Gays in athletics: Baseball believes it's ready for first player to come out

2013-05-07T00:00:00Z Gays in athletics: Baseball believes it's ready for first player to come outDaniel Passovoy Arizona Sonora News Service Arizona Daily Star

When Branch Rickey took a chance on the athletic Kansas City Monarchs second baseman, Jackie Robinson, the former Brooklyn Dodgers executive was asked why.

"[A box score] doesn't tell how big you are, what church you attend, what color you are, or how your father voted in the last election," he said. "It just tells what kind of baseball player you were on that particular day."

Rickey's quote remains just as pertinent following longtime NBA player Jason Collins' announcement that he is gay.

Until the 12-year NBA veteran came out there had never been an openly gay player within the four major sporting leagues in the United States.

Nationwide support - from future NBA Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd to President Obama and former President Clinton - overshadowed naysayers such as Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and ESPN analyst Chris Broussard.

The NHL has begun a partnership with the You Can Play project, an organization dedicated to ensuring equality for all athletes. NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have lobbied for equal rights in football, and the NBA stands behind Collins.

But one question remains: Where is Major League Baseball, which Commissioner Bud Selig calls a "social institution."

"As the sport of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball believes in equality and acceptance for all, and we hope that Jason Collins's announcement serves as yet another example on how to live openly and proudly," Selig and his office said in a statement last week.

"Baseball and its clubs strongly object to all forms of discrimination. We welcome and support all individuals in our sport with ample resources in all circumstances. We have a working relationship with GLAAD to promote proactive messaging regarding tolerance and have disciplined personnel for insensitive actions or comments that are discriminatory."

Selig's message provides a strong front against discrimination, but more importantly, it combats the underlying issue within baseball: anonymity.

"Players and owners are afraid of saying the wrong thing. It's easy for fans, media and advocacy groups to all pounce on a misplaced word - and that's not helpful," explained Brian Kitts, co-founder of the You Can Play project. "With very few exceptions, the athletes we're involved with said, 'We're not homophobic, but no one has ever asked us.' That's gratifying to hear.

"It gives us some assurance that if we can get past the first few, no kid is ever going to walk away from a game he or she loves afraid that they won't be accepted."

Kluwe's activism, along with free-agent linebacker Ayanbadejo, spurred the conversation in the NFL, but baseball is only just beginning to talk.

The first step forward on acceptance of sexual orientation in baseball came in November 2011, said Greg Bouris, director of communications for the Major League Baseball Players Association, when players and owners became the first in professional sports to add sexual orientation to their collective bargaining agreement's non-discrimination clause.

"The MLBPA would be able to offer, develop and implement sound public relations activities and advice in support of any player in this or any situation that requires it," Bouris said.

The non-discrimination clause in the collective bargaining agreement provided owners and team executives a platform to begin promoting acceptance in the workplace. And some teams are taking advantage of it.

"We try and promote a culture that is both embracing and accepting," said Derrick Hall, CEO and president of the Arizona Diamondbacks. "We are a family, no matter what race or sexual orientation you are. This is no different than family at home. We look for people of character and our entire organization exemplifies that."

"I think in this day and age, our society, our players and our organization would be ready for it and welcome it. As long as a player can help your team, they have a spot in baseball."

Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge said it took "a lot of courage" for Collins to come out.

"I don't discriminate personally, and we don't professionally as the Seattle Mariners organization," he said. "I think as a society we continue to evolve and continue to improve, and it is people with that type of courage that continue to allow that to happen."

Rebecca Hale, director of public information with the Seattle Mariners and Kevin Smith, senior director, corporate communications and broadcasting for the Minnesota Twins, agreed.

"We have a very strict anti-discrimination policy here with the Seattle Mariners," said Hale. "It is our desire that we make every effort to recruit employees that are as diverse as the community we live in. Intolerance has no place in our game. We would very much welcome and support an openly gay player on our team."

Smith said the Twins focused their initial efforts on the local community. "We have gone a step further and ... worked with anti-bullying and open orientation campaigns," Smith added. "We have taken a stance in our community. We don't need to treat anyone better or worse, we just need to treat everyone equally."

Collins' announcement has been the impetus for further conversation among players as well.

"I think it will be overwhelmingly positive," said Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy. "As a society, we are evolving. You are going to have some fans who yell and scream during games, or post hateful messages on Twitter or Facebook, that's just the way it is. Eventually, people will see the positive impact it will bring."

You Can Play continues its efforts to push for inclusion, Kitts said, adding that one team's efforts have been substantial.

"I think the efforts of the Blue Jays, for instance, have been exemplary - they invited You Can Play to speak to the team ... following a publicized gay slur incident last season," Kitts said. "They were very forceful in managing the issue and see it as an ongoing discussion. ..."

Kluwe envisions what the sporting world will be like for gay athletes 10 years down the road.

"I would hope by that point we wouldn't even have to have this discussion anymore."

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