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The Big Leagues' Slow Acceptance of Openly Gay Players

Over the past 40 years, journalists have been writing the same coming-out stories, because such stories are still rare.
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David Denson, center, was named MVP of the Pioneer League all-star game in August. (Photo: Josh Randolph/9inningknowitall)

David Denson, center, was named MVP of the Pioneer League all-star game in August. (Photo: Josh Randolph/9inningknowitall)

There's this rule in journalism that you have to be super specific about what the news is. Often, you can't just say a person is "one of the first" to do something; you must say how he's the first, and in what categories he's the first. So it is with minor-league baseball player David Denson's announcement, last week, that he is gay. Denson becomes the first openly gay, active baseball player affiliated with Major League Baseball. All those details make it sound like there's an entire fleet of openly gay ballplayers from whom we must distinguish Denson, but make no mistake: He is one of the few major sports players to ever come out.

The dearth of openly gay major sports players is a reflection of how slow American society has been in accepting openly queer people. After all, the first major team sport player to come out publicly, Dave Kopay, who played for the Washington football team, did so in 1975. In 2013, at age 70, Kopay talked to the Washington Post about how little progress executives of the United States' major sports—football, basketball, and baseball—have made in accepting openly gay players.

The research is showing, however, that executives, teams, and fans are finally ready to embrace gay players. One study of school athletes who came out either between 2000 and 2002 or 2008 and 2010 found that those in the latter cohort experienced less discrimination and greater support from their teammates. Meanwhile, an analysis of online sports forums, published in 2012, found that Internet commenters often chided other commenters for homophobic posts.

In the last couple of years, as a trickle of players—most notably former NBA player Jason Collins and one-time NFL player Michael Sam—have come out, journalists have re-visited the pioneering players who did so a generation ago, only to see little improvement in tolerance.

"It's time," Kopay told the Washington Post in 2013. "It's time," echoed Lutha Burke—brother of former Los Angeles Dodger Glenn Burke, who came out publicly in 1982—to the New York Times in 2014. Surely, we'll be hearing that same sentiment with Denson. And so it is.