Speaking for the Sport

When basketball player Jason Collins came out as gay this past May, I really thought this was going to be a game-changing year for queer athletes. My hope was strengthened when Robbie Rogers, who had quit soccer when he came out last year, resumed his career this summer. Both were welcomed with open arms, more or less. But then things went silent again, at least until Tom Daley’s video message to fans in early December. Jason Collins is still a free agent, and judging by the complete lack of out LGBT players, European professional soccer remains an exclusively straight business.

But even if change is slow, there are reasons to hope that this year’s brave trailblazers have at least opened up an important conversation about tolerance in professional sports. An interesting side effect to the debate that followed Collins’ eloquent coming out essay in Sports Illustrated, was that prominent athletes everywhere were asked to comment on it. This taught me two things: First, most of those comments signaled some kind of progress toward inclusiveness and tolerance. But also that this is actually a hard answer to get right. Your answer has to convey that you’re comfortable with the question and that you’re taking the issue seriously, but at the same time you’re sort of obliged to say that you don’t think it would be a problem, all without coming off as defensive or dismissive.

In earlier posts, I have pointed to former soccer player Graeme Le Saux and actor Daniel Radcliffe as examples of people who have handled gay rumors with grace and good humor, but that doesn’t mean that any person who has a less-than-perfect answer ready necessarily has a problem with the thought of having a gay colleague. A post-Collins comment from living tennis legend Roger Federer illustrates this point. Like Andy Murray, Federer was asked for his thoughts on playing against a gay player, and, by extension, how the tennis world might react to a player coming out. Here’s what he said:

“I don’t think it’s a problem to be honest. We are relaxed and don’t play team sport and mix a lot, not with the girls, but with the guys and we’re very open.”

It’s a somewhat rambling, if short, answer, and obviously made on the fly, but I see no reason to be alarmed by it. What matters is the beginning and the end of his answer: This shouldn’t be a problem, and the tennis community is open-minded. That he goes on a tangent about something having to do with men and women and the difference between team sports and individual sports, is less important. Here are three reasons why you should give him the benefit of the doubt:

1) It’s not easy speaking on behalf of your sport. Sure, the question may have been posed to him personally, but as perhaps the best known tennis player in the world, Federer is more or less expected to act as the authoritative voice of the world of tennis. In answering the question, he’s running the risk of being wilfully misunderstood. If he’d sayd that some players might have a problem with another player being openly queer (which, though sad, is a distinct possibility), some people might think he harbored those same problems. If, on the other hand, he’d answered that you don’t expect it to be a problem (as Federer did), many people would be happy to hear that, but nonetheless some people might suspect that he was not taking the issue seriously enough, or that he was trying to gloss over a potential problem.

2) It is possible that Federer hadn’t really thought the issue through, either because it is so rarely discussed, or because he personally thinks it’s an obvious non-issue.

3) As long as there are no out queer tennis players at the highest level, this is, after all, still a hypothetical question. It is by definition impossible to know exactly how the community would react, although both Federer’s and Andy Murray’s answers indicate that it would likely not be a huge issue.

It’s disappointing that male sports lag so far behind womens’ sports in this regard, considering that tennis and soccer, to name just two, have had world class out lesbian players for many years already. Today’s closeted, young athletes have no time to waste while the straight majority tries to adjust to the issue. Still, there are signs of progress, whether they come from Tom Daley, Jason Collins or Roger Federer.

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