David Denson's Huge Leap Conceals Pro Sports' Problem With Gay Players

News & Politics

The day before Milwaukee Brewers minor league player David Denson announced he is gay, the first openly gay professional football player walked away from his sport. Michael Sam said he worried for his mental health. The juxtaposition of these two events shows just how far pro sports has to go to accept a gay athlete.

Just 20 months ago, Sam was Denson – a modest athletic prospect determined to push against the invisible walls that have held gay players from living openly. Like Denson, he had already come out to supportive teammates and made his public declaration in a carefully arranged media event. He had coaches who praised him, NFL teams who liked him, and the general manager of a football team in Canada who desperately wanted him to succeed. But those 20 months of pushing against the invisible wall became too much.

When Sam spoke of worries for his mental health, he was undoubtedly referring to the pressure of trying to break through in a sports world that is still unsure how to handle gay athletes. Jim Popp, the Canadian general manager, said as much earlier this summer after Sam left Popp’s Montreal Alouettes for a few weeks.

“When he came out and said he was gay, he had no idea what all was coming his way,” Popp told the Guardian in June.

Sam has said repeatedly that he only wants to be seen as a football player. He told Popp and the Alouettes this many times this spring and summer. But it was hard to only be a football player when the rest of the world asked for more. He went from being a borderline NFL prospect to a being a distraction. The last thing a player on the fringe wants to be is a distraction. Most pro sports coaches hate distractions, because distractions are hard to control. Pro sports coaches crave control, and do everything they can to eliminate those things that get in the way.

No matter how far society has come on LGBT issues, no matter how much the sports leagues vow to wipe out discrimination, and no matter how many teammates shrug, when a player says they are gay, the fear of being a distraction lingers.

Denson probably doesn’t want to be a distraction. This weekend he told his low-level minor league team in Helena, Montana that he would not do any interviews for several days after his story first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He is not one of the Brewers’ top prospects. As a first baseman who has shown little power two minor league seasons, and was just dropped a level in the team’s system, he is entering the most significant months of his career. He is going to have to prove he can hit. Now he will have to prove he can hit while most likely being the most famous player on his team.

Brad Thorson spoke about this when asked Sam a few months ago. Thorson, a former football player who briefly played in the Arizona Cardinals’ training camp in 2011, came out in July 2014 and found his former teammates still considered him a friend. He said he did not realize he was gay until after his career was over, but suspects it would have been hard for him to come out as a player – even today. The worry of being a distraction would be too great.

“I think Michael Sam probably shortened his career by coming out,” he told the Guardian in May, before Sam joined the Alouettes. “In the NFL, your career is already short. Most teams aren’t trying to build camaraderie. You can be there for two weeks or two months. The number of roster moves a team makes a year is overwhelming. You want to keep your head down and not give teams a reason to cut you.”

This is the barrier sports is going to have to dismantle before it can accept gay athletes. It will have to eliminate the worry in players’ minds that they will somehow upset the balance of a team, that their presence will not bring an overall positive. Just two years ago, the Minnesota Vikings cut punter Chris Kluwe after his vocal support for gay marriage raised his profile higher than the team seemed to want its punter’s profile to be. Following his dismissal, Kluwe, who is straight, said one Vikings assistant coach had made anti-gay remarks.

Few athletes want to wade into such situations. Few will want to draw attention to themselves. Sam took a huge step for gay athletes in coming out 20 months ago, and his courage has likely cost him his career. As David Denson steps forward as the first openly gay player in a major league team’s farm system, he wades into a professional sports world that hasn’t gone much farther than the day Michael Sam came out.

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