Why covering gay athletes is news

Jane McManus and Kate Fagan discuss Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay player in the NBA.

We should listen to guys like Steve Elkington.

Really, we should.

Dismissing him is too easy. So is portraying him as some out-of-touch, past-his-prime professional golfer standing alone in the rough, with only his insensitive tweets for company. Sure, Elkington makes a habit of saying stupid things on social media. And he quadruple-bogeyed on Tuesday, sending a series of controversial tweets about openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam (two of which he later deleted, reportedly at the request of the PGA Tour).

So why should we pay attention to Elkington? Well, for starters, because a lot of sports fans still share his point of view, specifically when it comes to the media coverage surrounding Sam and NBA veteran Jason Collins, who on Sunday night became the first openly gay man to compete in one of the four major North American pro sports leagues.

AP Photo/Johnny Vy

If anybody is truly "for" Michael Sam then they should understand why he is in the spotlight as the first openly gay man likely to play in the NFL.

Elkington is part of a persistent chorus of people whose new favorite refrain goes something like this: "Who cares? Why is this news?"

But he has also done more than that. It's rare these days for someone -- especially a public figure with 61,000 Twitter followers -- to give us such a clear example of both overt and veiled bigotry in one fell swoop.

If you couldn't spot the "Why is this news?" line as problematic before, you're in luck now, because Elkington made it so much easier by sending the tweet "I'm for Sam, I'm against ESPN telling me he is gay," right after making a crack about Sam winning the "handbag throw" at the NFL combine.

The handbag "joke" is how homophobia in sports used to work. People would say something blatantly stereotypical or unaccepting -- "No homos here" -- making their position crystal-clear, a line drawn in the sand. It was homophobia dressed in a neon outfit: hard to miss.

Such straightforward intolerance is less frequent these days, as gay men and women continue to gain acceptance in American society. Now, the language is coded, dipped in a layer of deniability, so that actually having a meaningful debate becomes harder, because nobody seems to be saying what they really mean.

Thankfully, Elkington has put the two brands of bias right next to each other, making it easier to spot the veiled kind because it exists right next to the blatant kind -- and the two look a lot alike.

Who cares what people do behind closed doors? Why do gay athletes need to broadcast their sexuality?

So many people are asking these questions, and with varying intentions, that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the folks who might genuinely want an answer and those who are making a rhetorical statement in place of actually saying, "I liked it better when athletes lived in the closet."

If Elkington or anybody else is truly "for" Michael Sam -- as some people insist even while they ask, "Why is this news?" -- then they should understand why Sam is in the spotlight as the first openly gay man likely to play in the NFL.

This won't be news forever, but it's news today because civil rights have always been news, especially during those transcendent moments in history when longstanding barriers are finally smashed. The sad truth is, the sports world has long been a hostile place for gay men and lesbians.

Gay athletes are speaking up because they are tired of hiding who they are and who they love. Sexual identity isn't something that exists exclusively behind closed doors, separate from everything else in a person's life. Being open about who you are means being free to talk about all the important parts of your life without lying by omission.

Straight athletes "broadcast" their heterosexuality every day, in ways large and small: holding hands with their girlfriends and boyfriends in public, talking about their wives and husbands with teammates, thanking their loved ones in front of TV cameras, walking the red carpet arm-in-arm with their dates.

Those simple gestures they take for granted are forbidden to gay athletes living in the closet. So when people try to claim that the issue of gays in sports is somehow, suddenly, a "nonissue" now, let's not confuse this sentiment for enlightenment. Let's recognize "Who cares?" and "Why is this news?" for what they are, the equivalent of "Don't ask, don't tell" -- people covering their ears with their hands and shaking their heads back and forth.

Homophobia in sports is far from gone, no matter how much some people would like to pretend otherwise. The language around it has simply shifted, the neon outfit now replaced by camouflage.

So it's actually a good thing that Steve Elkington has a Twitter account and uses it so freely.

Because the conversation is just getting started.

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