Gay athletes are making their mark   

Updated: January 22, 2008, 3:25 PM ET

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ASPEN, Colo. -- Last weekend, I sat on a panel to discuss one of the sports world's favorite questions: When will a big-name athlete come out?

To be honest with you, sometimes I get a little tired of talking about homophobia in sports -- especially that question in particular. But I continue to do so because I understand the importance of having such a dialogue, particularly as we near the one-year anniversary of Tim Hardaway's "I hate gay people" statements. And besides, afterward I'm always glad I did if for no other reason than to hear the audience's thoughts.

Last weekend was no different.

Actually, that's not true. Last weekend was very different.

During the question and answer period, I was asked when we all look back on this subject 30 years from now, what will be the one thing we regret the most. It was a fantastic question and one I'd never been asked before, so I was a little stumped. As I was collecting my thoughts, I glanced out into the audience and found my answer staring back at me.

Hockey Players

courtesy of Glenn Witman

Openly gay rec league players such as Kirby Pumper (from left), Pierre Tardif and Kurt Gabrielson, who compete at the Friendship Cup, are promoting diversity at the grass-roots level.

For the past five years, Aspen has played host to the Friendship Cup, a hockey game pitting an all-gay team made of rec league all-stars against a straight team of local all-stars. The straight team won the first two years, the gay team captured the next two and this year was the tiebreaker. I give both squads a lot of credit for putting on such an event in an attempt to show that sexual orientation doesn't dictate level of play. True, no one watching the two squads would mistake them for pros, but there were solid hits and plenty of blood on the ice.

The crowd is jovial -- if not politically correct. A chant of "Let's go homos" was met with the equally un-PC cheer of "Let's go breeders." Midway through the third period, I stood up, looked around and smiled, thinking that change isn't on hold, change is here.

Many of us are so obsessed with closeted athletes and their possible effect on sports that we ignore the gay athletes who are already out and creating change.

Too quickly we dismiss the thousands of openly gay men and women who participate in rec leagues like this every weekend, interacting with folks who may not have been around gay people before.

We give mere lip service to the power of collegiate athletes such as St. Bonaventure swimming captain Scott Jordan or high school multisport star Anthony Castro because their schools are not big enough or they're not household names.

Many people look past athletes such as Amelie Mauresmo and Sheryl Swoopes because they're women, or their sports are not big enough, or it's assumed professional female athletes are all lesbians anyway so what difference does it make.

It seems on every level, we find reasons not to recognize the work that's already being done. We are holding our collective breaths, waiting for the gay Jackie Robinson.

What we fail to remember is that Robinson was not the first black person ever to play baseball. Yes, he integrated the sport, but there were thousands of lesser-known black players in the Negro Leagues, who decades before laid the foundation for Robinson to break through in 1947. Baseball is slowly honoring the contribution of those men. When I looked out into the audience to answer that question posed during the panel discussion, I thought, maybe we should do a better job of recognizing the contributions of today's openly gay athletes.

And straight people are not the only ones. I have found many in the gay community to behave like starstruck misogynists as well.

My friend John Amaechi, who also sat on the panel, believes that a true sign of change is reflected in policy and law. I agree with him -- to an extent.

Yes, laws dictating equality are certainly something many gays and their allies want and need. But those laws are made by people, and unless people are willing to obey and enforce them, those policies are toothless. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but more than a century later, blacks were still fighting for their freedom. It took reaching across the color lines on a grassroots level to give the policies and laws life.

I believe the same is true when it comes to homophobia in sports. It's up to everyday people -- people like the men who participated in the Friendship Cup -- to lay down the foundation for that ever-elusive big-name athlete to come out.

"I think [the game] just shows we aren't all the same, just as straight people are not all the same," says Glenn Whitman, one of the Friendship Cup's organizers and participants. "We can be just as athletic and dedicated to our sports as our heterosexual brothers."

To me, the final score was not as important as the message inherent to that game.

But for those of you who just gotta know, the gay team won 7-3.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at


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