Twenty years ago, there were two players on the Oilers who were gay and no one cared. Thus explains the report from the Houston Chronicle, a simple, almost afterthought of a story that was part of a roundup last week of articles about the 1993 Houston Oilers profiled in a recent NFL Network documentary. Theirs was a season of dramatic tumult -- far worse than anything that has befallen the lowly Texans this year -- and this was but a footnote in that story, never mentioned in the documentary and not even discussed until this article...as it should be.
Last year, Jason Collins became the first NBA player to come out of the closet. Earlier in this NFL season, rumors were swirling that as many as a handful of current NFL players would break the silence and admit their sexuality in public -- that didn't happen. There are well-documented cases of former players in various sports, from the pros to olympians, coming out.
The larger question I keep asking myself every time I read something about this is: why do we care?
One of the great things about sports is that it is almost entirely about achievement. In a society where, far too often, success is measured through fame (or, more often, infamy) without merit, sport is the one place where you nearly always earn your name through hard work and winning.
Occasionally a bit of the TMZ will seep into athletics, but winning is the ultimate marker of real success. Every year, thousands of athletes take to the ice, pitch, field, track, diamond, course and court. At the end of each season, race and tournament, only one team and/or athlete can be the winner. Second place is still losing. To steal of quote from the great Ricky Bobby, "If you're not first, you're last." That is what makes it so difficult to be a champion.
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Which is why I find it so frustrating that anyone cares at all about who athletes sleep with. No one is stupid enough to believe that sports is where only manly men who lust after feminine women play (we'll exclude women's sports where there have been openly gay athletes for quite some time). It is generally accepted that in nearly every locker room, there is someone who isn't straight, so why is it still an issue? I guess I can understand why some male athletes might be concerned about sharing a locker room or a shower with someone who might be attracted to them, however disturbingly conceited that might be. But, anyone who has changed or showered in a public gym has most certainly done so at one point or another in the presence of a man who "bats for the other team," and they probably ignored you just like you ignored them.
But setting aside the personal space issues, why does anyone care what an athlete does in his personal time? My guess is that most of us don't. It makes for a good salacious talking point on sports talk, but most fans are only really concerned with on the field exploits. I can honestly say I never think for a second about what the athletes I cheer for do when they aren't playing sports. Frankly, I don't want to know the sexual proclivities of anyone let alone guys who play professional sports.
Ultimately, if Peyton Manning were gay, he'd still be the best quarterback in the NFL and if Matt Schaub were gay, he'd still be getting cut because he's been an awful quarterback for the Texans this year, not because he dates dudes. All of this will probably be solved when the first Hall of Fame-caliber player comes out of the closet. Chances are, criticism of his orientation will be muted by his talent. Still, when you consider it's been more than 65 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and we are still discussing sexual orientation in sports, it demonstrates how far we have left to go.
Back in 1993, the Oilers players accepted their gay teammates without reservation. It seems ridiculous that, 20 years later, we still struggle to follow their example.