Story and photos by MATT ELLIS
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In September 2012, Jamie Kuntz was kicked off of the North Dakota State football team after he was seen kissing his boyfriend.
When former NBA center John Amaechi came out as being gay in 2007, he was met with harsh words from the public and former NBA players alike.
Though current athletes, when asked, profess to support gay people and their right to participate in sports, the facts have shown that homosexuality in athletics is an issue that is far from being resolved for both players and fans.
Kuntz was sidelined with an injury when his team took the field against Snow College over Labor Day weekend and was filming the game from the press box. A teammate saw Kuntz kiss his 65-year-old boyfriend and told coaches, who confronted him on the bus ride home.
According to Kuntz, he initially lied about the situation, saying the man was his grandfather. He later felt guilty about deceiving his coaches and told the truth. He was officially kicked off the team for lying, not for being gay, even though there is no record of a player being disciplined in such a way for being dishonest.
In an interview with ESPN, Kuntz pointed out that if it had been an older woman with him in the press box he probably would have been congratulated by his teammates.
So if Kuntz had not lied in the beginning, would he still be on the football team? Was the lie simply an excuse to get an openly gay man off the North Dakota State football team?
An individual involved with the athletic department at Weber State University, who asked that his name not be used, offered his opinion.
“Obviously I’m not familiar with their policies or how they run their program, but it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the athlete not told a lie,” he said. “It sounds to me like an excuse to basically ostracize an openly gay athlete, but we can never know for sure.”
He added that he thought most of the American public would probably say that they support gay peoples’ right to participate in athletics but that “when the rubber meets the road,” few of them would support what they said with their actions.
Several surveys done by different news outlets would seem to support this theory.
In a survey done by NBC/USA Network of 979 randomly-selected people, 86 percent of those surveyed disagreed with the statement, “openly gay athletes should be excluded from playing team sports,” and 61 percent agreed that “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.”
But in the same survey, 68 percent of those surveyed agreed that “it would hurt an athlete’s career to be openly gay.”
A student-athlete at the University of Utah, who also asked not to be named, thinks it has to do with the common stereotype of the gay man.
“A lot of people think of a gay guy as really feminine or almost dainty-like,” he said. “Most men in sports don’t really fit that description, so it’s like an inconsistency that’s maybe hard to wrap their mind around.”
He said there was an athlete in his high school who was openly gay, and that didn’t sit well with a lot of people who shared the same locker room.
Many people feared they might attract unwanted attention from the gay teammate during private activities, the athlete said.
“It was weird to be in the same locker room or in the same shower situation with someone of your same gender who might be interested in you sexually,” he said. “I know there were guys who complained to coaches and stuff to do something about it.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tim Hardaway in 2007 when he learned that John Amaechi had come out to the public.
On Miami sports radio station WAXY-AM, Hardaway insisted that he would never want a gay man to play on the same team. If it were to happen, he said he would actively distance himself from that individual because he didn’t think it right that they share the same locker room.
Lebron James, also in reaction to Amaechi’s announcement, said in an interview with ESPN that having gay teammates would be an issue of trust. If a gay athlete hasn’t come out to his teammates, then he isn’t being completely honest and, according to James, can’t be counted as trustworthy.
But if that athlete were to come out, according to James’ reasoning, they should be fully accepted by both coaches and team members.
History has shown that it isn’t always that easy.
Glenn Burke was an outfielder in the MLB for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics during the late 1970s. Though the general public wouldn’t know of his sexual orientation until years later, he discreetly came out to his teammates and was met with hostility.
The abuse, both verbal and physical, eventually forced him to retire from baseball after only three years in the majors, which Burke later said was much earlier than he would have liked.
A European soccer player named Justin Fashanu also came out during his playing career. He was, at one time, one of the premier footballers in England andwas the first black man to command a £1 million signing fee.
After coming out he faced homophobic slurs from teammates, fans and even his own manager, which many point to as the reason his performance dropped off toward the end of his career.
As a black man he faced racist remarks on a regular basis, according to Peter Tatchell, a British human rights campaigner. But it was the homophobic variety which many, including Tatchell, say were the ones that got to him.
In 1998, amid allegations of sexual assault, Fashanu took his own life.
Michael Star, who does a weekly political podcast out of Rochester Hills, Mich., regularly speaks on LGBT issues with guests, both political and non-political. He said it is a part of who we are to resist changes in what we perceive as normal.
“Humans naturally want to believe that what we are doing is right,” Star said. “We sort of have an inclination to subjugate those who do things differently because we want to think that our way is the best way. So even though the individual may want to be quote-unquote ‘progressive,’ it’s a slow process because you’re almost going against human nature.”
As many have done before, Star compared the gay athletes’ situation to that of African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement. He believes that change is coming, but that it takes time for the masses to accept the transformation.
In the meantime, gay athletes’ fear of being in the open will persist.
“These athletes have a legitimate fear that life as they know it will change,” the WSU athletics representative said. “When you come out, you’re putting a target on your back that’s impossible to hide. It’s there for everyone to see.”