A Brokeback Mountain
for Sports Fans: New Survey Suggests Professional Athletes Would Welcome Gay
Sports Illustrated magazine’s online arm, si.com, publishes the anonymous results of polls of professional athletes in the four major North American sports weekly as part of their broader pop culture coverage. Although these polls have generally related to sports issues, this week’s question reflects a far more important issue -- the anti-gay hysteria that has traditionally characterized sports, and made it difficult (if not impossible) for gay and lesbian athletes to pursue careers in professional sports.
The poll results would likely surprise most sports fans. Athletes were asked the question, “Would you welcome an openly gay teammate?” The response was overwhelmingly yes. Of 450 polled, more than 61% of professional baseball players said they would, while 60% of 248 NBA players polled agreed. Even NFL players, generally believed to represent the leading conservative edge of American sports (American military jets greet virtually every kickoff), responded in the affirmative, with 57% of 357 polled being prepared to accept a gay teammate. But most surprisingly was the NHL players’ response. Eighty percent of the 346 polled responded that they would welcome a gay teammate, a powerful majority of a large sample.
Besides demonstrating the enormous distance between Canadian and European perceptions of gays and lesbians and those of mainstream Americans (who make up the majority of the athletes within basketball and football), the results of this poll also offer a glimmer of hope on a serious issue within current sports. As the recent discussion of Brokeback Mountain has suggested, cultural entries into the ongoing struggle for gay rights can have a broad popular effect. If sports, one of the most important sources of conservative hyper-masculinity within modern pop culture, were to desegregate and allow gays and lesbians to participate fully, this would be an important cultural step.
Of course, some brave gay and lesbian athletes participate in professional sports now. Likely there are many we do not know about, which makes the few that are open about their sexuality all the more important, and courageous. One recent example is Sheryl Swoopes, one of the WNBA’s best (and most prominent) players, who came out as a lesbian in the fall of 2005, in an interview with ESPN. In fact, that interview, coupled with a story by Scoop Jackson about Latasha Byears, an openly gay WNBA player who sued the L.A. Sparks for not supporting her when she was charged with rape (as the Sparks’ parent organization, the L.A. Lakers, had supported Kobe Bryant in similar circumstances), has indicated an important editorial tone on the part of ESPN. “The worldwide leader in sports,” as it calls itself, has clearly taken a supportive position regarding gays and lesbians trying to break into the mainstream sports culture.
All of this is good news because it means a change in the discourse around homosexuals in professional sports. Obviously, this sharp shift in opinion reflects the enormous ground the gay and lesbian rights movement has gained in the past decade. For Canadians, the most important evidence of this success is the recently recognized rights of same-sex couples to marriage. While marriage was an important cultural boundary that has finally been brought into line with democratic rights (at least in Canada), organized sport is another field that will require a similar process of adjustment.
By changing the nature of the conversation, writers like Scoop Jackson and the results of the Sports Illustrated poll will make further material gains on the parts of gays and lesbians easier to achieve. Especially considering the hallowed role sports play in traditional conceptions of heterosexist masculinity, athletes challenging homophobic notions within sport is exciting news. In a year where one of the most acclaimed films featured a gay love story, the broadening acceptance of gays within athletics is just one more victory for progressive forces within popular culture.
journal of politics, culture and resistance, where this article first