Last Wednesday, University of Massachusetts sophomore Derrick Gordon made national headlines when he told ESPN he was gay. Following the footsteps of the NBA’s Jason Collins and former University of Missouri linebacker Michael Sam, Gordon joined a small group of athletes serving as modern pioneers of American sport.
With the news came instant fame. Gordon started all 33 games for the Minutemen in 2013-14, but the 22-year-old gained more recognition with a few spoken words Wednesday than he likely ever will on a basketball court.
Like his predecessors, Gordon sat in front of cameras for hours to answer questions about, of all things, his sexuality. Never mind the 9.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and two assists per game Gordon contributed for U.Mass. as a sophomore, the media wanted to hear more about his insecurities in the locker room.
For the man himself, the decision to come out was a polarizing one. As Gordon addressed the thousand-pound gorilla in the room, a decision he since said has been a relief, he knowingly accepted the fact he would inevitably be viewed in a different light.
To many, Gordon is now a role model demonstrating remarkable courage. He is helping pave the way for future athletes across the globe to embrace their individuality. But at a time when hatred and bigotry remain unavoidable, some will shamefully see Gordon’s name as synonymous with sickening stereotypes.
Gordon is no longer simply a basketball player. For the rest of his career, whether he likes it or not, he will answer questions about a subject that has absolutely no relevance to basketball because he elected to be one of the first to promote change.
The good news is that announcements like this will have at least helped America begin a gradual acclimation process during the last 12 months. And we can already see some progress.
When Collins headlined Sports Illustrated last year as the first openly gay athlete in American professional sports, the spotlight shined for weeks. The attention Sam received following his February announcement was slightly more subtle, but questions regarding his toughness inevitably surfaced heading into the NFL combine.
Two months later, we are beginning to see less scrutiny and fewer headlines. The media ran with Gordon’s story last week because he was another ‘first’ — another name in a constantly expanding list of trend-breaking athletes to come out as gay in their respective sports.
The general hope is that, with each additional first, the attention wanes a little more. Collins, Sam, Gordon and others are facing the circus now so that others in the future won’t have to.
Their actions would inarguably be chastised as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, when the thought of gay athletes in professional sports was virtually nonexistent. It’s sad to accept that America, a nation built on the foundation of freedom, is still not entirely accepting of openly gay athletes in 2014. But as we struggle to reshape our public perception today, let us be reminded of how far we have come.
You could say we are stuck in an awkward middle ground where, as our nation endures the process of comprehensive change, all of our athletes will be indirectly labeled and inevitably associated with their sexual orientation.
For now, being a gay athlete still matters only because it is still making headlines. Newspapers and TV stations will continue to follow athletes like Gordon until we return to a state where sexual preference is once again irrelevant in the locker room.
We’re not going to come full-circle over night. In fact, it could take decades before this country fully recognizes that being gay isn’t newsworthy.
When that day comes, we will have athletes like Gordon to thank for opening up his life to the masses and for bearing the brutality of the media’s microscope. But right now let’s appreciate the irony. Because by becoming college basketball’s first openly gay player, perhaps Gordon’s impact can best be measured in the attention he isn’t receiving.