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Original Issue

Mixed Messages

I don't know you, but I know you are out there. Maybe you are a 14-year-old point guard in rural Texas, or a 15-year-old goalkeeper in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, or a 16-year-old linebacker in inner-city Detroit. Maybe you are all those people. I don't know who you are or where you are, but I know you are young, you are an athlete and you are gay. Hardly anyone knows about that last part. It's a side of yourself that you keep hidden.

There is something else that no one knows about you. No one knows that you wonder all the time what it would be like to come out, that you are constantly watching and listening to even the most casual comments of friends, teachers and family members, gauging their attitudes toward homosexuality, trying to envision how the people in your life would react if you told them. I don't know you, but I know someone who used to feel just like you. "Coming out to my teammates and later to my coach was great," says Austin Hendrix, a fourth-year junior cross-country runner at Eastern Michigan who told his team two years ago that he was gay. "It was the months and even years leading up to it that were not. I was beyond nervous. My thoughts were consumed with the worry that someone would find out about my sexuality and the fear of how I would be treated if they did."

Hendrix was relieved, and a bit surprised, to find that none of his teammates or coaches changed their opinion of him, even a little, after his revelation. But you know that not every gay athlete is that lucky. You know that even if your friends and teammates don't shun you, opposing fans can be vile and cruel.

You have been studying the larger world, especially the sports world, for clues about how your news might be accepted, and you have been getting mixed messages. In the past few weeks, Suns president Rick Welts acknowledged his homosexuality in The New York Times, saying he had received unqualified support when he informed NBA commissioner David Stern and other associates, and former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan told that by the time he graduated, most of his teammates knew he was gay and didn't care.

You are encouraged by that, but you also know that in recent weeks the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Bulls' Joakim Noah, well-known NBA players in two of the most diverse, enlightened cities in the country, spit out the word faggot in anger. You think that if those stars used such hateful language, then your friends and teammates, who idolize players like them, could do the same toward you. But then you saw that the league swiftly fined Bryant ($100,000) and Noah ($50,000) and that both men seemed sincerely remorseful, and you felt hopeful that the ultimate effect would be to make locker rooms more welcoming to gay athletes.

Sometimes you wonder if the players and the coaches you see on TV realize the power they have to push a kid like you either deeper into the closet or closer to stepping out into the light, if they understand that all the statements from athletes against gay bashing can't take away the chilling effect that comes from a player casually tossing out a single humiliating word. "The problem is that words like those have become so intertwined with everyday vocabulary that it can be difficult to tell if they are being said out of hate or just out of habit," Hendrix says. But even when they are said without thinking, they contribute to a climate that makes it harder for a young person like you to come out. I'm sorry to tell you I heard that same slur used jokingly in a pro locker room last week, even after the Bryant and Noah incidents.

Lately the encouraging signs and the devastating ones have been doing battle. They have come so fast and swung so wildly between tolerance and intolerance that a kid like you doesn't know what to make of the data. Grant Hill and Jared Dudley of the Suns filmed a public service announcement urging people to refrain from using antigay slurs, but it was shown during the same telecast in which Noah was caught on camera doing exactly that.

Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was fined and suspended for making homophobic comments, crude gestures and threats toward a fan in San Francisco in April, but last week NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley told Washington, D.C., radio station WJFK that he knew he'd had gay teammates during his career and had no problem with them. "I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play," he said. So it goes, back and forth. You can't tell whether the sports world keeps moving two steps forward and one step back on gay issues, or the other way around.

You wish there was one unified message, but there can't be one, not yet. The sports culture has to go through the growing pains of accommodating itself to a new idea, a growth that will be tentative and uncertain, with conflicting ideas and emotions crashing into each other. But you can relate to that, can't you? As difficult and wrenching as it sometimes is, this is progress.

I wouldn't presume to tell you whether now is the time for you to reveal your secret and fully engage this contentious, difficult world. No one can tell you whether you are strong enough to handle that. I don't know you, but that's not important. What matters is how well you know yourself.

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All the statements by athletes against gay bashing can't take away the chilling effect of a player casually tossing out a single humiliating word.