America at Large: Far more to coming out than the initial celebratory response

Blazing a trail brings its own, very different kind of burden. Sometimes, that weight will drag a body down

Michael Sam (front) left Canadian Football League side Montreal Alouettes’ last Friday. Photograph: Reuters.

Michael Sam (front) left Canadian Football League side Montreal Alouettes’ last Friday. Photograph: Reuters.

 

In May, 2002, the New York Post published a rumour that one of the New York Mets was gay. With no apparent basis in fact, a piece of classic tabloid devilment unleashed an especially lurid bout of speculation and intrusion. Eventually, after so much prurient guesswork, amateur sleuths overly-obsessed with such matters concluded that Mike Piazza, the team’s catcher and biggest star, was in the closet. The salacious gossip quickly gained such currency about town that the slugger called a painfully awkward press conference to address the issue.

“First off I’m not gay, I’m heterosexual,” said Piazza, who later married a Playboy Playmate. “The truth is that I’m heterosexual and date women and that’s it. End of story.”

More than a decade after that sorry episode layered with so many disturbing overtones of fear, paranoia and excess machismo, David Denson has become the first openly gay player in any club affiliated with Major League Baseball (MLB). Even in a sporting world growing almost blasé about courageous pioneers like Jason Collins, John Amaechi and Caitlyn Jenner, the outpouring of goodwill towards Denson, a hitherto unknown first baseman in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league system, has been impressive. More than merely accepting, the response has been overwhelmingly celebratory.

Combatting prejudice

That his “coming out” to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was choreographed by an ex-pro named Billy Bean says much about how the game has progressed. In the late 1980s and early 90s, Bean was a gay man hiding his sexuality as he played the outfield for the Detroit Tigers, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers. These days, as MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion, he is charged with combatting prejudice, preaching tolerance, and ensuring players like Denson don’t feel pressured to prematurely give up the sport like he once did.

Yet, amid the general air of self-congratulation around baseball this past week, there is also room for pause. A power-hitter who has often struggled in the minors, Denson is at least two and probably three years away from playing for the Brewers in a major league game. And, even if the current residents of that locker room spoke eloquently about how welcome his presence there would be, he still has serious work to do. Aside from the routine obstacles every prospect must hurdle on his way up, Denson may encounter some unique challenges en route. Witness the troubling career trajectory of Michael Sam.

Second Captains

The first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft last year, Sam failed to impress in training camp and was cut by the St Louis Rams before the 2014 season began. There followed an unproductive spell on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad until, like many other would-be pros struggling to make it, he headed north to the Canadian Football League (CFL) to try to keep the dream alive. Having figured in just one game for the Montreal Alouettes, he departed the club and the sport, maybe forever, last Friday.

“The last 12 months have been very difficult for me to the point where I’ve been concerned with my mental health,” tweeted the 25-year-old. “Because of this, I am going to step away from the game at this time.”

Arriving out of gridiron shape and fresh off a stint on Dancing with the Stars, Sam’s stay in Quebec was tumultuous. He’d already left the Alouettes once before last week’s announcement. Some team-mates reportedly resented a rookie coming in with a higher profile, a larger pay packet and a diminishing skill-set. While his troubles appeared, thankfully, to have little directly to do with his sexuality, the media circus attending his every move since before the draft has undoubtedly distracted him from honing his craft and working on his game.

Blazing a trail brings its own, very different kind of burden. Sometimes, that weight will drag a body down.

Denson came out because the pressure of disguising his true self was affecting his form on the diamond and making him seriously depressed off it. The 20-year-old Californian’s decision was ultimately sparked by a recent incident in which a team-mate on the Helena Brewers used a gay slur to make fun of him. The exemplary way in which the club and the sport handled Denson’s subsequent revelation has been transformative, indicating a heightened sensitivity and awareness among all concerned.

“Growing up trying to hide, knowing I’m an athlete, I was always nervous that my sexuality would get in the way of me ever having an opportunity, that people would judge me on my sexuality and not my ability,” said Denson.

‘Living in fear’

“I wasn’t able to give fully of myself because I was living in fear. What if this person finds out? What if somebody else finds out? It’s a release for me to finally be able to give all of myself to the game, without having to be afraid or hide or worry about the next person who might find out.”

For all the magnanimity surrounding him over the past few days, when the dust settles around Denson, he will remain the 27th best prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organisation, earning peanuts, playing four levels below the majors. It’s a long, long way from down there to the show. And, as Sam might testify, even longer when you are trailing new-found celebrity and the demand to make history rather than end up a footnote in it.

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