Monday, June 4, 2012

Gays in Sports: A Decade Later

-- by Matt Hurst

I realized early in my journalism career that game recaps and cheery feature stories weren't the best way to build up my clips package. As I aimed to work at bigger newspapers, I had to tackle bigger issues. Therefore, I had to write bigger stories that would challenge my writing, my reporting and my comfort level asking tough questions.

My first job out of college found me working at a small paper - the Vallejo Times-Herald - and allowed me to work on these aspects whereas if I had started as an intern at, say, the Los Angeles Daily News, I wouldn't have been allowed to explore these stories, let alone ask any editors for their approval when I pitched them.

My sports editor at the 25,000 circulation looked at me sideways when I mentioned my idea: a story about why the public did not know any homosexual athletes in major professional team sports.

"You sure you want to do that?" he said.

I nodded. It wasn't just for my clips. It was a story I wanted to dig in to.

(Tangent: It's a story I'm still interested in as Josh and I discussed in our latest podcast. I find it fascinating that as a population, we are worried about homosexuals and that our backwards American values prevent the majority of the population from accepting it. As some comedian once said "If gays want to get married, let them. They can miserable just like every other married couple." I also chuckle at the thought that Mike Piazza held a news conference to tell everyone he was not gay.)


It was the back story that interested me the most.

As the Editor-in-Chief of a left-thinking college newspaper at a left-thinking university (are there any right-thinking universities?) I was faced with overseeing almost-daily social acts from various groups around campus. I had gotten to know Harley Augustino on a somewhat friendly basis because he always seemed to be involved in every active party.

He was marching with gays. He was protesting an Oliver North appearance. Despite being white, he was out front with several ethnic groups.

I learned, from a mutual friend, that Harley was an exceptional athlete in high school. I was pretty good myself, but not good enough to play in college. Yet, I played in a weekly baseball league that would include our university's Division I players during the summer, as well as any local D-I guys who returned home. It wasn't your typical beer league, let's put it that way.

One day, Harley asked me about it and I told him we needed another player, specifically a pitcher. He said he could pitch a little.

What a liar.

He fired bullets to me all day. His curveball was so devastating I had trouble catching it. We won in a romp and Harley befuddled the other team all day. He was the best pitcher I ever caught and I was glad I didn't have to face him.

I knew not to ask him about why he wasn't pitching for UC Santa Barbara. Our mutual friend had already told me why.

Harley didn't play because of the atmosphere around baseball locker rooms.


When I worked on the story in the winter of 2002, Harley was the last person I called.

I wanted to get as much information as possible from everyone else before I called him. I spoke with Vallejo-area high school coaches and athletes and the coup de grace - in my mind - was when I spoke with Andre Carter of the San Francisco 49ers and Lincoln Kennedy of the Oakland Raiders. Both were completely honest and Carter basically said what people do behind closed doors doesn't bother him while Kennedy said it wouldn't work for homosexuals to come out since there was too much homophobia "across the league."

I can't believe, how in 2002, a lot of people were saying the same things they are now saying a decade later. It's incredible to think there has been no change on this front, yet so many other things have happened (the Internet explosion, social media, a black President, the Red Sox winning two World Series).

It was Harley's interview that really helped the story. He was happy to speak about it openly, on the record, and didn't pull punches. It was exactly how he was when I knew him at UCSB. And, it was his final quote in my story that I still think about whenever this subject arises.

"I think you have a lot of closeted players out there, who either love the game so much they are willing to put up with it and lead a double life, which is taxing for people. There are a lot of athletes who don't go in that direction because of that.

"Maybe because of homophobia we are losing some great athletes."

To read the entire story I wrote 10 years ago, it follows after the jump

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