The hope, of course, is that the next Kevin McClatchy won't have to feel the fear, won't have to hide the truth in an environment that still excludes. The goal, of course, is that there is no next Yunel Escobar to express the ignorance that still exists. We are a nation and, more specifically, a sporting culture that leans too far toward intolerance and erects too many barricades on the road to acceptance. Because for all the frank and, in many cases, healthy discussion about same-sex marriage or civil unions that are taking place, for all the gay and lesbian characters on prime-time TV, for all the "It Gets Better" public-service announcements being filmed, a societal stigma still, unmistakably, exists.
We are still a long, long way from a culture in which, by and large, the pursuit of your dreams is in no way undermined by your sexual orientation. And this is especially true in professional sports. That's why McClatchy, the former managing general partner and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Pirates, spent his entire Major League life in the closet. As related in Frank Bruni's New York Times piece published Saturday, McClatchy, who stepped down from his Pirates post in 2007, felt that he could not be open about his sexuality and still preside over a professional sports franchise. In his eyes, those two elements of his life had to remain mutually exclusive. And so, for 11 years, he lived with a secret that he was convinced could jeopardize his professional existence. "I think I was more paranoid, for sure, about people," he told Bruni. "And suspicious, definitely. And angry." Somewhere, on some roster, in some organization exists a current professional ballplayer who knows the feeling. More likely, given estimates that 10 percent of people are gay or lesbian, many players know the feeling. As McClatchy is quick to note, not one active player in Major League Baseball, in the National Football League, in the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League has come out as gay. And the reason why is probably best articulated by those who have come out after the conclusion of their career, like former Major League outfielder Billy Bean. "It's so hard to achieve your dreams at that level," Bean told Bruni, "and you realize how precious and how amazing it is and how short a time you have to fulfill your dream." We can only surmise that closeted gay athletes stay in that closet because of the perception that revealing their sexuality would somehow distract -- perhaps through the bigotry endured inside and outside the clubhouse or perhaps just through the sheer volume of interest and attention -- from the fulfillment of that dream. And until further notice, until an openly gay athlete survives and thrives in one of the major American sports without prejudice or ugly rancor, that perception is reality. Progress has been made, and this progress shouldn't be ignored. When Escobar, the Blue Jays' shortstop, wrote a gay slur on his eye black, his swift suspension was applauded, and we all seemed to agree that such idiocy -- be it from Escobar or John Rocker or Ozzie Guillen or anybody else -- ought not be tolerated in any environment and especially not in a supposed social institution such as baseball. MLB has lent its support for the "It Gets Better" project, which seeks to remind young LGBT people that a more tolerant world awaits, if they can just get through their teen years. And we've seen a number of prominent athletes take stands against even the most subtle forms of homophobia (such as A's ace Brandon McCarthy denouncing the oft-employed ballpark tactic of putting two guys on "Kiss Cam" for supposed comic relief). These are positive developments, sure. But frankly, in 2012, tolerance of another person's race, color, creed or sexual identity ought to be second nature, ought to be easy. What can't be easy is being gay in an environment in which you feel your sexual orientation must be kept a secret if you are to have any chance to succeed. This is an area in which professional sports and society at large are still lagging. MLB is rightly proud of its role in advancing the civil rights movement. Jackie Robinson broke the big league color barrier while segregation was still in place in the American armed forces and public schools. Here's hoping a new, profound pride can be created by further fostering environments in which players, owners and front-office types alike are evaluated only on their skills, their work ethic, their character and not their sexuality. Here's hoping the next Kevin McClatchy doesn't have to live in fear, in anger or in secrecy.