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Real test still to come on gays in sports

By Shaun Powell, Special to CNN
  • Several people involved in the world of sports have recently revealed they're gay
  • Powell believes that the true test will come when a gay male superstar athlete comes out
  • He says Martina Navratilova wasn't hurt when she came out while still an active tennis star

Editor's note: Shaun Powell is a veteran sports columnist who now writes for

(CNN) -- The closet door became unhinged lately when a number of gay men in sports decided to turn the knob and hold a public liberation. From a newspaper writer in Boston one week, to a former college basketball player in Philadelphia the next, a radio broadcaster in New York, and finally an executive in Phoenix, all felt safe and bold enough to say, "I'm different."

So what happened next? That, too, was supposed to be shocking. But it wasn't. These outings went over in the sports world like a commercial break. A 30-second diversion -- that's all it was. Then folks went back to the ball game. The collective national reaction was a lot like a Serena Williams tennis outfit: short.

This is 2011. It would take a lot to move the needle. Even if the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, for example, hell would turn colder than Maria Shriver toward her soon-to-be ex. But it wouldn't freeze over.

But what if the Cubs won the World Series helped largely by a hypothetical slugger, who led the league in homers, and was gay? Now that would be quite a testosterone check for the most male-dominated segment of our society. That would be the litmus test for tolerance.

Imagine: A strong, macho, male superstar who had a more powerful feminine side that he'd rather flaunt? And his name wasn't Dennis Rodman?

Someone who was the male version of, say, Martina Navratilova, an all-time great?

Martina revealed herself as a lesbian long ago, while she was still an active player winning championships and ruling tennis. And after a while, nobody cared. She was respected then, and now, for her outspokenness and courage. But the subject of homosexuality is accepted in women's sports, to the extent it's not even raised anymore. Fans and players and even coaches in the WNBA, and those in women's golf, all wear their preferences proudly.

We haven't seen a gay male Hall of Fame-level athlete come clean yet. He's out there, pardon the pun. But he chooses to stay in there because, as a superstar, he believes society might judge him differently. And he'd probably be right. At least initially.

"This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits," said Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns, who admitted he was gay.

The superstar would receive an immediate blast of media coverage, which would not focus on his batting average or scoring average or how many times he clobbered the quarterback on the blitz. And that would be the behavior of the respectable mainstream media. Can you imagine the TMZs? They would track down his lovers and offer thousands of bucks for a paparazzi shot of the Male Martina and his "friend."

His teammates and coaches would be bombarded with questions. His teammates and coaches would bombard each other with questions. He might experience a certain level of isolation in the locker room, nothing drastic or too obvious, until it's time to go clubbing. The whole idea of "showering together"? That would be explored and dissected non-stop. And the late-night TV jokes! And here in the age of Twitter, more than one hetero athlete would tweet something dumb and insensitive. It would all be a bit much. At first.

The fans? That's a whole 'nother deal. When the superstar played on the road, in a traditionally hostile environment, obviously he'd be treated with a delicate touch and the utmost respect by the distinguished citizens of the Dawg Pound in Cleveland, and the Black Hole in Oakland, and Knicks fans at the Garden. Yep, sure would.

Just Sunday, Joakim Noah, the Chicago Bulls starting center, allegedly hurled a gay slur toward a fan in Miami. Kobe Bryant and Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell have also used slurs toward fans recently. These are more reasons why the superstar in the closet might want to continue hanging out with the overcoats.

But wouldn't there also be a generous amount of hero worship, in a way? He'd be commended for his courage and, if he were big on gay rights, would carry a powerful voice for advocacy. In that sense, he'd be hailed for being what most of his straight teammates weren't: a trailblazer (even though he wouldn't be the first gay male player) and activist.

That's the difference between the Male Martina and Welts, who recently told his story to The New York Times. Welts is a long-time NBA guy who's held a variety of important jobs in the league. But nobody knew who he was until that interview in the Times. Besides, Welts doesn't play. He doesn't have to go into the locker room or shoot free throws with the game on the line in front of 18,000 fans in the visitor's building. Most of the people Welts interacts with on a professional basis are mature adults, and therefore, his declaration, while courageous, doesn't really stand the true test.

Same goes for Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald, and radio broadcaster Jared Max, and former Villanova player Will Sheridan. Even John Amaeche, who played for the Orlando Magic, kept his secret tucked in his sock; only after he retired did he disclose. And he was a backup player, anyway, much of his career. Same for Dave Kopay, a former NFL player. Nobody knew these guys. Nobody asked them to sell shoes or be a role model. From a public standpoint, they didn't stand to lose much.

When a male superstar comes out, then we'll really discover what society thinks.

We'll see how he's perceived by idol-loving kids who use his picture as a screen saver. And the parents of those kids. And the footwear and energy drink sponsors. And especially the sponsors of macho products like beer, tobacco, etc. How long would the public dance around the subject of the Male Martina?

My guess: After the initial wave of uncomfortable reaction, and the expected homophobia expressed by various cavemen, the fuss would subside and society would go about its business. And the player would be allowed to go about his business, too. And the next openly gay male athlete would have an even smoother transition out of the closet.

Folks just wouldn't care at that point. His personal business would be his personal business. That's the way it would be, and should be. Maybe this is being naive, but again, this is a new century. And it's sports, one of the few places in society where the playing field is level if you bring skills and an ability to win and make people happy and unite strangers from all walks of life. Such is the power of a superstar. He can change opinions, no matter how divisive and dumb, as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and others did.

The Male Martina would ultimately be judged on how many shots he made, and whether he struck anyone out with the bases loaded, and how deep he could throw on third-and-long.

And if he stunk up the joint, just like any straight athlete, he'd get called out.

So to speak.