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By Eddie Robinson
It’ll be an NFL sports fan’s dream on the first Sunday in February—especially if you’re a lover of both professional football and mixed martial arts like I am!
So perhaps I’m not alone in wishing that Super Bowl 51 could feature our very own Houston Texans, right? Imagine that: the Texans playing right in their own back yard for the Super Bowl!
Of course, we’d have to start praying for quarterback Brock Osweiler to somehow channel the skill sets of former teammate Peyton Manning, and figure out a way to calm our offense down when they’re in the red zone and just inches away from scoring a touchdown. And we’ll certainly need to channel the entire city’s spiritual consciousness to conduct a healing séance to resuscitate our defensive hero, #99 J.J. Watt, and so many other players from their injuries! Please, Jadeveon Clowney, be disruptive on the D-line, but stay healthy!
Well, since none of that will happen and Texans fans will be hating on whichever team beats us in our quest for the Big Game, at least Houstonians who are mixed martial-arts fans will have a reason to celebrate on Super Bowl weekend as the Ultimate Fighting Championship—MMA’s biggest promotion—also heads to the Bayou City!
Yup, just a few miles away from NRG Stadium, the Toyota Center will be lit up like crazy to host UFC Fight Night 104—an intense battle card that will feature MMA veteran Chan Sung Jung (better known as “The Korean Zombie”) with featherweight contender Dennis Bermudez in his very first bout since finishing up two years of military service.
So as you can tell, I’m definitely a big sports fan here in Houston. Whether you’re gay, straight, bisexual, or trans, if you’re a fan, you can always find some sort of connection through an exciting dialogue, a wild debate, or some other social interaction with other energetic sports fans.
I played rugby for the Gotham Knights Rugby Football Club, a gay/inclusive rugby club in New York City. And since I played football from pee-wee to varsity high school, coming together in dialogue with like-minded friends, active competitors, and even former teammates is always something I look forward to as a guy who is in to sports. I found it especially rewarding while being a part of the Gotham club because of the fact that it was a gay organization where straight, gay, and bisexual men competed. I somehow connected better within that environment of men where no one had to hide or feel shamed by anti-gay comments.
In connecting with other gay sports fans, I also notice an intuitive, unspoken kinship that secretly connects us without even having to say a word about it—even though we may have been bullied or discriminated against, or personally struggled with questions about our sexuality.
I’m also proud to say that I initiated the first-ever national gay talk-radio sports show in the country. In April of 2014, The OutField was launched as a two-hour live weekly broadcast that aired for two years on SiriusXM’s OutQ.
The show allowed gay sports fans the opportunity to vent and debate in their own space, without feeling criticized, intimidated, or ostracized by typical sports-talk callers—especially if a slip of the tongue mentioned the “tight end” of Dallas Cowboys’ tight-end Jason Witten, or if a fan wanted to give props to soccer trailblazer Robbie Rogers for writing a book about coming out as an athlete. All kinds of guests appeared on the show—coaches, players, and sports analysts, including Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, WWE’s Darren Young, and HBO Real Sports correspondent David Scott. We even spoke to J.J. Watt’s mom during a special Mother’s Day broadcast!
I created the show to help challenge the stereotypes of what it meant to be a man who just happened to be gay by offering up discussions and conversations about masculinity, and why we treated sports as an escapade in the first place. It was a platform that didn’t criticize or make fun of the effeminate qualities that society has defined a “gay” man to be. Rather, the show lifted up and analyzed unique LGBT qualities through interesting, intellectual, and authentic exchanges.
As I hosted The OutField from Wire Road Studios in the Heights, as well as Soundworks Studio out in northwest Houston, I started noticing that the show served as a conduit of support. It provided a platform where like-minded sports fans across the country, regardless of their orientation, felt comfortable calling in and expressing their views on whatever sports topic we’d be covering at the time. For instance, The OutField not only celebrated a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game the previous night, but also acknowledged a 12-year-old Philly-area lacrosse player who had just come out to his friends and was driven to contemplate suicide before he found inspiration in the words of a professional lacrosse player.
But then SiriusXM pulled the plug on the OutQ channel in February of 2016. Looking back at it all, I’ve always wondered how The OutField would have fared if it were presented within the mainstream sports-media environment where both gay and straight sports fans actually co-exist.
The OutField did receive calls from all over the country—and both gay and bisexual sports fans were certainly represented through calls and tweets. But during the course of the show, the only “hetero” voices we’d seem to hear from were those of our own guests.
You see, with the show airing on OutQ (and lacking a digital/social-media budget), it proved to be a real challenge for me to gauge the actual level of interest within the LGBT sporting community. Keep in mind (and with all due respect to OutQ’s other programming), OutQ was a narrowly programmed channel that primarily catered to a predominantly gay niche following—a channel that was more widely known for talk centered around celebrity/red-carpet fashions, quirky rumor-mill gossip, poppy entertainment news, and unique musical tastes. So imagine, if you will, a hardcore sports village that was nestled (and almost hidden) inside that kaleidoscopic world. The show was attempting to connect with LGBT sports fans outside of a mainstream sports environment.
When I addressed these concerns to sports executives at SiriusXM prior to the launch of the show (in hopes of moving The OutField to a Sirius sports channel), I was told that nongay audiences simply aren’t ready to embrace an LGBT show in a mainstream sports environment. Their comments reminded me of how today’s professional sports landscape views gay male athletes—especially those within contact (team) sports.
Perhaps today’s professional sports environment is just not ready to embrace an openly gay male in popular North American team sports like hockey, baseball, basketball, and football—and we still lack an active, openly gay male athlete.
We were almost there with Michael Sam back in 2014, but he retired from football because of mental-health issues. And former NBA player Jason Collins quickly retired after he briefly stepped up to the rim, signing two 10-day contracts with the Brooklyn Nets after coming out as gay.
Former Vikings kicker and LGBT ally Chris Kluwe, along with a host of other activists, helped usher in same-sex marriage for the state of Minnesota, only to be ousted from the Vikings team months later.
And in the world of MMA, the UFC refused to even consider giving transgender mixed martial artist Fallon Fox a role in its women’s division of fighters—claiming “once a man, always a man.” The 41-year-old Fox hasn’t fought in over two years.
So no wonder pro male athletes are fearful of taking that step out of the closet. They’re hearing the same words I heard from the SiriusXM executives: the world is just not quite there yet in embracing professional gay men in team contact sports.
If gay-male athletes really do exist in professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, then why won’t they come out? It’s funny that I asked this same question at an OutGames Conference Symposium in Montreal over a decade ago!
Across the country, countless inclusion programs have been initiated and developed by a host of gay and straight-ally groups and organizations who are all working to build stronger connections between the world of sports and the community as a whole.
In the absence of The OutField on Sirius-XM, I do believe that it’s important to foster an awareness of sports issues that impact our community. While working as a news anchor for Houston Public Media, I’ve reported on stories that examined controversial rules that exclude transgender athletes in Texas public schools, and I’ve also investigated how same-sex dating among teammates would impact athletic programs at colleges and universities nationwide.
Slowly but surely, that welcoming environment is being created and nurtured, and we’ve certainly come a long way compared to where the country was just a decade or two ago. But as with any sports team that pushes for a victory, we need support not only from fearless media personalities, but more importantly from the larger LGBT community and its allies—even those who are not sports fans.
I believe there still exists a level of fear among players in professional sports—fear of losing a paycheck, fear of how their lives will be impacted, and fear of actually becoming unemployable. That dynamic can also explain why certain media executives and major sports organizations hesitate to genuinely support LGBT-equality measures. They still fear a potential backlash from stakeholders and a loss of profit margins.
All of this reminds me of an old saying from well-known humanitarian and civil-rights activist Benjamin Mays: “Our greatest fears are often of things that do not happen.”
It might only take that one gay player in professional sports to cause the dam to break—or perhaps a new, interesting spinoff of a podcast show to take on the mainstream sports-talk format. Whatever the case may be, sports fans of all orientations spend millions of dollars each year funding these events nationwide.
There’s strength in numbers! So if you’re a gay sports fan, then speak up! Wear a Pride T-shirt. Post a supportive item about your team on Facebook. Tweet a supportive comment in your debate with an analyst in the media. Let others know that we love sports, too—and we just happen to be members of a large, multi-cultural community of diverse people who also love to cheer, dance, cry, argue, debate, and yell our hearts out in support of our favorite teams.
Eddie Robinson is a news anchor for Houston Public Media, and an avid sports fan.