Welcome to a new edition of RealJock.com's "Ask Billy Bean" column with sports and life advice from Billy Bean, former professional athlete and author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball." Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What advice would you offer someone who is new to the National Football League (NFL) but who knows he is gay and closeted? Would it be better for him to come out now and make a statement that he is gay (and ruin his career), or to wait until after his career is over as other pro athletes have done before? It seems like an impossible decision.
I appreciate your help with this problem, particularly as you have faced similar decisions yourself.
I am always hopeful and optimistic when I hear about an athlete considering such an important decision.
I have thought about your question for a while, and I believe the only expertise I can give in this situation is to explain why players have not come forward while they are still playing. It would be easy for me to say, "Yes....come out! Do it for all of us who have been waiting anxiously for so long," but the truth is there are many personal ramifications that this athlete must consider. I believe we should be sympathetic to those ramifications, and instead of waiting for the people we don't know to come out, we should embrace and lift up those who already have. This way, we will continue to show strong examples of people whose lives became better, more fulfilling, and complete by coming out and living honestly.
Coming out is a unique experience that can be difficult, intimidating, exhilarating, liberating, and satisfying for many reasons. For an athlete who has arrived at the top of his profession (especially in a male team sport), this decision is especially difficult. Unfortunately, discriminatory language and remarks about gay men are still widely acceptable in the locker room and on the field. So the idea of coming out as gay for someone who's new to the NFL, who wants the same opportunity as every other player to succeed, and who wants to earn an incredible living in a very short period of time while his body remains healthy, has to be overwhelming. There are many ways to look at it, but for anyone who is closeted in the GLBT community, the reality of putting their job at risk by coming out makes the decision agonizing and I'm sure delays it from happening almost every time.
Coming out in a team sport environment has unique challenges because all team sports require good chemistry to succeed. I have always said that 80 percent of the players would have been fine if I, Esera Tuaolo (NFL), or John Amaechi (NBA) had come out while we were playing professional sports, but it was the vocal 20 percent minority that had all of us worried. Every athlete has a responsibility to his team, and whether we like to admit it or not, the volume of press that a team would receive if one of its players came out would be overwhelming and would change the team's energy for the immediate future. In every form of competition, you need to be able to concentrate and remove distractions to succeed. Coming out could be the definition of "inviting distraction" into your career. Overnight, this player would be judged differently than every other player, and ultimately could be the object of tremendous scrutiny, which would be unfair to both him and his team. It could liberate the player privately and emotionally, but as we all know, coming out doesn't just change us—it changes the perception of those around us.
If I was to sit down and talk to this athlete, I would first tell him that I would support him no matter what he decided, but I would also try to show him all the possibilities so he could make a decision that was right for him. As a rookie, he has so much going on, and the pressure for him to succeed is intense.
At the very least, I would tell him to relax, exhale, and not feel pressure from anyone either way. It's his decision, his career, and his life. I wish I had confided in one friend or my parents when I was playing. You don't have to tell the whole world on the first day. I know that would have helped me, and I am sure it will help him. Quitting my sport wasn't the answer, and I regret my mistake of not believing in myself or my family to get through a difficult time.