Scott Shafer, water polo competitor.
Scott Shafer, water polo competitor with the San Francisco Tsunami at a tournament in 2003. (Courtesy Brian Jackson)

As Missouri All-America defensive end Michael Sam underscored by coming out this week, sports is one of the last frontiers for gay rights.

In revealing his sexual orientation ahead of the NFL draft in May, Sam triggered a spate of speculation about whether professional athletes are ready for an openly gay teammate.

Given that I’m a gay member of a “straight-friendly” water polo team (the San Francisco Tsunami), the dynamics of having  gay and straight teammates are always a source of curiosity and entertainment to me.

We’re a coed adult masters team open to all skill levels, so talented former college players are often in the pool with less experienced players or even rank beginners (I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum).

Of course that’s nothing like the NFL, where the only acceptable thing is excelling at the highest level.

‘You guys are more fun’

The most experienced former college players on our team tend to be straight (although we have plenty of very skilled gay/lesbian players as well), and I’ve asked some of them why they play with us when they could play with other Bay Area master teams at a consistently higher level of play.

The answer is usually some version of “because you guys are more fun to play with than those teams.”

We love our straight teammates and we love to tease them. On the road at tournaments we drag them (and sometimes their girlfriends) to gay bars with us. When we raise money for the team at Gay Pride and Folsom Street Fair beer booths, everyone pitches in to pour beer. Inevitably, the straight ones get hit on by people who assume (or hope) they’re gay because they’re with us. But I can’t think of a single straight player who left because he was uncomfortable playing with gay teammates.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few bumps sometimes. One year at the Gay Games in Cologne, Germany, I was shocked to hear a straight teammate yell “faggot” at a referee who made a call he didn’t like. I turned around and shot him a look of disbelief.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it that way,” he stammered.

“There is no way to mean it that’s OK, especially at the Gay Games,” I said. Afterward we talked and he apologized, blaming his college fraternity, where that kind of language was acceptable.

No doubt that kind of language is also acceptable in some sports locker rooms. Of course the tone is set at the top levels of management. And hopefully the team that drafts Michael Sam will have a culture of respect. But he’ll no doubt need thick skin and a good sense of humor to go with his awesome football skills.


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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