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Gastelum: Exclusion sullies sports’ shine (Feb. 22)

By Andrew Gastelum | Friday, February 22, 2013

“In today’s society, being different makes you brave. To overcome your fears, you must be strong and have faith in your purpose.”

Heartrending. Inspiring. Moving.

 If I told you it flows from the mind of a great orator of days passed, maybe a Gandhi or a Churchill or a Lincoln, you would have no doubts.

But it came from a podium of American sports, where role models are molded whether they agree to it or not. So, you might say it had to be Vince Lombardi or Jackie Robinson who said it.

In fact, it came from a plain, bare-bones blog post last Friday. Its author is not a household name because of his athletic prowess. Instead, he is a household name because of his lifestyle.

The author is American soccer player Robbie Rogers and last week he announced that he is gay. Then, the budding star retired at age 25.

Now, knowing that, read that quote at the top of the page again. How much did your opinion of it change? The real question is why did it change at all?

In theory, sports are one of the few things that don’t care who you are, but rather what you can do. If you are faster, there is a time to prove it. If you jump higher, there is a mark to prove it. If you score more points, you win.

So why won’t the world of professional sports let “gay” and “superstar” athlete work together?

Thirty-five years ago, Glenn Burke became known as the first openly gay baseball player. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Jim Gilliam considered Burke “the next Willie Mays,” and yet the social pressures and his blatant mistreatment forced him to quit his dreams of playing the game he loved.

Thirty-five years later, Rogers did just the same Feb. 15. He said he quit the game he loved when living with a constant fear that his secret would get in the way of his dreams.

It would be living every day without being you. It would be like trying to breathe without enough air to take in. It would be something no one would wish on anyone.

And the world of sports hasn’t allowed for much room to budge.

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said during Super Bowl week that he wouldn’t welcome a gay teammate, saying gay football players should come out “10 years” after leaving a football locker room.

Just last December, the supporter’s group of one of Russia’s top soccer teams, Zenit St. Petersburg, openly asked the club to exclude gay players, stating they were “unworthy of our great city.”

What is this world of sports we live in? My love for sports stems from their ability to offer escapes from any of the harsh realities of the world. For the 90 minutes of a soccer match or the four quarters of a basketball game, the only thing I ever worried about was the score. Not homework, not drama, not big ol’ scary life. It was beautiful, it was my escape.

It was Rogers’ escape too, for much different reasons. But now that escape is gone, and we let it come to that.

Not to say there isn’t already support for gay athletes, from athletic directors to current players to Charles Barkley. Former teammates and soccer fans gave Rogers widespread support.

But in the pantheon of modern-day American sports like basketball, football, hockey and baseball, there has yet to be an openly gay male athlete.

There was former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out in his book after retiring. There are plenty of women who have received support after coming out and continuing playing. But for male athletes and the supposed machismo that comes with sports, there has been no such case. It appears the support may be there, but the pressure is still too much, both socially and psychologically.

That should never be the case in sports. Sports accept people from all backgrounds, colors, creeds and lifestyles. Why should an athlete’s lifelong dream be derailed because of how he lives, and who are we to make that decision?

This is not a call advocating gay rights. Nor is it one advocating against them. It is but a genuine evaluation of the world of sports we live in. One that I thought was open for whoever wanted to play, and one that has blindsided me with its sense of exclusion.

Growing up, when I saw a kid watching my friends and I shoot hoops on the playground, I asked him if he wanted to play. I did not care what he looked like. I did not care what religion he stood by. I did not care how he lived his life.

I just cared to see if he wanted to play ball.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.