Is the locker room ready for this? Not the NFL. The PGA Tour.
On Sunday night, Missouri linebacker and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam revaled he is gay, making him likely to become the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team.
Jason Collins became the first active, openly gay player in professional sports a year ago, making his announcement last April.
Both were groundbreaking moments of candor. Both hopefully will go a long way in making these kinds of BREAKING NEWS moments into non-events, like anything Terrell Owens does these days. But until every major sport's culture absorbs and embraces an openly gay player, that probably won't be the case. Baseball is likely next. Hockey not too far behind. NASCAR after that?
If you made me guess, the PGA Tour will be the last major male-driven sports league to have an openly gay player.
(Note a qualifier in my hypothesis: male-driven. There have been and are openly gay players on the LPGA Tour, including big names like Rosie Jones. For whatever reason, the culture of the LPGA seems much more welcoming of gay players. But that's a separate white paper.)
The PGA Tour may only rivaled by NASCAR for the percentage of its athletes and fans that lean hard to the right -- and that doesn't mean when they hook a drive. Golf is a conservative sport. But it has a mix of Republicans (some Democrats and, we'll call them, agnostics, too); after all, they shouldn't be lumped together and stereotyped. A pair of groups in this unique subculture could present problems for an openly gay player.
There are the Reagan Republicans -- the folks who believe in limited government, less spending and regulation, as well the Puritanical view that merely creating the opportunity to work hard is what will bring prosperity. These are the people that sponsor golf tournaments, write checks from the C-suites to endorse players. They're the guys who shell out six-figure initiation fees to join Top 100 private clubs. They're the rich people who want the government to get the hell out of their way.
Unless the first openly gay PGA Tour player is also the next Tiger Woods, this player will need the support of sponsors to augment their ascent up the world ranking and the money list. PGA Tour players rack up expenses traveling the world to play golf, and, while many make incredible money, those starting out need backers to get through that first season.
Sponsors underwrite players, especially at the start. They control the relationship. They dictate the terms of engagement. If a sponsor is uncomfortable endorsing a player who is openly gay -- for whatever reason, personal views, the perception that it will turn off customers -- then the deal will not be done. It's that simple.
A dominant, openly gay PGA Tour player might accelerate acceptance of homosexuals in male-dominated pro golf. The likelihood of that happening? As likely as Tiger is to get to 19 majors at this pace.
Then there's the locker room and the Republicans that vote with their faith more than their wallet. Homosexuality is a sin to many of them -- a conscious choice to a good chunk. (Who would make the conscious choice to be gay given that, in 2014, being a publicly gay athlete still makes headlines?) The makeup of a PGA Tour clubhouse is more likely to have a higher percentage of conservative Christians than the galleries following them around week to week.
Golf is an individual sport, but players don't compete alone. They compete together. They practice alongside one another. They see each other at lots of functions. Even a hermit couldn't avoid the social aspects of professional golf. It's inherent to the game.
If an openly gay player walked onto the driving range at a PGA Tour event, would they feel comfortable? Would they feel judging eyes staring at them? Would their breathren mock them, joke about them behind their back? To their face? If it was only a handful of their peers, would it matter less or at all?
If an openly gay player was announced at the first tee (or 10th), how would the fans react? Polite applause? Utter silence? How about their playing partners?
Earlier in his career, Tiger Woods intimidated playing partners with a stoic, unfriendly attitude. Players knew that was part of the experience of playing with Woods, however rare for them, and his professional aura. If an openly gay player had to deal with that every time they teed it up, however, how disheartening would that be?
A season ago, Golf Channel writer Jason Sobel posed the question to 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson of how an openly gay player might be treated. Simpson's initial response was a hopeful one; his expounded answer more exact.
“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.”
Enter Bubba Watson, who might well reflect the latter camp.
“I'm not saying I'm better than anybody else,” Watson said in Charlotte last May. “I'm not saying (Jason Collins is) wrong; I'm saying I love him. If he called me right now and said, 'Hey,' or any person that was gay called me, I'd go to dinner with them any time. It's just my belief system on the Bible says you can't be gay. That's a sin. So somebody living in sin I believe to be wrong.”
The size of those camps Simpson described -- or at least their perceived size -- might well dictate the day when a PGA Tour player reveals they are gay.
For so many people, golf is a haven. Often times, loners love the game. It's a chance to excel at a skill in almost complete anonymity. It can be done alone, all of it.
Escaping from a job or a life situation is an appeal of golf. Many prefer to escape with friends or family. I prefer to walk alone. It's a chance to concentrate on something else for a few hours or an opportunity to work out something with my life that needs the quiet only a golf course can provide.
It's not much a leap to imagine golf proves that for someone longing to live freely and openly regarding their sexual orientation. The big bucks and big mouths on the PGA Tour might keep someone from having it all: a clear conscious, a dream job and a handsome fortune. It is my hope that wouldn't be the case.