Boxing is the most macho of sports. It is violent, brutal and there are no friends inside the ring. There is no place to hide, no place to run, its mano a mano and until now it was no place for homosexuals.
Last week Orlando Cruz (18-2-1, 9 KOs) became the first openly gay boxer. Cruz is not just any boxer, he is a champion. He is a Latin gay boxer. If you know anything about boxing you know that is a mouthful.
The 31-year-old Puerto Rican fighter has been fighting since he was 7. The featherweight fought in the 2000 Olympics for Puerto Rico. Cruz said, "I don't want to hide any of my identities I want people to look at me for the human being that I am.”
Homosexuality is not allowed in contact sports. It exists but it is not allowed. There has never been an openly gay active athlete in the major contact sports – football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or boxing. Anton Hysen of Sweden, and David Testo of the U.S. are the only professional soccer players who are publicly out while still active, although Testo's contract with the Montreal Impact was not renewed at the end of 2011 after he came out.
Cruz’ announcement could be as significant a moment as there has ever been in the history of contact sports.
A gay man in a contact sport lives a complex life. Wade Davis is an ex-NFL player. He played five years in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans. He came out this year and granted an interview to discuss life as a gay man in the NFL. In his interview with Outsports, Davis said "I think subconsciously, I understood that being gay, the way I was raised, was wrong, and there was no way that my family, at least in my mind, would accept me. And also that my football family would [not] accept me, just because of the perception of being gay meant that you're less masculine. At never a point [during] my NFL playing career did I take advantage of the privilege that I had to see a man naked. I never even remotely got aroused in the locker room. You just want to be one of the guys, and you don’t want to lose that sense of family. Your biggest fear is that you’ll lose that camaraderie and family."
John Amaechi spent five seasons in the NBA, with Utah, Orlando and Cleveland. In 2007, three years after he retired, he became the first professional basketball player to openly identify himself as gay. At the time he was only the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major American sports (NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL) to publicly discuss his homosexuality. On life in the NBA as a gay man, Amaechi told ESPN, "It's a frightening prospect. It's terrifying. There are people for whom their entire world is based around this idea that people will look at them and when they look at them, they are NBA superstars, NBA players. And any change to that would be physiologically devastating. Emotionally devastating, financially devastating." Amaechi wrote about his experience in the best-selling, Man in the Middle.
Esera Tuaolo is 6' 3", 300 pound former NFL player who played for the Minnesota Vikings. He retired in 1999 because he couldn’t handle the pressure of living as a closeted gay man in the NFL. In an interview with Outsports he said he "never played up to his potential, primarily for fear that being a star would have raised his profile, brought more scrutiny and perhaps led to his being outed." Tualo, a Samoan born in Hawaii played nine years in the NFL. He was only the third NFL player to ever publicly say he's gay. During his playing career Tualo suffered from depression, loneliness, and thoughts of suicide.
The locker room can be a harsh cruel place for the gay athlete. Back in 2007, in an ESPN article Lebron James said, "With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy." In 2002, Sterling Sharpe, former Packer wide receiver, said of Tualo, "He would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it. Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday, Friday practices, he'd have never gotten to the other team. Birds of a feather flock together. Now, I got to answer questions that I'm normally not answering. Question my heart, question my ability. Do not question my macho-ism, so to speak, my sexuality." When Amaechi, came out former NBA All-star Tim Hardaway made the following comment, "First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would, you know, really distance myself from him because, uh, I don't think that's right. And you know I don't think he should be in the locker room while we're in the locker room. I wouldn't even be a part of that." ESPN said Hardaway was fired for his comments.
Thankfully most athletes say they would have no problem playing with an openly gay athlete. However it doesn’t help when athletes continue to be insensitive to the community and publicly ridicule gay people. In 2011, megastar Kobe Bryant of the NBA Los Angeles Lakers was fined $100,000 for getting caught on tape, during a nationally televised game mouthing the word gay slur "f***in faggot" at an NBA referee. Bryant later apologized for his inappropriate language. Yunel Escobar, the shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays, was suspended for three days for writing, "TU ERES MARICON" in black ink on his face. Whether it was a slur or something "lost in translation" as Julio Papon, founder of Latinosports.com wrote, it has no place in sports.
Cruz’ story is not the only one involving the cross section of the gay community and the sports pages that has become front page news. Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe stirred up a storm when they announced their support for gay marriage. The LA Times wrote that Ayanbadejo has written op-ed pieces and appeared in ads supporting gay marriage. A Maryland legislator took offense to Ayanbadejo’s public support and wrote a letter requesting the Raven’s owner to censor the player. Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti and NFL Players Assn. President Domonique Foxworth as well as several players have issued support for the players freedom of speech rights.
Until Cruz’ announcement people wondered openly if a gay athlete playing a contact sport would ever have the courage to be openly gay. Ian Carey at the Huffington Post wrote, "the fact that there is not one openly gay athlete in any of these leagues has led many to the conclusion that gay athletes in these sports are afraid of coming out." The Grio’s Edward Wyckoff Williams wrote, "Beyond potential homophobia is the fear that coming out will somehow affect a player’s popularity, endorsements and potential trade deals. And that’s not just for the individual player, but the team and the franchise as well."
But NBA owner Mark Cuban is optimistic. He says the "locker room" language has to be cleaned up, but he believes the climate is changing and within five years we will see professional basketball players out and proud. In fact Cuban believes that it would be advantageous if more gay athletes were to come out. He thinks it would be a big money earner.
In a Huffington Post article by Ian Carey, the multi-billionaire owner of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks said, "If you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out. Because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from marketing and an endorsement perspective. You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that'll put money in your pocket. On the flip side, if you're the idiot, who condemns somebody because they're gay, then you are going to be ostracized, you're going to be picketed and you're going to ruin whatever marketing endorsements you have."
LZ Granderson is a fiercely proud and openly gay sportswriter. You can see him frequently on television and he has a byline on ESPN. When Amaechi came out he was not impressed. He wrote in his column, "I am so over gay people. Specifically, John Amaechi. Not him personally, I hear he's a delightful guy, but gay people like him. When will somebody simply man up? That is, come out while he is still playing and finally demystify this whole gay athlete thing once and for all."
Mr. Granderson meet Orlando Cruz.
Orlando Cruz will now put Cuban’s thoughts to the test. His next match is on Oct. 19 in Kissimmee, Florida against Jorge Pazos when he will defend his WBO Latino featherweight crown. Time Magazine said "Cruz’s announcement came with the twin goals of being true to himself and being a better role model for young fans."