05.04.11

Major League Homophobia Isn't Going Away

The fining—but not firing—of a baseball pitching coach for hurling anti-gay slurs at fans comes on the heels of Kobe Bryant's homophobic outburst. Buzz Bissinger on the culture that gives prejudice plenty of running room.

When several San Francisco Giants fans heckled Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, he unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse. On Sunday he was suspended for two weeks. But what was most revealing, and most troubling, about the incident was his weapon of choice.

McDowell could have used all sorts of expletives to tell the offending fans to shut up. He could have told them he was going to kick their ass. He also could have walked away. Instead he resorted to Homophobic Madness, the reflexive athlete comfort zone. Well aware that he was in San Francisco, which has a large gay population, he threatened to take a bat and shove it up the backsides of the three fans taunting him, as reported by Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s how you like it here, right?” Todd Achondo, a fan at the April 23 game, heard McDowell say. What gives Achondo credibility is that he may be the only fan at the park who has not hired Gloria Allred.

In the military, Congress has finally recognized the rights of gays to serve openly and proudly without fear of reprisal. So have dozens of other professions.

But not in the world of professional football, baseball, and basketball, the Iron Curtain of homophobia in the United States. These are men who see themselves as machismo personified, and if a macho man doesn’t have the right to make anti-gay remarks and view homosexuals as weak, sissy-boy sexual predators, then what is the point of living?

McDowell’s conduct was extreme. It isn’t every day that a person, in or out of sports, takes a bat and threatens to put it where the sun sheds no light, with children sitting there in the stands. But the thrust of McDowell’s comments is hardly unusual, whether it’s here in the U.S. or other countries.

I have watched and listened as a whisper campaign spread about a player thought to be moody and whiny and difficult: He’s gay

In 1999 the Braves’ John Rocker, explaining why he would never play in New York, cited taking the subway to the ballpark next to “some queer with AIDS.”

Too old an incident?

In 2004 Braves pitcher John Smoltz, criticizing the possible legalization of gay marriage, told an Associated Press reporter, “What’s next, marrying an animal?”

Too old an incident?

A 2010 profile of Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas in Sports Illustrated detailed Thomas’ heavy drinking, suicidal impulses, and physical breakdown. Thomas got married to avoid the repercussions he feared his homosexuality would bring among other players, and only came out after three wrenching years agonizing over what to do. As for the image of the limp-wristed homosexual unable to lift a 10-pound weight without crying, Thomas was 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds of super-muscled super-aggression. He broke his nose five times, fractured both shoulders, and lost eight teeth playing rugby.

Too old an incident?

On April 3, the Toronto Raptors broke a six-game losing streak. But the big story was the image of Raptors players Reggie Evans and Leandro Barbosa walking off the court holding hands. Video of the image was posted on YouTube and triggered hundreds of anti-gay comments.

Too old an incident?

On April 13 Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for calling a referee a “faggot” in a profanity-laced diatribe.

Too old an incident?

Last week, the published results of interviews by an Ohio State University doctoral graduate of seven major-college linebackers found all too scared to come out during their playing days. One player deliberately injured himself to escape the physical assaults of his teammates after being outed. Another was called a “faggot” because he did not want to participate in homophobic banter.

These incidents are just the tip, nor is it any accident that there are no openly gay players in the National Basketball Association, National Football League, or Major League Baseball. What would be the point besides at a minimum misery, isolation, ostracism, and constant behind-the-back derision?

I have been in clubhouses and locker rooms. Gay jokes are commonplace. So is the use of the word “queer.” I have watched and listened as a whisper campaign spread about a player thought to be moody and whiny and difficult:

He’s gay

“Sports is still a place where there’s a home for homophobes,” John Amaechi told USA Today after the Bryant incident. Amaechi played five seasons in the NBA. He is gay but came out publicly only after his career ended.

Enlightenment is not a particularly prized commodity in sports. The vast majority of athletes who read the newspaper look only at the sports section, and the only stories they read are the ones with their names in them. I am pretty sure they all know who Osama bin Laden was, but if you asked them to show Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia on a map, they would probably point to Pennsylvania, Alaska, and South Dakota. Many players, in particular in baseball, are from small towns where they probably have never met a homosexual and therefore think one wears pink curlers to work.

Outside of mandatory meetings, one of the most popular group activities in the clubhouse is the Sunday morning prayer session, and I have a feeling that gay rights is not something that comes up a lot. It’s a guess, but I think it’s a pretty damn good one that most straight athletes’ image of gays is based on the religious right's handbook—predatory creatures who, even if they are professionals, are only in sports for the drop of the towel to the floor after the shower and the root revealed. Not only is the attitude insulting and offensive; way too many straight athletes, particularly pitchers over 30, with their sagging stomachs and scraggly beards picking up bits of food like lint, are kidding themselves. Were it not for the fact that most of them make millions of dollars for doing little or doing it badly, nobody would want them, whether straight, gay, or crustacean. As for their carrot, not the stuff of legend, with or without shrinkage.

In the United Kingdom, the issue of gays becoming open about their sexuality and treated the same as any other athlete is being addressed. But don’t expect a similar campaign in the United States, where too many Americans still believe in the stork. Fines will be meted out. Suspensions will be given. There may be an obligatory sentence or two, as there was from Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, calling for “sensitivity” after the McDowell crisis.

In just about any workplace other than the toy land of Major League Baseball, Roger McDowell would have been fired. A two-week suspension is a tiny slap, particularly since most pitching coaches do nothing but go to the mound and give the pitcher a pat on the rear and then take the ball from him (am I the only one who smells something homoerotic in the air?).

At least McDowell did get punishment. But how many straight players around the league do you think were truly upset by what he did?

Roughly the same as the number of openly gay players in the three major pro sports.

Zero.

Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.