Though the world of sports has, for the most part, trailed the rest of American culture in the fight for LGBT equality, that fight has come front and center in recent weeks. NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo filed a brief in the Supreme Court fighting for marriage equality. Professional soccer player Robbie Rogers came out as gay in a blog post that also announced his retirement from the sport. And NFL teams have been embroiled in controversy over whether they asked future draft picks about their sexuality and if they “liked girls.”
There still isn’t an openly gay male athlete in American professional sports, but there is a growing sense that that could change soon. With that in mind, I talked to Travon Free, a former college basketball player at Cal State-Long Beach who came out as bisexual after his career ended, about what challenges face athletes who stay in the closet and about the challenges the first openly gay athlete will face. Here is a loosely edited transcript of our conversation:
You came out in a blog post on your website in 2011. What went into that decision, when you decided you were going to be public about it?
Around that time, summer of 2010, there were a lot of kids killing themselves, and it was really sad. Some friends and family knew, so I wasn’t going out of my way to hide it, and so after seeing that and just, like, being heartbroken by all those stories, I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like I was doing a disservice to myself and all those people who might look toward me as a some type of silver lining or a role model; if it was just one person who saw there was one person like me in a space where that was typically frowned upon or accepted.
Did you ever think about coming out while you were still playing basketball?
Oh yeah, I did. I thought about it a couple times. It’s funny. You go through a couple moments where you gauge the temperature of your peers to see how they might handle it, and for the most part, I don’t think it would have been a problem. My team didn’t seem very homophobic. It was funny because I used to tell people, my teammates loved to do really gay things, just do really silly shit. I think it’s kind of like that on sports teams in general: guys love to play around by pretending or doing things that are typically deemed gay, because the joke is, ‘I’m not really gay, I’m just doing this because it’s funny.’ Just hearing the occasional serious conversation or pseudo-serious conversation where guys would say, ‘I don’t really care’ or ‘it’s not a big deal,’ or they’d say they didn’t have an opinion, and I think you know what that means. The closer I got to graduating, the more comfortable I became with it, to where I stopped going out of my way to hide it. It was like, if someone found out, I wouldn’t care.
I think my coach would have not tolerated any type of animosity toward me if I did it. I think [former Long Beach coach Larry Reynolds] was pretty good about stuff like that. He wouldn’t have allowed it to be an environment where there would have been any hostility toward me for doing it.
How did you gauge it with teammates?
The couple times I can remember it came up organically. There was one road trip I remember. We were somewhere and there was a billboard, I don’t remember if it was a pro-family billboard or an equality-type thing. I just remember we passed it and it started a conversation. I would always listen closely to those kinds of things. I didn’t hear a lot of negativity toward it at all, it was really just guys talking about it. I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘No way would I play with a gay teammate,’ or ‘I don’t like gay people.’ At the time I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s a little comforting.’ If I did decide to do it, I don’t think my teammates would turn against me.
Afterward I got a lot of support from them. Old teammates would contact me and say, ‘I heard about it and you’re still one of my best friends, it doesn’t change anything.’ There was only one teammate who I found out about in retrospect who tried to make it a thing that people should be concerned about. I don’t know what his intention was. I didn’t find out about that until after I graduated. I found that out from another teammate. And the thing is, he was telling people stuff that wasn’t true. So that was the only guy who I guess had a problem with it.Did any of your teammates know at the time?
No, I had never told any of them. I found out later that a couple knew and just didn’t say anything because they just didn’t care. My roommate, he told me, ‘The reason I didn’t ask you about it was because, one, I thought it was disrespectful and, two, I didn’t care because you’re my friend and it didn’t matter to me either way.’ Apparently (a teammate) had told the entire team at some point, and I didn’t know that was going on, but no one that whole year treated me differently. Nothing changed, so I guess no one cared.
A lot of former athletes have said they knew they played with gay players but didn’t care. Is there a fraternal aspect in the locker room among teammates and friends that keeps it from becoming a big issue in the lockerroom? Is the “lockerroom culture” really the big thing keeping an athlete from coming out?
I think some lockerrooms are probably more hostile than others. I think there’s a level of needing someone to just kind of champion that effort and be the guy. It’s one of those things where when you come out personally, there’s never a right time to do it. There’s never going to be a right atmosphere or time for a player to come out. I feel like that’s a cop-out when people say it’s the lockerroom environment, because that can be changed by coaches, by team owners. That’s all something that can be controlled. The leagues now have these nondiscrimination rules, and if you penalize players for anything in regard to not being tolerant, that’s how you stop it and that’s what makes the environment better for people to come out.
You get paid to play a sport and that’s your job. Your job isn’t to like the guy sitting across from you, your job isn’t to be his friend. Your job is to play a sport. So to think the person across from you has to meet some standard to be your teammate, that’s a load of crap.
At the NFL scouting combine, teams were apparently asking players if they were gay and raising the idea that gay players might be a lockerroom distraction. That would seem to be a bigger deterrent to me.
I totally agree with that. At least in professional sports, that has to come from the top down and just not be tolerated. [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell has a gay brother, right? This could be a moment where the NFL steps up and takes the lead in this fight.
What about dealing with fans and how they will react?
I think part of the fan stuff, that’s kind of something that as a man, as a person, you have to just take on the chin. I remember playing games where people would just say really awful things, but they’re just trying, if I confronted this person outside of this situation, chances are he’s not that big of an asshole and he’s just trying to distract me from beating his team. It’s a part of sports culture to talk shit to the other team and being gay would only give them more ammo.
You can’t allow sports fans to start using derogatory gay terms, in the same way you can’t let fans use the n-word or use derogatory terms for Jews or anyone else. That’s where you have to draw the line. But I also feel like a lot of fans around someone who acted like that would stop them, because I don’t think most people feel that way. I’m putting a lot of faith in humanity there (laughs).
NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe wrote in their Prop 8 brief that it is important for sports to lead on the fight for LGBT equality to change minds. How big of an impact do you think an out player or more support from straight players would have on the overall movement?
It would set the tone, because athletes are looked up to so much, it would set the tone in shifting the lead to athletes in terms of LGBT issues. You have to have it coming from places where people feel it is less expected. You need that support from someone like an NBA player or an NFL player, straight or gay, to get people to really shift that mindset away from ‘this is terrible thing that we’re just going to go with the curve with’ to ‘this is right, this is what we should be teaching kids,’ that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, it doesn’t make you any less of a person. Kids look up to athletes like no one else. If a guy like LeBron James (came out in support of equality), I think that would have a huge impact, just having a huge NBA player join that list of people who are saying we need to do this and support this. I think it really could shift the way the narrative is among athletes, killing that whole culture of pro athletes being homophobic monsters, because I don’t think they all are, but they get stuck with that rap. That’s what guys like Brendan are fighting for.
Whoever it is that comes out, that becomes the first prominent male gay athlete while he was still playing, would he almost be a Jackie Robinson-type figure?
Absolutely. I think so. They’re going to be that person. It’s going to take so much, because of the way we’ve set the narrative up, making it seem like it’s going to be really hard and really huge for someone to do it as an active player. It sets you up to be the Jackie Robinson of this particular fight. We’re just talking about it and no one has done it. It may feel different or feel hard, but the way we look at Jackie Robinson now all these years later, that’s the way history will view that person.
I think whoever comes out now will have it a little better than Jackie, because he didn’t have the support of the media and fans. It’s a lot more taboo to come out in opposition to (LGBT rights) now.
That’s an interesting point about the media narrative. Has the media almost made this harder by making it seem like it’s going to be such a major thing that’s going to be so hard to go through?
It’s like a catch-22. You know the media is going to be super supportive of you, but they’ve reinforced the idea that it’s going to be really hard. So, you think, ‘I have the support of the media, but what does that really hard part entail?’ So you’re kind of stuck in the middle of, ‘Do I do this and suffer the consequences and bite the bullet and do this? Or do I let the media fight the battle for me?’ And I honestly think they will. It’s something that, in the era of It Gets Better, Prop 8, and Obama supporting gay marriage, it’ll be easier in that regard that you have the overwhelming support of the media, of government, to be who you are and do what you’re doing, and it’ll just be fighting the little battles — the locker room, the team, the fans — that’ll prove most difficult.