Confronting an Enduring Taboo
Ann Johansson for The New York Times
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: April 7, 2011
LOS ANGELES — In the past couple of weeks, a Web site calledOutsports.com has written about a gay Brigham Young athlete who abided by the university’s honor code, published an essay from a lesbian basketball player at a Catholic girls school in California, and featured the Miami (Ohio) hockey team a year after the death of the openly gay student manager Brendan Burke, a son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Outsports previously tracked the travails of two college coaches who said they were fired because of their sexual orientation, broke the story ofGeorge Washington University’s transgender basketball player, and interviewed at length the gay rugby star Gareth Thomas.
And on Super Bowl Sunday, Outsports offered both analysis — including a pregame “Super Bowl for the clueless” segment — and opinion, including a wrap-up segment on “hot players of the game.”
“The core of what we do is cover the nexus of gays and sports,” said Cyd Zeigler, one of the Web site’s two founders. “And there is no competition.”
The fact that Outsports could still seem so distinctive a couple of decades into the age of the Internet — with its endless assortment of blogs, Web sites, chat groups and more — says something about the enduring taboo of being a gay athlete.
But if rare, Outsports remains plenty busy. It is not about outing athletes, the site’s founders say, but supporting them, and it attracts hundreds of thousands of eyeballs every month. Over the years it has published an array of breaking news articles and first-person essays, sometimes written anonymously, often not.
In February 2010, for instance, Andrew McIntosh, a lacrosse player at Oneonta College in New York, wrote about his anguish over the decision to tell his friends that he is gay. Outsports provided the forum.
“There’s nothing as revolutionary as Outsports,” McIntosh said in a telephone interview from Fresno, Calif., where he is teaching and coaching lacrosse. “It offers a venue for athletes who have come out, or who are closeted, to get to know others, to not feel alone.”
Zeigler and Jim Buzinski, the site’s other founder, are the site’s only two employees. Theirs remains the only substantial Web site devoted to the widening intersection of sports and gay issues, offering a blend of blog posts, breaking news, photo galleries and commentary.
The experience has been satisfying and exhilarating, if not particularly profitable, they said, in a daylong interview in Los Angeles, where both men live. It has been baffling, too.
More than 3,500 men are on active rosters in Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., theN.B.A. and the N.H.L. Even if only 1 percent of them are gay — and studies suggest the figure is several times higher — at least several dozen would be on those rosters at any one time.
“If you had asked me, 10 years ago, if there would be an out major, active male athlete, I’d have given it a 99 percent chance,” Zeigler said. “That we’re now talking whether it will happen in the next 10 years surprises me.”
Still, Outsports has had life-changing ramifications. A year ago, Hudson Taylor was a nationally ranked wrestler at the University of Maryland and an outspoken supporter of gay rights. He is heterosexual, and he preached tolerance to teammates and wore aHuman Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear, which attracted local attention.
Buzinski, a former sports editor of The Long Beach Press-Telegram, wrote about Taylor for Outsports. The story was recently nominated for a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for outstanding digital journalism article.
But it had a more lasting effect on Taylor. He received 500 e-mail responses, he said, some which brought him to tears with accounts of homophobic run-ins and tortured decisions about revealing homosexuality.
It was a “tipping point,” Taylor said. He now devotes himself to gay rights advocacy, recently establishing a Web site, athleteally.com, where visitors are encouraged to sign a pledge to help end sexual and gender discrimination in sports. (Since Jan. 1, more than 2,300 have signed.)
“That single Outsports article altered the course of my life,” said Taylor, now a volunteer assistant for the Columbia wrestling team and pondering law school.
That is the kind of story Buzinski, 52, and Zeigler, 37, love to hear.
“We’re a small niche,” Buzinski said. “But we’re a niche with a megaphone.”
Buzinski and Zeigler, who have never been a couple, met at a gay pride event in West Hollywood in 1996. Buzinski was manning a flag-football booth; Zeigler had friends on Buzinski’s team. They began watching N.F.L. games together on Sundays and playing football together on Saturdays. (Their flag football teams have won several Gay Bowls and championships at the Gay Games.)
They were in a coffee shop on Cape Cod in 1999 when, with Buzinski reading The Wall Street Journal and Zeigler reading Sports Illustrated, they started talking about sports and the Web.
“We’re two gay people who love sports, and we thought, ‘There is nothing on the Internet for us,’ ” Buzinski said.
Outsports was born in late 1999, mostly as an N.F.L. blog. Within the first few months, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker’s diatribe against people who ride New York’s No. 7 train — he described his discomfort with the idea of sitting next to someone “with AIDS” — was published in Sports Illustrated. (Outsports has since measured homophobia on what it calls a Rocker scale.)
Less than a year later, Corey Johnson, a high school football player in Massachusetts, received national attention (including a front-page article in The New York Times) after coming out to his teammates; they presented him a game ball and sang “Y.M.C.A.” on the bus ride after the next game.
Zeigler recalled calling Buzinski in those early months and saying, “I think we have more here than we realize.”
To which Buzinski replied, “I was thinking the same thing.”
Outsports usually attracts a few hundred thousand unique visitors a month. It pales compared with general-interest sports blogs like Deadspin.
“Outsports pays our bills as far as running the site,” said Zeigler, who was a communication major at Stanford and an executive in the development department at the Disney Channel.
Buzinski and Zeigler say that they do not know how much longer they will keep the site going, but that a raft of suicides among gay teenagers last year drove home the need for outlets like Outsports. They try to measure the lack of profit against the site’s importance to a large number of gay sports fans and a smaller group of young closeted athletes.
“Part of me thinks it would be impossible to think of stopping it, with all the people that rely on it,” Buzinski said. “On the other hand, the idea of doing it as a passion forever, that’s a nonstarter.”
Nothing like Outsports existed during Dave Kopay’s nine-year career as an N.F.L. running back. His best-selling 1977 autobiography, “The David Kopay Story,” was a pioneering coming-out tale.
“Thousands and thousands of young athletes probably turn to it,” Kopay said of Outsports. “They probably live vicariously through it. They know they’re not alone. They know they’re not isolated.”
Kopay noted that while the Internet hummed with sites devoted to general gay issues, sports were given little attention.
Buzinski and Zeigler, along with Kopay, are surprised that a major male team athlete has not come out during the past decade.
“It still puts some cold water on the idea that things are hunky-dory, because they’re not,” Buzinski said.
He described progress for gays in sports over the past decade as “two steps forward, one and a half steps back.”
“It’s like a zigzag,” he added, “but it’s going forward.”
Zeigler disagreed. The situation is better “by a mile,” he said. Homophobic comments and behavior are far less tolerated than they used to be, he said, and younger generations treat most coming-out news with relatively open minds. Female athletes announcing their homosexuality, like the W.N.B.A.’s Sheryl Swoopes in 2005, rarely attract great attention.
That would seem to pave a smoother path for gay male athletes in professional team sports. Buzinski and Zeigler think a gay player would be widely accepted, even marketable.
Whenever it happens, it is increasingly unlikely to be an official announcement.
While fewer than nine years have passed since Mike Piazza, then a catcher for the Mets, felt the need to declare his heterosexuality amid rumors that he was gay (Piazza is now married with children), it seems outdated to similarly announce homosexuality.
Buzinski and Zeigler said the more likely situation would be for an openly gay high school or college athlete to climb the ladder to the professional ranks.
Outsports could very well be the first to report the news.