Tolerance in sports only inching ahead

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

There are gay players in every major league sport from the National Hockey League to major league baseball.

Unlike Maple Leafs' general manager Brian Burke's son, Brendan, they just can't tell anyone.

It's time for them to stop hiding, says Paul Dennis, who spent almost 20 years as an adviser, psychologist and official hand-holder, with the Maple Leafs.

"If a player today wanted to be open about it, I would encourage it," said Dennis, now a professor of advanced sports psychology at York University and the University of Toronto. "If a person chose to disclose (being gay), a team would be supportive in today's society. I think it would be good for the player and good for society. Twenty years ago, I probably wouldn't have said that."

We are a curious species. Nobody bats an eyelash in society when the wedding invitation arrives and the bride turns out to be a guy. In the entertainment world, Madonna and Britney do the liplock on national TV, and studies show that one in 10 people play for the Rainbow Brigade.

But in the mainstream sports world, it continues to be virtually impossible to be talented, respected and openly gay. Homosexuality has always carried the stigma of weakness. Sports is macho. True, there are a few openly gay or lesbian golfers or tennis players and figure skating seems awash in the tradition. But, even there, athletes often don't disclose their predilection until after they retire.

"There are very few who are open," Dennis said. "It has to do with the stereotype that athletes are obsessive with their virility, hard-nosed. People portray athletes as having this macho image. It really isn't true. I've come across many who are incredibly tolerant, liberal and understanding. But for whatever, they don't want to disclose (they are gay)."

There are almost 700 players on NHL rosters, another 750 playing major-league baseball and 350 in the NBA. By society's standards that should equate into 100 to 150 gay athletes currently residing in those dressing rooms. But the next time one declares they are gay, it will be the first time.

In fact, they often go out of their way to distance themselves from the very idea. Baseball player Mike Piazza once called a news conference to announce he was NOT gay. Former Denver running back Garrison Hearst, in one of his more sensitive moments, declared: "I don't want any faggots on my team." And major-league baseball pitcher Todd Jones once told the Denver Post he didn't want any "gays" around. NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia found it necessary to quell rumours by announcing publicly that he was heterosexual.

"I do think sports is changing even though there really isn't evidence of that because players aren't coming forward on a regular basis," said Dennis.

"But just from my years of involvement with hockey, I believe people are more understanding and accommodating."

He is convinced that if an NHL player wanted to "out" himself, it wouldn't be an issue among teammates.

It is that potential for retribution from outside sources, Dennis explained, more than a fear of what teammates might think, that keeps players in the closet.

Mark Tewksbury, Olympic gold medal winner in the 100-metre backstroke for Canada in 1992, hid his homosexuality, partly because of that fear.

"I felt like a fraud," he told Sun Media in a series on sexual orientation and athletes a few years ago.

"I won an Olympic medal but even that made me feel like a fraud because inside I didn't feel like the boy next door that everybody thought I was. I was full of fears about what would happen if people found out. What would they say."

That fear of outside abuse remains.

"People shouldn't have to feel pressured and they shouldn't have to hold in things like being gay," said Dennis, "but outside the team there remains the possibility of that kind of abuse."

So, in the nation's dressing rooms at least, the closet door remains shut.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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