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Is it anyone's business?

Rick Charlton

June 4, 2001

The claim by the editor-in-chief of OUT Magazine that he is having an affair with a major league baseball player is stirring up an age-old controversy in the testosterone-laced world of professional sports.

"For the past year and a half, I have been having an affair with a pro baseball player from a major-league East Coast franchise, not his team's biggest star but a very recognizable media figure all the same," begins the May editorial written by Brendan Lemon.

His claim has prompted an immediate swiveling of heads through the four major league sports.

"Do we have gays among us?" is the frantic question being asked in locker rooms from baseball to football to hockey to basketball.

No hockey player that I am aware of has ever openly come out of the closet while still playing although an indiscriminate rumour mill has shaken out some rather remarkable names through the years, names that would not have looked out of place among the key players in any Stanley Cup final of the last 20 years.

Mark Tewksbury, gold medalist in swimming at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, is the most visible symbol in Canada of gay athleticism, a man who chose to out himself at the risk of numerous endorsement deals. Few males in figure skating, tremendous athletes all, bother these days to hide if they are gay or not in a sport which doesn't care one way or the other. There has long been a suspicion that far more than Martina Navratilova are gay in the world of women's tennis and similar observations have been made about women's golf. There are Gay rodeo events throughout the U.S.

But hockey, football, basketball and baseball, for whatever reason, have long been sports assumed to be  hopelessly heterosexual although simple percentages would argue otherwise.

In hockey, suspicions regarding an occasional player make the rounds, usually because the fellow in question, typically single, seems to be avoiding the smorgasbord of female groupies available to professional athletes wherever they go. Or he avoids nightlife altogether. Or sticks to himself beyond his hockey related duties.

Not crimes to be sure but certainly suggestive to homophobes. Call it a crime of silence.

While subtle clues for the less than liberal among us may mean nothing or maybe something is it really anyone's business one way or another? In figure skating the answer is an emphatic "no." But the issue of privacy would carry little weight, even in the 21st century, in the confines of the locker room of major league hockey, baseball, basketball and football.

Harold Baines of the Chicago White Sox, when confronted with the OUT magazine claim, matter-of-factly stated a coming out in a baseball locker room would be "a disaster." Baines wasn't being critical or judgmental, simply making an observation. And a fairly accurate one at that.

Estimates of the percentage of homosexuality in society in general can vary wildly. In the early 90's I read an article where a gay activist claimed some 30% of folks you meet in the street were probably gay. Armed with that revelation I took my customary mid-summer noon hour stroll down Eighth Avenue in Calgary and wondered which of the three in ten people, among thousands, happened to be homosexual. Not likely I decided. But a figure of five to ten percent is generally accepted as reasonably accurate.

There are 690 roster positions in the NHL. Is the real percentage of gays in the NHL 30% (207 NHL players), five per cent (36 players) or, for the sake of argument, as low as five in one thousand (four players)?

Statistically, it would seem improbable that the percentage in NHL hockey is actually zero.

Or maybe it is zero. Do the statistics for society in general have any relevance to professional sports?

A friend of mine, recently retired from the game, said most gays would be found out relatively early in their junior or professional careers and run into the usual homophobic barriers. If someone actually ran the gauntlet undetected and established himself at a high level, then came out of the closet, my friend said the reaction would be somewhat circumspect. Aside from an avalanche of merciless on-ice ribbing from opponents, he predicted an outward acceptance from teammates but more latent consequences emerging soon thereafter. Friends may begin to distance themselves, the normal sharing of on-ice activities could diminish and, he predicted management would gradually find a reason to move the player along.

As a capper, endorsement opportunities would probably dissipate to zero.

Fair? No it's not.

So it is easy for Brendan Lemon to urge his baseball-playing lover to take the high road and pronounce himself as gay, thus becoming a new Jackie Robinson of a different sort.

But the indications remain that the society of a major league locker room is still ruled by the laws of the jungle rather than the laws of the land.

Easy to come out, hard to stay.

WAS BRYAN TROTTIER IN LINE FOR CALGARY'S HEAD COACHING JOB ahead of Don Hay last summer? "At the last moment, we agreed to disagree," Trottier said this week. "I told them (Flames) I didn't feel comfortable with it. I said 'let's not hate each other because we can't come to terms on a contract." Which begs the question: If the Flames were talking contract with Trottier where was Hay at the time?

THERE'S NO MIDDLE GROUND IN THE LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP Canadians have with colourful HNIC commentator Don Cherry. His new contract calling for $750,000 from HNIC, broken down, works out to about $20,833 for each weekly five minute segment during the regular season, assuming a 26 week schedule and 10 more weeks for the playoffs. That alone tells you he has legions of fans at his back, although how the public broadcaster figures Cherry merits a paycheque three times higher than the Prime Minister is a little puzzling. But that's entertainment. It's the naysayers who will be sitting back waiting for the sky to fall after Cherry's puzzling but in-character decision to coach his disastrous OHL franchise, the Mississauga Ice Dogs. First it was a meddlesome owner (Don Cherry) interfering with personnel decisions which resulted in the hiring of a new GM (Don Cherry). Then it was a meddlesome GM interfering with on-ice decisions which has now led to the hiring of a new coach (Don Cherry). Imagine how short those accountability meetings will have to be if Cherry has only one guy to upbraid. The same bombast that landed Cherry that giant HNIC contract is still much in evidence. "I'm going to be sensational. Not great, but sensational. I'm going into it like anything I do, like Coach's Corner, I want it to be sensational." But outgoing coach Rick Vaive, of uncertain reputation himself, may have hit the nail on the head when he observed; "Don is going to see firsthand it's not all rosy back there and things don't happen just because you think they should. It's good he's taking responsibility upon himself. There'll be no more finger pointing. It's not anyone else's fault now. It's good for him and the organization." In other words, Cherry has put himself in a classic put up or shut up situation. We await the results with interest.

"THE PEOPLE WHO RUN THE TEAM HAVE BEEN THERE 25-30 years and they don't see what's going on in the future. They are trying to do what they've been trying to do the last 20 years. That's the safe way to do it. If you look at New Jersey and Colorado, that's where hockey is going. It's not only a question of drills or systems, it's modern hockey. In Chicago, they still believe very strongly in old-style hockey. I'm not saying that's bad but its difficult to find the players to play that kind of hockey." - Former Hawks coach Alpo Suhonen, pretty much confirming he didn't leave Chicago for medical reasons. And pretty much confirming the opinion held by most of the duo of Bill Wirtz and Bob Pulford. Let's face it, Suhonen wasn't talking about the erudite Mike Smith.

"THE EQUIPMENT HAS CHANGED, THE WHOLE LEAGUE HAS CHANGED. It's night and day compared to what we had. When I played the shoulder pads sometimes were just a little piece of plastic on a piece of cotton . . . so when we hit we'd get hurt too, but nowadays with the armour they've got on, the little guy is not afraid of the giant on the other team." - Gordie Howe, talking about the NHL of 35 years ago versus today. Strange comment when you consider the "little guy" has been largely run out of today's NHL versus the Howe era of Stan "the uncheckable Czech" Mikita (5'9" 165 lbs), Yvon Cournoyer (5'7" and 172 lbs), Henri Richard (5'7", 160 lbs) or Alex Delvecchio (5'11", 180 lbs). Howe, by the way, was 6 feet and 205 lbs. in his playing days, which would make him undersized versus the average player in today's NHL.

THE EDMONTON OILERS BRAINTRUST TOOK A WELL-DESERVED poke on the chin this week after repeated rosy financial predictions ended with a monster $10 million cash call. Laying $4 million of that bill at the feet of the long-gone Glen Sather looks a little lame since as late as February Oiler GM Kevin Lowe was on Hockey Night in Canada saying emphatically that Edmonton owners could be assured no cash call would be coming. Lowe, presumably, would have been well up to speed by that time on any overdue bills left behind by his predecessor. Oiler President Bill LaForge commented a week later that no cash call would be needed if the Oilers advanced to the second round. LaForge also boasted the Oilers had spread their expansion revenues over two seasons, including next season, hence his confidence. Suddenly, a few months later, we are finding expansion revenues are gone and everyone has to pony up some more money. Sather himself has hinted $3 million of the deficit is actually the Oiler commitment to a rainy day fund for the coming labour war of 2004. Which makes the Flames $5 million deficit this year equally interesting. In any event, the Oilers have managed to field one of the NHL's more entertaining teams but are giving their fans a less than confident feeling about the back office. There's always one way to stay solvent, however. Stop spending more money than you take in.

ONE HAS TO WONDER ABOUT THE QUALITY OF ADVICE being given youngsters when we see them rejecting healthy contracts in order to re-enter the NHL draft. Almost without exception the history of these events shows the player being re-drafted at a lower level and receiving fewer dollars in the end. Given that history is so heavily weighted against them why do they do it? Is it a personal ego trip? Is it an agent convincing a player, against all prior evidence, that he can lasso the player a better deal than the one being offered? Craig Andersson, late of the Flames, and Christian Chartier, once Oiler property, will be two examples to follow closely on June 23. Both developed further than their original draft position might have promised. Both were offered better contracts than other picks of the same level, the Flames and Oilers recognizing their value had increased. Both rejected those deals and will re-enter the draft. If either secures a contract better than the one left on the table they will have beaten odds which are stacked overwhelmingly against them. Right now it looks like a lousy gamble, something we would hope their agent made them aware of prior to their decision.

DETROIT HAS EARNED THE REPUTATION AS HOCKEYTOWN USA and now have the numbers to back it up. A Scarborough Sports Marketing survey found that 43% of Detroit residents follow the NHL followed by Buffalo (39% and Denver (33%) Detroit has a season ticket base of 17,000 and 9,000 on a waiting list.