After Missouri defensive end Michael Sam told the public what he told his teammates before last season, America's four major professional sports are closer than ever to having their first openly gay athlete.
The story first worked its way through the machinations of the NFL's super-conservative (in terms of risk-avoidance, not politics) coverage. For instance, SI.com gave the NFL an incredible amount of cover by writing not one, but two analysis pieces based entirely on anonymous sources, and for this reason:
The executives and coaches were granted anonymity by SI.com for their honesty.
The sources in that story all panned Sam's stock, so you can understand why they wouldn't want to be named. But hell, Peter King found a GM who said, "Aren’t we beyond this?" and even he didn't want to go on the record.
That gave Ken Rosenthal an idea, and so he went to seven MLB executives to ask if they were ready if a baseball equivalent to Sam. All seven of them went on the record to say they would have no issue selecting an openly gay player.
That's great, if a little too tidy, because they haven't yet been confronted with reality, and Rosenthal would be far more likely to find dissenting voices if they could mask their own identities. For the first openly gay player(s) who try to navigate the system, it may not feel like everybody's ready for him or them. It's probably more accurate to say baseball's as ready as it's going to be.
Kenny Williams participated in the survey, and while he gave Rosenthal a "yes," he also gave his answer the most nuance:
Chicago White Sox president Ken Williams, who previously was the first African-American general manager in Chicago sports history, said that if a team is unwilling to offer its full backing to an openly gay player, then it should not acquire him.
"Are you, as a leader of your organization, prepared to provide the young man the public and private support he will need along with controlling, to the extent you can, what the behavior is in the clubhouse/locker room?" Williams asked.
"If the answer is yes, then you have an opportunity to use what some see as a distraction and use it as an individual and team character-building opportunity along the lines of what Branch Rickey did for Jackie Robinson.
"If the answer is no, then it is unfair to select him because like it or not, this will be a daily media/fan event and will need to be managed to keep everyone's focus on the job at hand."
When Williams says "daily media/fan event," I wonder if the nature of baseball news cycles would work in its favor. Once the regular season starts, there's a game just about every day, and most players are available every day. The player and team would probably get the visiting reporters wanting their own updates, but otherwise, the clubhouse and the media develops a rhythm and routine, and the game makes its own headline six days a week.
The biggest struggle would probably the individual nature of the game, because there's no system to blend into, no facemasks to wear, and not nearly as much distance from the crowd. Successes and failures are easily quantified, and depending on his position (think corner outfielder), he's a captive audience for an hour or more every day.
Then again, perhaps the game's one-on-one battles make it easier to filter out nonsense, because the tasks at hand demand all the focus. What one player might see as a microscope, another guy might see as a respite, so it's impossible to project an outcome with any degree of confidence. Especially when you then have to factor in the natural vagaries of baseball that mess with every player.
Still, while there's no way to know what the first openly gay player would face, it does seem like the league and society are better equipped to handle it than ever before. It's nice to know the White Sox think they're up to the task whenever the opportunity presents itself.