There is a perennial discussion, given the relatively high percentage of people who are gay and that they are, in Jon Stewart’s phrasing, “a gym-going people,” why there are so incredibly few openly gay professional athletes, especially among men’s sports. Andrew, for instance, had an on-going thread on the subject not too long ago.
One hypothesis often floated is that gay guys are congenitally averse sports, but I do not necessarily find it persuasive. As stated earlier, they do not seem less likely to be athletic, nor is there any evidence to suggest that they are significantly less competitive than their peers.
But not all sports have equivalently large fanbases and it could be that gay males might simply tend towards less spectator-friendly sports. Assuming the 100 or so subjects of the Fearless photo series (a collection of gay male and female student athletes) offer a representative sample of the gay athlete population, there is some evidence to suggest that this might be the case. There is a large bias amongst the gay male sample towards individual sports that test endurance/strength (running, rowing, swimming, skiing, etc.) and away from team-based sports that attract the most spectators (football, baseball, soccer, etc.), while female gay athletes had a much more even split between the two types of sports (81%/19% vs. 45%/54%).*
To correct for the possibility that this might merely reflect a differential in the number of slots available to student athletes, I also looked at the breakdown of the rosters of varsity sports at two different schools (Bowdoin and Georgetown).** Interestingly, both schools across both genders demonstrated nearly the exact same 4-to-5 ratio observed earlier in the female Fearless sample, leaving the gay male sample a significant outlier (p<0.005, Pearson chi squared, df = 1). I have no idea why this might be the case, but it definitely warrants further investigation with an actual study.
But even if you assume that gay guys are three or four times less likely to participate in spectator sports, it still cannot account for the dearth of out athletes. For instance, there are roughly 1700 players in the NFL during the regular season. Assuming about 5% of the male population is gay (conditioned down to a roughly 1.5% chance an NFL player is gay, given the above estimated aversion), that still means one would expect roughly 25 players in the league would be gay (resulting in a little fewer than one per team).
A much more decisive factor, at least in my mind, is the dynamic outlined by the article Andrew initially cited:
The average NFL career lasts 3.2 years; baseball, basketball, and hockey between four and five. There are only 3,436 jobs available, with millions of potential applicants. In such a fiercely competitive industry, the last thing anyone wants to do is give any employer, no matter how open-minded he might believe him to be, a reason not to give him a chance. “If athletes could play until they were 65, they would not be in the closet their entire life, because people do not want to be closeted forever,” Buzinski says. “There is this feeling that I can compartmentalize this now and when I am out of my career, I can deal with it then.”
It is incredibly likely that any gay guys in, say, the NFL are not amongst the 100 players that people know by name but the 1600 or so players whose names you can hear color commentators reading aloud for the first time when they happen into doing something notable. This is not necessarily due to any inborn deficiency on their part but because it is incredibly likely that any randomly chosen player is amongst that 1600 as well. The recent NBA lockout has brought to light the precarious finances of many pro athletes, especially those in the lower rungs. It seems entirely understandable for someone who is not a superstar, some one who feels lucky to have made it pro at all, to prefer to avoid calling attention to himself. They can keep a low profile playing anonymously in the big leagues for a year or two and then get on with their lives once nobody cares anymore. As admirable as it is to say, “I don’t care if he is gay; I care if he can win,” it does mean that the first couple openly gay pro athletes will have to be both exceptionally gifted and willing to out themselves, a much less common proposition. And that’s why I suspect there are so few openly gay professional athletes.
*If anything, this sample overrepresents the actual relative proportions, as over a third of the team-based male athletes participate in water polo, which does not have a major professional presence.
**Another fun fact: despite being half its size and a D3 school, Bowdoin has a greater absolute number of varsity athletes than Georgetown.