Kevin McClatchy’s bold step could open doors

COMMENTARY: Former Pirates owner reveals he’s gay; will sports world follow his lead?

The New York TimesSeptember 23, 2012 

LIGONIER, Pa. – The way Kevin McClatchy figured it, he had to choose. He could indulge his dream of presiding over a big-time professional sports team, or he could be open about his sexuality. The two paths didn’t dovetail.

He went with sports, and in February 1996, at the age of 33, became the youngest owner in big league baseball when he led a group of investors who bought the Pittsburgh Pirates. For the next 11 years, he was the team’s managing general partner and chief executive, not to mention its public face. And for all of that time, he took pains not to let his players, the owners of other teams or anyone beyond a tiny circle of family and close friends learn that he was gay.

He stepped away from the Pirates in 2007, but it took five years for him to reach the point where he felt even remotely comfortable sitting down with a journalist, as he did with me recently at his home, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, to talk about his private life. Secrecy is a hard habit to break. And the world of professional sports, to which he is still connected, isn’t exactly crowded with proud, out gay men and women.

He once did some arithmetic. Over the last four decades, he said: “Tens of thousands of people have played either professional minor league baseball or major league baseball. Not one has come out and said that they’re gay while they’re playing.” Nor has any active player in the principal leagues of football, basketball or hockey, America’s three other major pro sports.

That silence is a sobering, crucial reminder that for all the recent progress toward same-sex marriage and all the gay and lesbian characters popping up on television, there remains, in some quarters, a powerful stigma attached to homosexuality.

Coaches, managers and corporate chiefs in those four big sports are almost as unlikely to come out as players are. Rick Welts rated the front page of The Times last year when, as president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, he revealed that he’s gay.

McClatchy, whose interview with The New York Times was his first public acknowledgment of his sexual orientation, could do considerable good. He remains well known in baseball – he has been informally advising the mayor of Sacramento on the city’s interest in having a team – and is the chairman of the board of the McClatchy Co., which publishes more than two-dozen daily newspapers, including The News Tribune and The Olympian.

And pro sports offers a frontier on which there’s considerable good to be done. One reason there has been so much attention lately to statements about homosexuality, supportive and derogatory, from prominent male athletes is that they inhabit a stubborn bastion of reductively defined masculinity, and many impressionable kids take their cues from it. If its heroes make clear that being gay is OK, the impact could be profound: fewer adolescents and teenagers bullied, fewer young and not-so-young adults leading stressful, painful double lives.

McClatchy, 49, said that his took a toll. “I think I was more paranoid, for sure, about people,” he said. “And suspicious, definitely. And angry.” His serious romantic relationships with men were few and strained until he left sports, and his partner of the last four years, Jack Basilone, who shares his home here, told me that McClatchy remains guarded, wary.

“He’s like when you go to Pottery Barn and get the floor model – they have some nicks and scrapes,” joked Basilone, 31. For their contentment they have Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, to thank. They were fixed up by someone who worked for Santorum and whom McClatchy first got to know through his professional interactions, when he owned the Pirates, with Santorum’s Senate office.

A small number of retired athletes from the four major pro leagues have come out, as have prominent players in women’s professional sports.

And more and more straight players in major sports have said that they wouldn’t have any problem with an openly gay teammate.

I asked one of them, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, about the notion that such a teammate would make the locker room a less comfortable place.

“That assumes that a gay person in the locker room is going to find you attractive, which I think is pretty narcissistic,” Kluwe said in a phone interview. “Isn’t that the shallowest kind of thinking: that all of a sudden if a gay guy comes out, he’s going be staring at you?”

Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made news earlier this month with their advocacy for same-sex marriage, but the headlines more recently were about Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, who wore eye black tape on which an anti-gay slur was written in Spanish.

McClatchy said that he frequently heard homophobic language during his days in baseball. It convinced him that keeping his sexual orientation hidden was best.

He began to accept that he was gay in his mid-20s. But he didn’t tell anyone in his immediate family until just before his purchase of the Pirates, and did so then, he said, only because someone displeased with the deal threatened to go public with a rumor of McClatchy’s sexual orientation unless he backed out. He correctly gambled that the threat was a bluff, but alerted his sister in case it wasn’t.

He has never figured out where the rumor came from. It made him triply cautious. “In the back of my mind was: ‘What are you doing? You’re going into the most public arena possible with a secret,’ ” McClatchy said. “I made a choice to follow what my passion was.”

That passion is evident in his home, where one room is devoted entirely to baseball memorabilia and the main area for watching television has three large screens, lined up in a row, so that he can follow multiple games at once.

That passion is also evident in his voice when he talks about baseball. He noted, proudly, that the sport’s caretakers ended racial segregation before some other segments of society did.

But, he added, “I don’t think they equate breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson to, ‘Hey, by the way, we’ve never had one player announce they’re gay while playing baseball.’

“You’re not going to solve any problem until you start a dialogue. And there’s no dialogue right now.”

He hopes his candor helps foster one, he said, though he doesn’t have any planned agenda of extensive public speaking. He can’t turn himself into an extrovert overnight. In fact six months went by between our initial discussion about an interview and the publication of this column.

“This has been challenging to me,” he said. “I probably didn’t sleep as well as I could have last night.”

There could be some wounding blow-back.

“I think this is a big test,” said Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of Outsports.com, the leading site for news about gay athletes. Zeigler noted that McClatchy never had a winning season with the Pirates, a beleaguered team both before – and since – his ownership.

“So I’m curious to see how the public, particularly in Pittsburgh, responds,” Zeigler said, wondering aloud if McClatchy’s private burdens will be blamed for his team’s performance.

McClatchy said, “I’m sure people will criticize me because I came out later, and I should have come out while I was in baseball and in the thick of it.

But, he added, “I could find excuses for why not to do this … until I’m blue in the face.”

“I’ve got a birthday coming up where I’m turning old,” he said, referring to his 50th, in January. “I’ve spent 30 years – or whatever the number is specifically – not talking about my personal life, lying about my personal life.”

He shook his head. “There’s no way I want to go into the rest of my existence and ever have to hide my personal life again,” he said.

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