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In pro sports, gay athletes still feel unwelcome

No active player in the NFL, NBA, major leagues or NHL has ever come out as gay. Some say it would be career ending. Others say it will happen someday.

December 29, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

Zeigler interviewed more than two dozen current and former NFL players — including Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski and Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, plus retired Pro Bowlers Jevon Kearse, Ahman Green and Eddie George — over the last seven months and found just one who said he would be uncomfortable with a gay teammate.

"When I talk to these guys, the majority of them have a gay family member. And all of them know at least one gay person," Zeigler says.

Griffin had a gay teammate in high school, for example, Green has a gay brother and lesbian sister and Hasselbeck insists he must have played with at least one closeted teammate during his NFL career.

In fact, as long as you're not looking in the locker room, it isn't hard to find sports figures who have close friends and family members who are gay.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has a gay brother who has been in a committed relationship for 30 years. Paul Tagliabue, the man Goodell replaced, has a gay son and has won national recognition for work on gay issues, including last year's donation of $1 million to create an assistance program at Georgetown University for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

"In the last 10 years [athletes] have become more exposed to it and they realize we're not walking around with six arms and horns growing out of their head," says Zeigler, who is gay.

So why hasn't one active athlete in the four most prominent professional leagues come out? Blame the media, says Patrick Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke.

"The media likes to perpetuate this belief that … sports is this barbaric place full of dumb meathead jocks who are just waiting to jump on the first gay athlete they find," says Patrick Burke who, to honor his late brother Brendan, has done much to break down that misperception.

Brendan Burke, who quit his high school hockey team in Massachusetts over fears his sexual orientation would be discovered, came out publicly while a sophomore at Ohio's Miami University and called for tolerance for gays in professional sports. When he died in the winter of 2010 in an auto accident at age 21, the NHL rallied to his cause and that summer, in a groundbreaking gesture, the Chicago Blackhawks sent defenseman Brent Sopel and the team's recently won Stanley Cup to the Chicago gay pride parade.

Patrick Burke took the campaign a big step further by founding the "You Can Play" project, which features NHL players — including the Kings' Dustin Brown and Alec Martinez — plus players from two Major League Soccer teams in public service spots pushing the message that sexual orientation doesn't matter.

"If you can play," the campaign insists in seven languages "you can play."

The response has been overwhelming, says Patrick Burke, who says he knows of players in hockey and other sports who have told teammates they were gay without repercussions. But, he added, none are willing to take the next step and go public with their sexual orientation.

"It's impossible to really overstate how difficult it might be for an individual athlete to have the courage to come out," Burke says. "The challenges and the fears are justified. They're real."

Just ask soccer player David Testo. When Testo, a decorated midfielder with the Montreal Impact of the second-tier North American Soccer League, came out on a Canadian TV show 13 months ago he said the initial reception was positive. But his contract had expired two weeks earlier and after his announcement the phone stopped ringing.

Testo, 31, hasn't played a game since.

"It seems like there is a lot more support these days. But for someone to come out to the public or just to their teammates, it takes a lot of just coming to terms with it yourself," Testo says. "Most of these athletes are younger and they haven't had their time to kind of explore and just come to that kind of self-awareness.

"I would love for someone to be able to do that in their prime and really be a role model, an inspiration for others. When that one special [player] does it, it's just going to open the floodgates. But it's hard. When there's a lot of money on the line, when there's endorsements on the line, it's different. Why would anyone want to risk that?"

Yet Testo is convinced he's not the only professional athlete who is gay.

"It can't be," he says. "It's not possible. People have to do what they have to do for self-preservation."

Which is why Burke, like the NBA's Stern and the NFL's Foster, remains convinced it's only a matter of time before an active player comes out. And when that happens people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

"People are going to be stunned by what a nonstory this is," Patrick Burke says. "He's going to walk into the [dressing] room, he going to tell his teammates he's gay … and they're all going to go, 'Great. Suit up. We don't care if you're gay. Get out there and score a goal.' "

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.

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