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Stop Burdening LGBT Athletes By Demanding Greatness

An ESPN panelist says Brewers minor leaguer David Denson, who came out on Saturday, "better be great" if he wants to make a difference


On ESPN’s Sunday morning roundtable talk show, The Sports Reporters, four distinguished journalists devoted three minutes to the case of David Denson, a minor-league baseball player for the Helena Brewers, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Single-A affiliate, who came out last week as gay. The question up for debate: Will Denson’s announcement make it any easier for more athletes to come out, and will it change how fans treat the LGBT community at large? 

Mike Lupica, of the New York Daily News, was skeptical.

"David Denson's life just got a lot harder," he said. "It got braver, and he is now not leading a closeted life. But the idea that everything opened up in the world because of Jason Collins and Michael Sam ...  I believe it is an outrageous lie. I think that way too many people in professional sports and in the culture of the locker room are as closed-minded on this subject as any politician who has opposed same-sex marriage. I've said this for a long time: Here's how we're going to check what everybody really thinks about this in sports—when it turns out to be a star quarterback who comes out as gay. When it turns out to be a star NBA player, or a home run hitter in baseball, then we're going to find out."

He later concluded: "Everybody in sports thinks this an equal opportunity thing. It's not. David Denson better not just be good, he better be great."

It may be true that, as Mitch Albom says, "It's going to take someone who's hitting .350 and 40 home runs in a season." But Lupica's notion that Denson had "better be great" is a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old who was picked in the 15th round of the 2013 draft. Failing to become a bona fide star does not diminish the impact of Denson’s announcement, a first for an active ballplayer in the Major League Baseball system. Jason Collins retired last year after a long NBA career, and Michael Sam's brief career came to a halt when he tweeted last week that he would "step away" from football. Neither player is destined for their sport's respective halls of fame, but their decisions made it that much easier for Denson.

Denson's decision, in turn, opens up possibilities for others. It may inspire a major leaguer to come out; or it may stop a gay middle schooler from quitting a sport he loves, now that he can see a future for him in the pros—to be accepted in the locker room for who he is. Asking any more of him—asking more of any of the athletes who have come out—is unreasonable. Denson might never hit 40 home runs in a season, but All-Star slugger Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewer has. "It's a very courageous move on his part to be the first one," Braun said of Denson. "Hopefully, everybody is at a point where we can just be supportive, not just understanding, but accepting and supportive of him and his situation." That's far more meaningful than whatever Denson does in his next at bat.