career. To counter any rumors or suggestions, he instead exhibited hyper-masculinity. Kopay explained:
When I played, I was a very aggressive, tough ballplayer. . . . I gained their respect by being especially tough, but that was also a good ruse to hide my true sexual identity.
After playing for the 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, and Green Bay Packers, Kopay retired in 1972. Three years later, he publicly acknowledged his sexuality, becoming the first former professional male athlete to come out. His courage had a cost, however, as the NFL blacklisted him from coaching, illustrating the league’s discomfort with same-sex sexuality.
Football was not alone in its refusal to accept a gay athlete or coach. Major League Baseball, “America’s pastime,” also embodied paralleling ideologies of masculinity and heterosexuality. Glenn Burke, a Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder, faced resentment and mistreatment when his teammates and management learned he was gay. In his 1995 autobiography, Out at Home, he described Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis’ attempts to persuade Burke into heterosexuality by offering to pay for a luxurious honeymoon—if he agreed to marry a woman. In addition, despite his successes with the Dodgers, Burke was traded to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North in 1978, a less established player; some suggest homophobia was the driving factor in the exchange. The transition proved difficult for Burke as he not only received minimal playing time, but was also the focal point of many gay epithets in the clubhouse. After a knee injury sent him to the minors in 1980, he subsequently retired. In 1982, Burke publicly came out and later suggested intolerance marred his career. “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have (left),” he famously declared. “But I wasn’t changing.” With the post-career mistreatment Kopay and Burke faced, it is not surprising that gay professional athletes opted to hide their sexuality in the 1990s and 2000s.
The 1980s: The Gay Games
U.S. decathlete Tom Waddell finished sixth in the 1968 Olympics. While competing in Mexico City, he hid his sexuality from teammates, silenced by the continued homophobia that plagued men’s sport. A 1972 knee injury relegated Waddell to recreational activities and he joined a Bay Area gay bowling league. The openness and acceptance of the league inspired Waddell to construct a similarly tolerant event modeled on the Olympic Games. First organized in 1982, the “Gay Olympics” were created to help a marginalized and hidden population in sport. According to Waddell, the Games:
Are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, and they are not for commercial gain. They are, however, intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem.
Unfortunately, not everyone perceived the Gay Olympics in such a positive light. Three weeks before the opening ceremonies of the 1982 San Francisco Games, the United States Olympic Committee filed a lawsuit demanding the Gay Olympics remove “Olympics” from its title. Despite never protesting any other organization’s use of the word, the USOC argued that having “Olympics” adjacent to “Gay” harmed the USOC’s image. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, in favor of the USOC. Although the legal proceedings would continue for five years, Waddell rechristened the 1982 event the Gay Games. With 1,350 athletes from ten countries competing in 17 sports, the Gay Games were deemed a success and have continued every four years. Several gay (former) professional athletes participated openly in the Gay Games–once in retirement.
Although the Gay Games found immediate success in the 1980s, gay men experienced increased homophobia during the decade. The rise of AIDS caused a public rejection of the gay community. Because the infection appeared to target gay men, some defined the disease as GRID, the gay-related immune deficiency. Although the Center for Disease Control quickly verified that AIDS did not target the gay community, the stigmatization persisted. Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games, died in 1987 from the infection. The tragedies and disparagement caused by AIDS further pushed gay athletes into silence.
The 1990s-2000s: Coming Out Post-Career
At the end of the century, men’s sport remained entrenched in masculinity and heterosexuality. After interviewing heterosexual male athletes in 1992, for example, sport sociologist Michael Messner concluded that, in sport, “homophobia is staggering.” Due to the staunch heterosexism of professional U.S. sports, gay male athletes in the 1990s and early 2000s continued to conceal their sexuality, with a handful coming out in retirement. When safely retired, those who openly discussed their existence as gay athletes in professional sport cited fears of on-field brutality and career desecration as factors for their prolonged silence. In addition, many noted substance abuse as a method to handle the prejudices and duplicity.
In 1992, Roy “Sugar Bear” Simmons became the second professional football player to publicly come out, almost a decade after he left the sport. He was drafted by the Giants in 1979 and spent five tumultuous seasons in New York, his play consistently declining due to off-field habits. Simmons was tortured by the required concealment and absolved this pain with various substances. His worsening performance led to his removal from the team in 1983. Simmons spent one additional season with the Washington Redskins before opting to leave professional football. In 1992, Simmons came out on the Phil Donahue Show and suggested the homophobic attitude of the NFL deterred him from being open with his sexuality. “In the NFL, there is nothing worse than being gay,” he explained. “You can beat your wife, but you better not be gay.” Fourteen years later, he expanded the description in the autobiography, Out of Bounds, and discussed drug addiction and prostitution. He died in 2014 homeless at the age of 57.
Esera Tuaolo shared a similar story in his 2006 autobiography, Alone in the Trenches. Drafted in 1991, he first played for the Green Bay Packers before joining the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. After retiring in 1999, he publicly came out three years later on HBO’s Real Sports and in ESPN Magazine. In a piece entitled “Free and Clear,” Tuaolo described his numerous anxiety attacks that were sparked from the worry of being exposed; he feared that if his sexuality was revealed, he would be cut or purposefully injured. Tuaolo knew the repercussions:
Because the NFL is a supermacho culture. It’s a place for gladiators. And gladiators aren’t supposed to be gay
Tequila and whiskey were his solutions to curb the pain. With the machismo in the NFL, then, it is not surprising, that others followed a similar path. Wade Davis played in the NFL for three years, 2000-2003, and came out in 2012 while retired. Kwame Harris, an NFL offensive tackle for seven years, announced his sexuality on CNN three years after ending his professional career.
Gay athletes in baseball and basketball also mirrored this pattern. Outfielder Billy Bean commenced his career with the Detroit Lions, competed for the Los Angeles Dodgers and finished his tenure with San Diego Padres. Throughout his nine-year-stint in the MLB, he pretended to date women while nervously hiding the existence of his male partner. “I went to Hooters, laughed to the jokes, (and) lied about dates,” he said, “because I loved baseball.” Bean’s anecdote seems to stem from his recognition of society’s inability to embrace same-sex sexuality in baseball. Professional basketball player John Amaechi experienced similar turmoil. Signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1995, he spent two years in a European league before returning to the United States with the Orlando Magic in 1999. Amaechi completed his NBA career four years later with the Utah Jazz, where he began to live more openly as a gay man. When retired, he publicly came out in a 2007 interview with Outside the Lines. While many applauded Amaechi’s announcement, some within the NBA were not as tolerant. Former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway infamously ranted:
“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. . . . I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
Such sentiments kept many from coming out while competing professionally.
In 2013, Robbie Rogers retired from professional soccer at the age of 25. Shortly after concluding his career, he followed gay professional predecessors and announced his sexuality on his personal blog, robbiehrogers.com. Yet, just over two months later, Rogers returned to the MLS and joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, making him the first professional athlete to be openly gay while competing. Rogers’ reentry into the professional world of soccer marked a turning point, and his teammates embraced him on and off the pitch.
Conclusion: Sexuality and Sport Today
On May 6, 2013, NBA free agent Jason Collins publicly came out. In a pioneering Sports Illustrated piece, he explained that “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” While this announcement proved revolutionary and courageous, many feared Collins would remain unsigned; his age and statistics were discussed as potential obstacles, as was the increased publicity that came with his announcement. Finally, almost a full year after his declaration, Collins signed with the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay man to compete in one of the big four sports. Moreover, not only was he warmly accepted, but his jersey became a top seller in the league. With Collins in the NBA and Sam in the NFL, homophobia in sport is slowly being dismantled.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.