The 'Jon Grudens out there' are responsible for homophobia in sports, not athletes

·10 min read

When Chris Burns came out as gay to a locker room full of teenagers and early 20-somethings six years ago, his fears of condemnation and scorn were quickly put to rest.

At 31, Burns had a unique vantage point as the first-ever Division I men's basketball coach to come out as gay. His distorted fears were replaced with embracing hugs and fist pumps to honor his courage. Yet the former Bryant University assistant said the root of homophobia never came from the players, made up of millennials and Gen-Zers of different cultural backgrounds. It was coming from people in the same position he found himself in as a coach: a position of power.

A recent study by the University of Winchester, Sports Equality Foundation and Outsports revealed that more than 95% of openly gay athletes (in high school through college) have their teammates respond positively or neutral once they come out, helping to dispel a decades-long myth that homophobia persists in locker rooms as a result of gay slurs and misogynistic language. And now, there's an out athlete role model in three of the top four men's professional sports – Carl Nassib (NFL), Luke Prokop (minor league hockey) and Bryan Ruby (minor league baseball).

Chris Burns, left, became the first openly gay coach in men's Division I basketball when he came out in a 2015 story with USA TODAY Sports.
Chris Burns, left, became the first openly gay coach in men's Division I basketball when he came out in a 2015 story with USA TODAY Sports.

In spite of all that progress, one question remains: why are so many gay athletes still closeted?

"Because there are a lot more Jon Grudens out there," Burns told USA TODAY.

"There's definitely a divide in acceptance when it comes to age, whether it's seen or not. You create this fear in your head that you'll be hated, ostracized. That feeling's coming from somewhere. What (Gruden) said plays right into the fear for someone closeted. And because homophobia is not always seen and gets covered up, it (can be) gaslighting."

Gruden resigned last week as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders amid reports he repeatedly used homophobic language in a series of emails over a period of seven years. Gruden, 58, called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a gay slur and denigrated the Rams' decision to draft Michael Sam, who is openly gay.

Luke Prokop came out as gay in July and said he's been embraced by teammates and the hockey community.
Luke Prokop came out as gay in July and said he's been embraced by teammates and the hockey community.

"If my coach said or wrote something like that, I'd be offended," Prokop, 19, told USA TODAY. "In all sports, it’s tradition that the upper management is a bit older and a lot of them have different views than the younger generation. But you can't hide behind the scenes anymore, you have to watch what you say – anywhere. This is part of moving forward because we're weeding out the older guard and pushing towards a new generation of athletes, coaches and owners who believe in creating an LGBTQ-safe place to play."

Dr. Eric Anderson, the lead researcher of the recent study, said Gruden's dirty laundry is unsurprising and unlikely to be an isolated incident among top-level coaches. But he said it illuminates the generational divide and further spotlights where homophobia derives: People in charge with old-school views.

That list can include team owners and GMs, athletic department officials, assistant and head coaches and religious-based institutional officials.

"There has been a perpetual portrayal of sport as highly homophobic institution, and now we have evidence to suggest that's not the case in the locker room and that's because homophobia is more unacceptable to youth nowadays. Times have changed," Anderson said. "But there are people who intentionally remain in the closet because of the fear of institutional repercussion from the 'old guard.' And it makes sense in sports. Homophobic language in the 1980s was almost a prerequisite for masculinity in sports. Back then, no one was holding it accountable. So that fear today can be valid."

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib (94) became the first active openly gay player in June.
Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib (94) became the first active openly gay player in June.

In June, Nassib, a star defensive end for the Raiders, became the only active NFL player in history to be publicly out. The 28-year-old, who played for Gruden, took a personal day to "process" a whirlwind week after the coach was ousted. Former NFL lineman Ryan O'Callaghan, who came out as gay in 2017 after a six-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, said more players coming out like Nassib helps work against hidden homophobic views of the old guard.

"In my experience, all it takes is knowing one gay person to change how you feel about the matter," O'Callaghan said. "A lot of homophobia is generational – it's coming from people's parents' impressions. People do grow. ...The more you humanize, the less homophobia there is. But the more homophobia is happening behind closed doors, then the fear for someone to come out is going to stay."

Trust barriers with the 'suits'

The NBA was the first of the top four men's professional sports leagues with an active gay player when Jason Collins came out in 2013. A gay player hasn't come out in the league since. Those numbers don't match up with society – where 5.6% of the American population identify as LGBTQ, including 15.9% of the Gen Z generation. NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman offered in 2019 that he believes close to 20% of pro athletes could be gay or bisexual.

"Millions of people are gay, and yet we only have a few here (publicly out) in pro sports," said Ruby, who came out in September. "It's not all warm and fuzzy. Otherwise, 100 more players would be out in baseball."

Ruby said he envisioned getting beaned by a fastball and called gay slurs once he told the world his secret. That proved to be the complete opposite, with cheers in the stands and teammates being introduced to his boyfriend. Still, Ruby said the genesis of his fear came from an overall culture – one so often controlled by, as he puts it, "people in suits."

"Some of the fears we experience in the closet can be irrational, but it's based on the possibility or reality of what could really happen," Ruby said. "Most (closeted) players ... struggle to trust management, people in the front office, reporters in the media."

That's why Ruby collaborated with out ex-baseball players Michael Holland and Sam Culwell to form the player support group, Proud To Be In Baseball. "There's a disconnect that pro sports leagues can have with players," Ruby said. "But players or former players they can relate to."

That theory proved true when just a few short weeks after Ruby came out, former Angels minor league pitcher Kieran Lovegrove messaged him on Instagram saying he felt inspired. Then he came out publicly.

Homophobic culture is drastically different in women's sports, with the number of out LGBTQ female athletes at the Tokyo Games far outnumbering their male counterparts by a 9-to-1 ratio. But the same premise – top-level sports officials driving homophobic culture – occurs in women's sports, too.

Emily Niemann was a star player on Baylor's 2005 national championship game. Both Niemann, and later WNBA star Brittney Griner, have criticized then-coach Kim Mulkey for being homophobic by making them keep their sexual orientation as lesbians quiet. But Niemann said in hindsight she can see Mulkey was merely a product of the culture at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas that's struggled with its LGBTQ message over the past two decades.

Former NCAA star Emily Niemann struggled to find acceptance in the 2000s at Baylor because she identified as lesbian.
Former NCAA star Emily Niemann struggled to find acceptance in the 2000s at Baylor because she identified as lesbian.

"At 19 years old, I don't think I was even looking to coach Mulkey for support," recalled Niemann, now a coach at the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Massachusetts. "Looking back, it was an entire systems failure. I was desperate for just one line of support in the athletic department or school. I got none. They almost all would say, 'If this is what I think it is you need to leave my office.' I was isolated and alone, then that fear escalated when I couldn't find anyone."

A recent example of the generational divide can be found at the high school level where Benet Academy, a private Catholic high school in suburban Chicago, originally deferred the hiring of girls lacrosse coach Amanda Kammes upon learning she's married to a woman, noting her values didn't align with the school's Catholic teachings. But a petition was launched by teachers and alumni, and largely driven by teenage girls on the team who wore pride masks to support Kammes. That ultimately prompted the school board to reverse course and hire her.

"All it takes is one person who is hostile towards the LGBTQ community, and that can anchor (down) a person's sense of belonging," Niemann said. "The younger generation is so far ahead of the older generation when it comes to this type of sensitivity. The older generation just wants to bring in a public speaker or check a box."

A changing of the guard

Sam, who came out in 2014 before he was drafted by the Rams in the seventh round but never made it onto an NFL roster before his retirement, said the sports world is finally catching up to society.

In response to questions about Gruden, Sam said: "It’s moving in that direction (of acceptance), so if you’re not a part of it, you need to find another profession. (The NFL) will definitely crack down on bigotry like that."

But Sam's case is an example of how hidden homophobia can be. The 31-year-old, who abruptly retired in 2015, said in 2019 that "the NFL gave me a raw deal" and regretted coming out when he did because it seemed like NFL teams blackballed him as a publicity issue. In Gruden's emails, he blasted Goodell, believing the commissioner pressured then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher into drafting "queers," in reference to Sam.

"The sort of cover-up of it all is maybe the hardest part," Burns said. "People in (power) are usually smarty and savvy. They'll give you the answer you'll want to hear because they know how to portray themselves. You're never gonna be able to dig into someone's subconscious feelings about the issue. In the closet, you get stuck overthinking every single thing. It corrupts your own thought process."

Prokop, an NHL prospect who now plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings, said the constant anxieties brewing in his head were offset by the younger generation – including his fellow hockey players – and faith in the younger crowd actually gave him the courage to come out to older family members.

"As an athlete, you can't be your best without being confident and it's hard to be confident when you're hiding your personality," Prokop said. "I believe that professional sports are becoming more player-driven leagues. We see it in the NBA and other places where players have their voices heard about race and gender. I believe that will outweigh any (homophobia) that could exist with upper management. If you have the skill to play, that's what counts and hopefully there will be a trickle-up to the older generation."

Openly gay NHL player Luke Prokop, left, now plays minor league hockey for the Edmonton Oil Kings after a recent trade.
Openly gay NHL player Luke Prokop, left, now plays minor league hockey for the Edmonton Oil Kings after a recent trade.

Anderson, the study expert, said the fact that Gruden's language surfacing while leading a team with Nassib – the only publicly out player in the league – can work as a double-edged sword in terms of LGBTQ progress.

"A problem is closeted athletes tend to generalize because of negativity bias," Anderson said. "Gruden doesn't represent the whole sport, but one few high-profile case can taint the whole broth.

"Yet the fact of the matter is Carl is there and Gruden is not. So it's an example of where we're rooting out the bad apples and even more importantly, it sends a damn strong message. Can you imagine any NFL coach ever risking saying something homophobic ever again after this? It's a shot across the bow to say that's no longer allowed."

Contributing: Josh Peter

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Jon Grudens out there' responsible for sports homophobia, not players

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