Is sexuality a big barrier for athletes?

As I read the latest news on Ryan O’Callaghan, former NFL player who revealed he was gay, I immediately thought of another group of human beings that found it hard to participate in organized sports simply because of who they were. Of course I’m speaking of African-Americans, who burst through racial barriers long ago and now arguably dominate most American sports. Their plight, however, was nothing short of daring and courageous and sometimes life threatening.

Before I dive too deep into the woods, let’s explore who actually broke the color barrier in sports. There seems to be much debate, and most Americans assume it’s Jackie Robinson since movies and documentaries have been made about this very subject. As a novelist sports historian, I know this “truth” to be embellished. First, are we going to define “breaking the color barrier” as a term to describe playing interracial sports, pro sports or sports in general? Certainly when African-Americans were not considered “free”, or even human, participating in activities such as sports were not allowed. So in that circumstance, being “allowed” to play sports at all could be considered a great achievement.

However, for the sake of argument and to prevent this blog from becoming a novel, let’s explore when African-Americans actually started playing pro sports with other races. Which brings us back to Jackie Robinson and 1947. Well, here’s where confusion, or re-writing history, comes into play. You see, the first time an African-American truly played a professional sport with an all white team actually occurred in 1872, involving John W. “Bud” Fowler (March 16, 1858 – February 26, 1913). The son of a fugitive hop-picker and barber, Bud Fowler was christened John W. Jackson.* Fowler first played for an all-white professional team based out of New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1872, when he was 14 years old.**

His father had escaped from slavery and migrated to New York. In 1859, his family moved from Fort Plain, New York, to Cooperstown. He learned to play baseball during his youth in Cooperstown. It is unknown why he adopted the name “Bud Fowler”, although biographer L. Robert Davids claims he was nicknamed “Bud” because he called the other players by that name.

The photo shows Fowler with his Keokuk, Iowa team of the Western League in 1885.

Fowler became the most popular player on the Keokuk team. The local newspaper, the Keokuk Gate City and Constitution, said of him, “a good ball player, a hard worker, a genius on the ball field, intelligent, gentlemanly in his conduct and deserving of the good opinion entertained for him by base ball admirers here.”

He also commented to the local newspaper on issues with the “reserve clause,” the contractual mechanism that allowed teams to hold on to players for their entire career. Fowler stated, “…when a ball player signs a league contract they can do anything with him under its provisions but hang him.”***

One would think this was plenty of evidence to show Fowler, ole Bud, was the first to break this ground. Interestingly enough, there’s others who insist it was actually Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884 because he played at the major league level and Fowler played Minor League. “Fleet” (October 7, 1856 – May 11, 1924), as he was known, was an American professional baseball catcher and a native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, and a star athlete at Oberlin College as well as the University of Michigan. Walker played for semi-professional and minor league baseball clubs before joining the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (AA) for the 1884 season.

So that settles

it, “Fleet” (shown above) was the first African-American…..wait, I forgot to mention William Edward White!! White (1860–1937), was a 19th-century American baseball player. In 2007, researcher Pete Morris discovered that another ball player, former slave William Edward White, actually played a single game for the Providence Grays five years before Walker debuted for the Blue Stockings. He played as a substitute in one professional baseball game for the Providence Grays of the National League, on June 21, 1879.*****

Here’s where it gets really strange! Research theorizes that the William Edward White who took the field that day (shown below) was the son of a plantation owner from Milner, Georgia, Andrew Jackson White, and his black slave, Hannah. University records give Milner as the student’s birthplace, and the only person of his name listed in the 1870 census was a 9-year-old mulatto boy who was one of three children living with his mother Hannah White. According to 1900 and 1910 census records, White (the former Brown student and ballplayer) moved to Chicago and became a bookkeeper. He is listed there as having been born in Rhode Island and being white. The 1920 census, however, indicates that there was then a 60-year-old William E. White living in Chicago, whose parents were born in Georgia, and whose race was listed as “black.” It is not certain that this is the same man. ******

If the research is correct, then William Edward White was not only the first black player in the major leagues, but also the only former slave to do so.******* Unlike Walker, White passed as a white man and did not face the virulent racism prevalent in the late 19th century.

Then there’s Jackie….who’s so popular we don’t even need to know his last name. Robinson did become the first African-American to enjoy several achievements off the field. He was the first black television analyst in MLB, and the first black vice president of a major American corporation, Chock full o’Nuts. In the 1960s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York. After his death in 1972, in recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom. Robinson is shown below….

Just consider that game Fowler played in 1872 was 75 years before Robinson played professional baseball. Meanwhile, Robinson faced death threats, league wide threats of boycott, racial slurs from opposing players and fans and even experienced racism from his own teammates. That is, until Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”******** I wouldn’t wish what Fowler, Fleet or White went through decades earlier on my worst enemy!

Which brings us to current events, where more and more homosexual, bisexual and transsexual athletes are revealing their lifestyles. I listened to all the talking sports heads on radio and television, as I do every day, and heard them ponder if “coming out” for athletes will be a long, slow and difficult process.

Let’s look at some facts facing gay and trans athletes. First, there’s this stigma that homosexual and bisexual individuals “most likely” have aids or some other virus. Sure, while it’s true that 70% of all new HIV infections each year are gay and bisexual men (26,000 per year), there has been a 26% decline since 2008. In fact, almost every category of HIV infections show a decline, except for African-Americans and those in the South. These figures suggest that income and education play a factor, and we now live in the information age. There’s more and more health information and safe sex handouts in society today that contribute to these declines. As the numbers improve, gay athletes would hopefully see less stress from their fellow competitors and the fear they will contract something. This reminds me of Magic Johnson, as Craig Ehlo of the Cavs during an exhibition game noticed some blood on his arm, he immediately assumed it was from Magic. Johnson had just returned to the NBA after a short break and announcement that he had contracted HIV. Ehlo was seen sprinting to the locker room to remove himself from the game and immediately cleanse his arm. However, Magic wasn’t even gay and therefore didn’t experience homophobia.

Homophobia is broadly defined as the hostility towards, or the fear of, gay people, but it can also refer to social ideologies that stigmatize homosexuality. Homophobia is seen in negative attitudes towards non-heterosexual community, relationships and identity. ^ Homophobia often leads to gay discrimination. Some forms of discrimination include:

  • Homophobic jokes and remarks
  • The usage of homosexual terms in a negative context (Such as, “oh, that party was so gay.”)
  • Bullying
  • Malicious gossip
  • Vandalism
  • Theft
  • Negative media representation

This doesn’t even begin to count the number of homosexual individuals who have been physically harmed or even killed over the sexual orientation they were born with. In some countries, gay people are imprisoned for multiple years. Even in America, which is considered progressive in thinking, there’s still churches and community outreach programs that attempt to “straighten” gay people out.

And then some people wonder, “why wouldn’t an athlete just admit they’re gay?” Seems pretty easy, right? Especially since sports is already an Alpha dog, aggressive and conquer all mentality.

So with all these hateful acts in mind, who do you think was brave enough to be the first athlete to “come out”?

Would you believe me if I told you it was a baseball player who also had another barrier to overcome? Not only did Glenn Burke have the bravery to come out in 1982 when the 80’s is still considered the height of the AIDS scare, but he also did it as a black man. And the 80’s weren’t exactly a warm and fuzzy time for African-Americans either. Hell, even LeBron James had racial slurs written on his property in 2017, so Burke must’ve faced some serious and overwhelming hatred towards him.

Sadly, Burke died of HIV-related causes in 1995, and we may never know which barrier he felt was the hardest to overcome. We do know, however, that the baseball and media world wasn’t ready for his coming out party. His initial admission was in a 1982 article for Inside Sports and then an appearance on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel. Unfortunately, his story was greeted by the rest of the news media and the baseball establishment, including Burke’s former teammates and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, with silence. Even his superb autobiography, Out at Home, which published the year he died, failed to stir open conversation about homosexuality in sports. Practically no one in the sports-writing community would acknowledge that Burke was gay or report stories that followed up on his admission. ^^


And so the sports world carried on, as if nothing happened. They all closed their eyes and covered their ears, like children unwilling to hear their parents telling them to eat their vegetables. That is, until Jason Collins came along.

Collins, much like Robinson, gets a lot of the credit for being the “first”, in this case the first athlete to come out of the closet. Mainly because his announcement caught everyone’s attention. First, he played at a high level and for many years. Secondly, he was a charismatic personality that made a ton of friends in the league.

Lastly, was about timing. His timing was right, and maybe the same could be said for Jackie Robinson. Here’s what Collins said about his timing of the announcement: “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against. I’m impressed with the straight pro athletes who have spoken up so far — Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo. The more people who speak out, the better, gay or straight. It starts with President Obama’s mentioning the 1969 Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement, during his second inaugural address. And it extends to the grade-school teacher who encourages her students to accept the things that make us different.” ^^^

Yes, Collins refers to teammates and other players who spoke on his behalf. Much like the Dodger’s manager Durocher backing his decision to play Jackie Robinson, it takes someone that’s not going through the struggle to help others accept it.

White players and managers helped black players integrate into the league, and it’ll take straight players to help gay players do the same. Much like Michael Sam, the All-American defensive lineman from Missouri (shown below), who kissed his boyfriend on national TV after being drafted in the NFL. His courage to be himself, and the fact no straight players demanded he be barred from the league (that I know of) helped us all look at that moment as a normal one.

Which brings us to Ryan O’Callaghan (shown below). A man who played in the NFL after being drafted in 2006, 7 years before Jason Collins and well before anyone even considered a gay man might be playing in America’s roughest sport, football. O’Callaghan, recently on the Dan Patrick Show, admitted he would chew tobacco and other forms of “male activity” just to keep teammates from suspicion. He would often make excuses during shower time, like he needed a coffee, so that when he took a shower the room would almost be empty. His routine outside of football was even worse, which included drugs, alcohol and attempted suicide. ^^^^ You can read more of his story here: CLICK

So here we are, 2017, wiser and more understanding right? Wasn’t sports a way to bring people together, regardless of race, gender, religion or politics? We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, are we not?

When you compare the two barriers, there are distinct similarities. Both considered less than human by those who hate, both considered carrying diseases, both threatened with death or physical harm and both required to be extremely brave just to be themselves.

The shining light for the gay community is they are integrating themselves at a much more convenient time than the African-Americans were afforded. We have gay pride parades in America, gays are allowed to marry and generally our society has become more accepting. Gays can serve in government, the church, schools, military and more. Gays have way more rights than blacks did, and for many countries and even places in America, African-Americans still have limited to no rights.

With all these factors in mind, I don’t see homosexuality actually serving as an obstacle. Many of these athletes create the obstacle themselves in their head. Don’t get me wrong, the hatred towards the gay communities exist, but at least the professional leagues themselves aren’t denying them access like once was afflicted on the black players. Even the NBA moved their All-Star Game to a different state that was “gay friendly”. In other words, gay athletes are welcome to play – and as counter productive as it may seem, they don’t even have to specify that they’re gay. Black athletes, except William Edward White, couldn’t hide their race and therefore couldn’t help the opposing players and fans hide their prejudice.

So as difficult as it may be for gay athletes to come out, let’s hope the future Ryan O’Callaghan’s don’t feel they’re better off dead than revealing their sexuality. Let’s not forget the overwhelming obstacles black athletes had to climb, and let’s stop thinking like cave men for once….and let’s let sports be what it should be, a barrier breaking positive form of entertainment that welcomes all.



Jeff Beck writes, contributes and runs 12 oz Sports and its weekly podcast.



*Riley, James A. (1994). “Fowler, John W. (Bud)”. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Carroll & Graf. pp. 294–95. ISBN 0-7867-0959-6.

**Rader, Benjamin G. (2008). Baseball : a history of America’s game (3rd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03302-5.

***Christian, Ralph J. (2006). “Bud Fowler: The First African American Professional Baseball Player and the 1885 Keokuks”. Iowa Heritage Illustrated 87(1): 28-32.

****William Edward White: Statistics and History Baseball-Reference

*****Husman, John R. “June 21, 1879: The cameo of William Edward White”. Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.

******Siegel, Robert (January 30, 2004). “Black Baseball Pioneer William White’s 1879 Game”National Public Radio.

*******Husman, John. “June 21, 1879: The cameo of William Edward White”The Society for American Baseball Research

*******Malinowski, Zachary (February 15, 2004). “Who was the first black man to play in the major leagues?”Providence Journal.

********Kirwin, p. 198.

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