CHARLOTTE, N.C. – One big aftereffect of NBA player Jason Collins’ announcement on Monday that he is gay – becoming the first current athlete in a major American team sport has come out publicly – is that it’s sparked discussions as to how athletes in other sports would react to a fellow player making a similar declaration. Even in golf. Even on the PGA Tour. Even in an idling courtesy car of a major champion who felt the need to expand upon earlier statements.
There has never been an openly gay PGA Tour member, which raises the question about the potential reaction.
Upon arriving at Quail Hollow Club on Tuesday, the first player I saw was Webb Simpson – and I asked him that question. It was part of his pre-tournament interview session with the media, admittedly mixed awkwardly among questions about the state of the Quail Hollow greens, his upcoming U.S. Open title defense and playing a home game here this week.
Still, the 27-year-old pro handled the query with all the deftness of an uphill 3-foot putt.
“I hope they would respond in a respectful way,” he said. “We've got a lot of personalities out on Tour, so I know if it happened, I would hope that everyone would not do anything to make the person feel bad or to put them down. That's the way I think of our Tour. Our Tour is a place where guys know each other and see each other every week. It's different than the NBA. You've got your one small team, but the Tour is kind of like a big family.”
Maybe that was the expected response, but it was also thoughtful and sincere.
The surprising part came 15 minutes later. My cellphone buzzed and it was Simpson, who wanted to further discuss the issue. This wasn’t an instance of a player attempting to retract his comments or more clearly define his point of view. He just wanted the forum to expand on his thoughts about how such a revelation would be received on golf’s highest level.
So we ducked into his courtesy car and Simpson began expanding.
“If you asked every player, you’d have a few different responses,” he said. “I think there would be guys who just wouldn’t care one way or the other. They wouldn’t want to talk about it, wouldn’t want to go there; it’s a non-issue to them.
“I think there would be a group who would applaud it. They would see courage in them coming out and be proud of them.
“And I think you’d have another camp that would be against it. Whether it’s their beliefs or values they’ve grown up with, I think you’d have a camp that would be against it, as well.”
True to his words, when some of his peers were questioned on the same topic – not for their personal thoughts about one of their own coming out on Tour, but as part of the general consensus – few offered no comment, few declined to speculate on what is for now a hypothetical situation and others felt indifferent toward the issue.
“I don’t think it would be a problem,” Bo Van Pelt stated. “To each his own. It doesn’t really have any effect on my life, so I don’t see what the problem would be. It’s the evolution of the time that we’re in. I think we’re going to get to the point pretty soon where you don’t even have to talk about stuff like this.”
It’s been nine years since 13-time LPGA champion Rosie Jones wrote a New York Times article announcing she is gay. This was just prior to the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, and Jones remembers receiving enormous amounts of support from the LPGA, its players, sponsors and fans.
She believes that such a disclosure by a male player on the highest circuit may not be afforded the same luxuries.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there are a couple of gay guys on the PGA Tour,” Jones speculated. “I don’t know if there are any, but there probably are. … As far as the sexuality goes, I think it’s harder there because guys scrutinize that a lot more. I think it would be really hard.”
Even so, she thinks it wouldn’t be as difficult as the announcement Collins made earlier this week.
“I think it would probably be easier for someone to come out on the PGA Tour than a team sport,” Jones added. “You run the show. You only answer to yourself. That’s really important for something like this. You have to make yourself happy. There are a lot of people who feel better in their skin, like I do, if they’re open with themselves and their lives, if they’re not trying to protect anything. That becomes really hard.”
There would undoubtedly be a different set of hurdles for an openly gay PGA Tour player to climb than there was for Jones or Collins or anyone else, for that matter. Each case is specific unto itself.
Then again, as Simpson succinctly said of the potential scenario before driving away, “Really, it’s just like any other profession.”