NEW YORK — A new type of playbook is fast evolving in the world of sports: An informal, commonsense protocol for how prominent gay and lesbian athletes can come out with maximum acclaim and minimum turmoil.
Key decisions include how to reveal one’s story, whom to tell it to and – crucially – when to tell it.
“The earlier in the offseason, the better,” said Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of the website Outsports, the platform of choice for many athletes to share their coming out story.
“Minimizing the distraction to your teammates is super important,” Zeigler said. “I recommend to everyone, `Don’t do it in the middle in the season.'”
Jason Collins used an April 2013 column in Sports Illustrated to become the first openly gay player in the NBA. He’s now a reserve with the Brooklyn Nets.
In February, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out via coordinated coverage by ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports. Sam is projected as a middle-round prospect in the NFL draft this week, which would put him on track to be the league’s first openly gay player.
On April 9, University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball, making the announcement on ESPN and Outsports two days after the NCAA championship game.
The logistics of Sam coming out were coordinated by Howard Bragman, a public relations expert who is vice chairman of Reputation.com, which helps clients manage their online images.
Bragman has been ushering celebrities out of the closet since 1991, when he helped actor Dick Sargent of the TV series “Bewitched.” The first gay athlete he worked with was Esera Tuaolo, who came out in 2002 after nine years as a defensive tackle in the NFL. Other clients included golfer Rosie Jones in 2004 and pro basketball star Sheryl Swoopes in 2005.
One of the biggest changes during his career, Bragman said, is the attitude of young Americans.
“This younger generation – the `Will and Grace’ generation – is comfortable about having gay friends,” he said. “Kids are coming out in junior high, high school.”
Bragman offers advice for athletes considering coming out:
- Break the news before anyone else does, and don’t feel obligated to repeat your story. Choose wisely how you tell it and whom you tell it to, because the first stories will define the narrative.
Anticipate tough questions and answer them in a truthful yet consistent, controlled way.
Define yourself in well-rounded terms, to make clear that being gay is only one facet of who you are.
Get back to work.
In a column on his LinkedIn page, Bragman said it was crucial that Sam chose to come out before the NFL draft.
“Had he come out after, he would have faced criticism for not telling the truth,” Bragman wrote. “He not only owned his truth, he put it in perspective and got great respect for his integrity along the way.”
One of the people enlisted to help advise Sam before his disclosure was Wade Davis, a former NFL Europe player who came out in 2012 – nine years after retiring. Davis is now executive director of the You Can Play Project, which seeks to increase acceptance of gay athletes in sports.
His paramount advice to Sam was to stay focused on football.
“The NFL doesn’t want any player who’s looking to get famous off of something other than being an athlete,” Davis said.
Davis played a major role in Gordon’s coming out.
“In my first talk with Derrick, coming out didn’t even come up,” Davis recalled. “When we eventually started to have that conversation, Derrick was the one who initiated it.”
One fundamental decision was to put the team first – informing his coach, teammates and staff.
“You’re putting everyone in the best position so no one’s blindsided,” Davis said.
Despite the recent high-profile coming outs, many gay athletes aren’t ready to take that step. Davis said he’s in contact with several players who are out to their coaches and teammates, but not to the wider world.
“A lot of them don’t come out to protect their teammates, who will have to answer questions they’ve never been asked before,” he said.
Some other gay athletes “are dealing with so much shame that they’re nowhere near ready to come out,” Davis said.
Since its launch in 1999, Outsports has chronicled the stories of more than 200 athletes who made the decision to come out, including 77 in 2013 and dozens more this year, according to Zeigler. The vast majority have been athletes who did not gain national attention.
Zeigler said one milestone came in 2007 when John Amaechi, four years after ending his NBA career, came out as gay. Amaechi won support from former teammates and coaches, while retired NBA player Tim Hardaway Sr. was disinvited from the 2007 All-Star Game after responding to Amaechi’s news by saying, “I hate gay people.”
“That moment showed us where things were headed,” Zeigler said. “Gay athletes were going to be accepted, and homophobes were going to be rejected.”
Speculation persists about when the first openly gay players will surface in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
While some MLB veterans have come out as gay after retirement, the NHL has never had an active or former player come out – a fact that puzzles NHL director of player safety Patrick Burke.
Burke, the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke, helped launch the You Can Play Project in 2012 in honor of his younger brother, Brendan, who revealed he was gay to his family in 2007 and died in a car accident in 2010.
The NHL, said Patrick Burke, has done more than any of the other major leagues to prepare the way for openly gay players.
“We know there are active gay NHL players and retired gay players,” he said. “When they’re ready to speak up, the league is fully ready to help them.”
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