The issue of gay marriage is being debated yet again in the Supreme Court, and were a verdict to come out in favor of the institution, society would take another step forward towards acceptance. New polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, but even as the concept of gay marriage gains momentum in society, the sporting world has fallen behind.
San Francisco 49ers safety Chris Culliver infamously tweeted his disgust towards the prospect of having a gay teammate during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. While he later apologized for his statement, that it was a player from a city as liberal as San Francisco shows the disconnect between sports teams and the players who play for those teams. While the 49ers made an “It Gets Better” video last year, half of the players did not know that the anti-bullying message was targeted at LGBTQs and two of the four athletes who participated deny involvement. The ad has since been pulled.
While many athletes will not say it, Culliver is not alone in his feelings of discomfort towards the prospect of playing with a gay teammate. Even so, the NFL gets some credit as an alliance of athletes including NFL players Chris Kluwe, Scott Fujita, and Brendon Ayanbadejo filed a brief to the Supreme Court challenging California’s ban on same-sex marriage. On that brief were the names of 10 current NFL players as well as representatives from all other major sporting leagues in America, except one: Major League Baseball.
With the success of “42,” a biopic of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the MLB, the spotlight is on baseball to again be the catalyst for change in society. Robinson was a hero, and as the movie shows, nothing he did came easy. He was greeted in the big leagues with pitches thrown at his head, racism from opposing players as well as his own teammates, and fans that hurled all kinds of insults at him from the stands. But because of his struggle, Major League Baseball was able to integrate and society soon followed.
Fast forward over sixty years, and baseball has fallen behind. Number one WNBA draft pick Brittany Griner recently came out and went on to sign an endorsement deal with Nike, mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox recently came out as transgender, and former Celtics center Jason Collins revealed he was gay in a soon-to-be-released Sports Illustrated article. But while a few baseball players have come out after the fact, there has never been an openly gay player on a major league roster.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been developments in the baseball world. The MLB recently added a line on sexual orientation to the players’ anti-discrimination clauses. This clause may be necessary, as last year, former Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was fined and suspended for three games when he played with a homophobic slur written in Spanish on his eye black. Many high profile players, including Tigers ace pitcher Justin Verlander have made comments saying they would welcome a gay teammate. However, these comments might have been prompted, since Verlander’s teammate Torii Hunter has said last year that playing with a gay teammate would make him “uncomfortable. The “uncomfortable” idea is thrown around a lot by players as an argument against their peers coming out, but not all players feel that way. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy responded to the idea of discomfort from a gay teammate saying “If you’ve played this game for a number of years, you’ve probably had a few gay teammates, and have you been accosted in the shower yet? It’s probably not going to happen if someone comes out.”
The baseball world would appear to be split on the issue, echoing the societal feeling as well. What baseball needs is a gay Jackie Robinson. A player who is so good that he cannot be ignored, but so dynamic that no one would want to ignore him. The potential for revenue is huge, and any owner should jump at the opportunity and media buzz it would bring. Just as Jackie Robinson changed the way that society thought about race, so too can a gay player change the way that we think about sexual orientation. Baseball is the national pastime, and sports are great when they can bring people together. The question now is, who will step up to the plate?