On Wednesday, Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft and one of the best female basketball players on the planet, came out of the closet, to the world at large anyway.
The world didn't end. The sun rose again. And Griner's career prospects are as bright as ever.
Now, imagine if the No. 1 pick in next week's NFL draft announced he was gay. Imagine if a Super Bowl champion announced he'd be taking his male partner to Disney World. Apocalypse, right?
Twenty years ago, absolutely. Today? Plenty of media coverage, with most of it likely favorable. Twenty years from now? It might receive a passing mention, or nothing at all. And if that comes to pass, if tolerance spreads across sports, it'll be people like Griner, who states her case for her identity with confidence and pride, who deserve credit.
"Don't worry about what other people are going to say, because they're always going to say something, but, if you're just true to yourself, let that shine through," Griner told Sports Illustrated. "Don't hide who you really are."
Now, universal tolerance in sports is wonderful in theory. In practice, certain sports – the WNBA, figure skating, women's golf – are far more open and accepting of gay relationships than, say, the NFL or the NBA. Even as Griner came out, talk continues to swirl about whether certain NFL players may be gay, or whether gay players will need to come out en masse as a means of protection against what's possibly to be vicious backlash, from a segment of fans if not from within the NFL itself. Two sports, same year, different eras.
[Jason Cole: Let gay players come out on their terms]
Why are some sports more tolerant of alternate lifestyles? Well, we start to wade into deeper water there. The testosterone-driven ethos of the NFL runs at odds with the stereotypical image of gay males, while the WNBA actively courts its LGBT fan base. The approval of one segment of fans can't compare with the scorn and disdain of another. Being gay might not cost you a job in one sport, but it very well could in another.
We could ask what the purpose is of needing to know a player's sexuality at all, but we know the answer. It's partly a love of gossip, partly an obsession with sex itself, partly a need to categorize people based on one single attribute: Gay or straight? Obama or GOP? Pro-gun/pro-gun control? "Breaking Bad" or "Big Bang Theory?" Classifying someone with a handy label spares us the need of trying to understand them as an individual … and perhaps learn that we're not quite so different as we'd like to believe.
The idea that the sexual preference of Brittney Griner, or any other athlete, is nobody's business but her own is, alas, a quaint, woefully outdated one. We share everything these days, and in turn we want to know everything about everyone else. It's a tragedy that an essential element of one's character can become a source of shame, but that's still where we are right now.
The key, for Griner and for other athletes still in the closet, is looking forward, not back. Pay attention to the last line of her quote about deciding to come out:
"I've always been open about who I am and my sexuality," Griner said. "So, it wasn't hard at all. If I can show that I'm out and I'm fine and everything's OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way."
That's it. The "younger generation." Griner knows that the key to acceptance is through upcoming generations. There are plenty of people still alive who can remember a time before Jackie Robinson, but for the rest of us, the idea of a segregated baseball field is impossible to conceive.
An athlete's sexual orientation shouldn't be a bigger story than what he or she does on the field. If we're going to obsess on players' sexual preferences, Griner's understated stance, and the resulting acceptance, are the way to go.
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