In his writing here about the dearth of openly gay players on the active rosters of professional sports teams, Travis Waldron’s discussed a range of issues that have factored into the perception that athletics are a largely heterosexual pursuit. There’s the theory that the locker room is an unfriendly environment that’s been partially dispelled by straight allies like Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo. The persistent use of homophobic insults by fans suggests that the problem might be more in the stands than in players-only areas. And there’s the question of how being publicly out of the closet might affect a player’s negotiating power or sponsorship deals.
But this week’s given us a different kind of story about homophobia in sports, that of Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. Raised in a conservative environment, playing professional baseball sent Affeldt to cities where he met actual gay people, and gave him experiences that broadened his horizons. In Cincinnati, a gay Starbucks employee welcomed Affeldt’s son. And as he came to know San Francisco, Affeldt also came to learn more about people who had previously frightened him so much that he literally hid from the public. As the AP reports:
The ex-military brat said Monday he was so uncomfortable in San Francisco that he would seclude himself. ‘’I didn’t leave my hotel room when we came to play the Giants or A’s. I didn’t want to go out or see anyone,’’ he said. ‘’There was a profession of being wrong. I’ve come to that from a deep angle. I’ll probably get a lot of flak from the church for it, but I believe I’m right.’’…
‘’There’s a chapter in there of me coming to San Francisco and being hesitant because I had homophobia, and now I don’t,’’ he said. ‘’I see more San Francisco as a city of love and a city of passion and compassion. It’s unbelievable this city. To see that and to have my heart change as a city I didn’t ever want to come to, to a city that I’m so thankful I’m going to be part of for a long time, it talks about that. For me, it was an awesome deal.’’
We normally think about sports in terms of their ability to give different kinds of people the opportunity to excel, and through that athletic success, to disprove stereotypes about, say, the masculinity of gay men, or the temperament of African-Americans. But sports also put us in the stands with people who are different from us, and take young men and women to places that they might never have been able to afford to go, or brave enough to go, on their own, and expose them to ideas and people they might otherwise have never encountered. Someone like Chris Kluwe might have come into the NFL a straight ally, but if Major League Baseball turned Affeldt into one, and specifically into someone who is publicly reconciling his Christian faith and his renunciation of homophobia, that speaks to the power of professional sports to change minds in a very different ways.