It so happens that the major professional sports leagues are clamoring to find the proper verbiage and strategy for handling, if not glad-handing, the arrival of the world's first active, openly gay athlete in one of their four realms. It's 2013, and none of them—MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL—has yet seen that emergence. Many pros have certainly "come out" after their careers have ceased, after their playing (if not glory) days are behind, and that's true of team and individual sports both.
It should be noted that this is the case for men's pro sports, not those of women, which marks a notable gap between the two locker rooms. In pro leagues today, one need look no further than soccer, where Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. national team is open about her identity, and this week at that. To be sure, she has company, and historically, not the least of whom are the likes of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Amelie Mauresmo among the tennis elite, all multiple Grand Slam winners and former No. 1 stars.
Yet it was Navratilova herself (perhaps this young century's own Nostradamus, so fond of predictions) who said a few years ago that the ATP would see a top pro who was out by 2010. Well, 2010 then came and went.
Yes, King and Navratilova suffered endorsement-deal losses, and thus lost income away from the tennis court, in the wake of their declarations, their honesty. Mauresmo didn't suffer so much, but at least in the Western world, she was not as outsized a star as the others. Meanwhile, the recent news that an NFL player is "strongly considering" bringing to light his personal life—indeed, his very person—is a stirring reminder of how athletics are one of the final frontiers for timidity and careful treading when it comes to matters of sexual orientation.
The fact is that, among the ATP, there simply must be a peppering of those who favor the company of other men in private. If an ATP player—yea, even a top gun, not a Top 300 pro, with all due respect—were to have it out in the open and proceed with his career, there would certainly be unfortunate commentary (from some media types and his touring peers both) and awkwardness. There would also be a unity among many, in public and private conversations and debates. That young man would suffer in ways—probably some clunky interactions in the locker room, sadly, with some fellow players who have religious or cultural holdings against it—but he would ultimately triumph. I truly believe he would. The sponsorships and buzz surrounding his announcement would supersede the smattering of detractors' disagreeing opinions.
To be sure, it is (or will be) one thing to offer candid talk about his life away from arenas after he has stopped strolling into them as the main attraction. It's another entirely to shed light on the issue as an active participant, as a colleague to some others who will decidedly differ. That is especially believable with respect to tennis, such a solitary sport, and a remarkably global, multicultural one. Many intricate societal mores and ties of all kinds are involved among its top-tier athletes, and those will likely remain unswerving for quite some time, if they ever do budge. The one who emerges from the so-called closet will have to be considerate of and patient about that as well, about those who harbor such beliefs. He simply must be ready.
So if an NFL player can mull the idea of being himself in the public square of thought and sport, as he reportedly is doing now, it stands to reason that an ATP star can do the same in coming months. Indeed, some will be uncharitable or downright cruel in response to the admission. But it need not even be termed that, an admission. The contrary voices will, in the end, be drowned out by a chorus of those who appreciate or identify with the journey. Gone are the days of Greg Louganis and Rudy Galindo and the like, pioneers in their own right and in their own time but dated accounts now of sportsmen who lived publicly as themselves. That ATP player who comes out need not be a poster boy for a cause, though some will undoubtedly try to brand him as that. It's just so easy. Too easy. At the same time, he can be calculated about the disclosure, perhaps with endorsements lined up to reveal in quick succession when the news breaks, bolstering both his confidence and public standing. It's 2013, and the proverbial closet should feel mighty cramped at present.
The cliché goes that there's no day like today. It remains that most clichés are true.
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