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Steinberg: Outlook on gays is changing in sports

June 09, 2012|By Leigh Steinberg

A marginal former NFL player announced this week that he was gay, sparking new interest in the status of homosexuality in sports.

Player reaction to the news of Wade Davis was largely positive which represents a sea shift in player attitudes. Athletes at every level seem ready to support their teammates with a different sexual orientation. It wasn't always like this.

For most of the 40 years I've represented professional athletes homosexuality has been a frightening taboo. This is the reason that virtually no team sport athletes have ever come out during their careers.

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At one point in the 90s when I was asked whether I would encourage a gay client to announce his sexual preference publicly, my response was "not on your life."

I made the comment before Perestroika that someone could more easily announce they were a communist than homosexual. I was protective of my clients and feared the harshness and prejudice of the locker room and the public. Frankly, no client ever admitted to me of being gay.

I've always felt that there were less gays in professional sports than their percentage of the general population – with good reason. When boys reach adolescence they start to define themselves by what it means to be a man. In the past that meant being heterosexual.

Teenage boys have traditionally scorned gays. The locker rooms have been filled with cruel remarks toward gays and crude imitations of lisping and effeminate behavior. It had to be extremely uncomfortable for teens who were gay in that environment.

Those gay teens chose to avoid the team sport dynamic in many cases. And, those who chose to play those sports hid their sexual orientation well. Athletes in sports like ice-skating and diving felt more freedom to live without prejudice.

The times they are a changing. Every poll shows that there is a distinct age differential in attitudes toward gays. Younger people are dramatically more accepting of alternative lifestyles. This is a civil rights issue that is being raised some 50 years after the movement which freed blacks and other minority groups from official discrimination. Years have passed since certain NBA players threatened to boycott if they were forced to play against HIV sufferer Magic Johnson. His dramatic announcement shattered stereotypes in respect to AIDS.

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