profit motives

Shouldn’t Gay Athletes Have a Right to Cash In By Coming Out?

If it’s true that gay footballers stand to pocket $150,000 by coming out, should they be criticized for jumping at the offer?

Jason Akermanis (pictured), the Aussie footballer player who’s been recommending gay athletes stay in the closet because other players might have a problem, insists he knows two players that have each been offered 150 large to come out.

The claim has Eddie McGuire, chief of the Australian Football League’s Collingwood Football Club, on the defensive. While McGuire says he’d love for athletes to come out, doing so just for “marketing” or media attention would be the wrong reasons.

Unclear, of course, is the party actually making these grand cash offers, but it raises a decent question: Should closeted athletes profit financially from coming out?

To which I say: Why not? With a few caveats.

There’s no reason a gay athlete shouldn’t be able to pull a Chely Wright and turn a coming out story into a profitable exercise. After all, trading in on the secret you’ve felt forced to keep only sounds right in a capitalist society. The same culture that’s taught you to hide your sexuality is now the culture that’ll be willing to pay for it.

For now, coming out has its risks for active pro athletes. While there are fantastic coming out tales like Gareth Thomas’, even he has to deal with public scrutiny, both on and off the field. And then there’s the real financial factor, like possibly seeing your team not renew your contract, or witnessing your sponsors suddenly short on cash and looking to endorse another (straight and more market-friendly) player. Getting paid for your “I’m gay” story, then, acts as an insurance policy against the very real possibility of losing income.

And then there’s the other, moral-y side to this equation, which suggests human beings shouldn’t turn their cultural characteristics into bankable traits. Sure, Focus on the Family nugget Tim Tebow has undoubtedly secured deals because he’s so family-friendly and religious (he paints Bible passages into his under-eye smears), but should we be out there encouraging black or Asian-American athletes to trade on their ethnicity? Do we draw the line at immutable characteristics like sexuality? And is getting paid to come out really a transaction about sexuality, or secrets?

If we want to encourage more athletes in all levels of play to come out, we also have to be sensitive to what these athletes risk by publicly acknowledging their sexuality. There’s a reason Johnny Weir earns less money than Evan Lysacek, and it’s not all to do with gold medals. While out Aussie diver Matthew Mitcham has some decent endorsements, he’d never come close to Michael Phelps’ marketability even if he did win another 10 Olympics medals. And while a LeBron James-type might keep his Nike endorsements after coming out, his masculinity (which is tied directly to his ability to move product) will come into question and hurt future deals. None of these scenarios would be true in a perfect world, but I, at least, don’t live in one.

Of course we should all be fighting the notion that out gay athletes can’t be fantastic salespeople. But until the markets have been tested, I’m just fine with players securing sums for their coming out stories, “just in case.” What’s more, I’ll argue that the idea someone wants to pay to hear a gay person’s life story is a good thing — and one we should support.