Dark ages in enlightened times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am


Contrary to what you might hear on Star Trek, space is not the final frontier. Homosexuality in men's sports is. I know, it's 2011 and we are living in supposedly enlightened and liberated times. But boys will still be boys, won't they? When Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts announced last week in a front-page story in The New York Times that he was gay, his former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, took time out from his business of the day to personally congratulate Welts for his courage.

Among the business Stern was attending to was fining Kobe Bryant, arguably the game's top player, US$100,000 for screaming 'f****** f*****' on national TV at a referee whose foul call had incensed him. Of course, Bryant paid the fine and issued a lawyerly apology, but just a few days ago Chicago Bulls centre Joakim Noah would scream the same pejorative at a fan in Miami who was heckling him.

One step forward, two steps back. No matter how hard men's professional sports try, that is the tango they have been doing on gay rights forever. Women's sports have long been over it. When two of the greatest female tennis players ever, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, came out of the closet over 30 years ago in the midst of their storied careers, a number of women in a variety of sports would eventually follow. I'm not even sure there is a closet to come out of any more for lesbians in sports. But for men, there is a padlock of survival on their closet.

Yet even the most homophobic folks should be able to see the courage it took for Welts to publicly expose his sexuality. There are doubtless hundreds of people involved in professional sports both on and the off the field who clearly do not feel as secure as Welts in either their life or their position to come out. They beat themselves up for being cowards but they also know that in a depressed job market like this, being gainfully employed is far more significant than personal liberation.

After 40 years working in professional sports, Welts understood the timing and significance of his announcement better than anyone. '[Homosexuality in sports] wasn't talked about,' he told The Times. 'It wasn't a comfortable subject. And it wasn't my imagination. I was there. Nobody's comfortable in engaging in a conversation. This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits.'

No, this is not the design department in one of the fashion houses of Paris. This is the world of sports where jocular bantering and macho braggadocio is not just condoned, it's expected and there are few sports more macho and gruelling than ice hockey. With behemoths on blades skating at speeds of 30 miles an hour and thirsting for bone-jarring impact like a shark does blood, hockey is not a game for the faint of heart. It's a punishing and physical ordeal played by real men. Imagine the shock then when a few days after Welts admission, New York Rangers tough guy Sean Avery announced his participation in an advertisement supporting gay marriage. In the promotional video, Avery says: 'I'm Sean Avery, and I'm a New Yorker for marriage equality. I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage.'

Well, if this is true then anyone who watches hockey has to believe that Avery wants to be blindsided by a cheap shot because that is how he treats opposing players. Avery is a classic pest who fights frequently and was eighth in the NHL last season with 174 penalty minutes. The notion of him as one of the main proponents for gay marriage is beyond bizarre and, for some, quite unsettling as well.

A day after his announcement, a sports agent in Avery's native Canada tweeted how his stand was 'very sad' and 'wrong'. Damian Goddard, a sportscaster on Canada's Rogers Sportsnet, followed that up by tweeting on religious grounds that he wholeheartedly agreed with the agent 'and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage'. Before the sun rose the next morning, Goddard was fired by Sportsnet and actually sounded surprised by the move. But did he think his employer was going to call and congratulate him for taking a stand? He works for a network that broadcasts Kobe Bryant's games. He knows why and by whom Bryant was fined US$100,000.

Goddard predictably blamed Canada's liberal left and the politically correct lobby for his predicament. But he knew exactly what he was doing. His beliefs clearly meant more to him than his job. For 40 years, Welts' job apparently meant more than his beliefs. I guess both are gutsy and honourable in their own way.

And tough guy Avery knows all too well that he will hear it from opposing fans and players in every NHL arena for his pro-gay marriage stance. He cares little and is used to the abuse. But for one of the few times in his career, the words gutsy and honourable now apply to his name as well.