When I talked to Chris Hine last week about being a gay sportswriter, I asked if he ever heard any homophobic slurs in a pro team locker room, where the language often is politically incorrect.
“I can’t recall when someone said something that made me feel uncomfortable,” said Hine, the Chicago Tribune’s beat writer for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Well, that all changed Tuesday night. Late in the third period of the Blackhawks’ loss to St. Louis, Andrew Shaw directed a homophobic slur at the referee.
The behavior of the Hawks’ forward definitely put Hine in an uncomfortable spot. The story became national news. He quickly wrote about his reaction in a column that the Tribune posted Wednesday morning.
No word causes that feeling in closeted gay men more than what Shaw apparently said Tuesday night. It is the word gay men fear and despise the most. Shaw using it out of anger is no excuse.
I was called that growing up before I even realized I was gay. When you’re closeted and thinking about coming out, you have nightmares about friends or family members using that word and making you feel like an outcast. It hurts when your friends use that word in a teasing manner. It’s a whole different feeling to have people direct that word at you with contempt. I’ve had that feeling.
In an email, I asked if this was the first time he ever had an issue with being a gay sportswriter.
“Yes this is the first time I’ve encountered it,” Hine replied. “Hopefully it passes and everybody can move on from it.”
Indeed, Hine never felt his sexual orientation was a big deal with his profession. For a couple years, he said friends had been asking him if he ever would write a column saying he is a gay. Hine considered it, but he said, “I did not want to do a ‘Hey, I’m gay column.’”
Hine, 29, then saw what happened to Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple. During the NFL Draft Combine in February, an Atlanta Falcons Falcons’ assistant coach asked, “Do you like men?”
Hine was outraged by what he considers a highly inappropriate question. In addressing the controversy in a March 8 column, he informed readers that he is gay.
From the column:
As a 29-year-old gay man, I spent the better part of two decades agonizing over that question [Do you like men?] and finally, when I was 20, came to accept that the answer was “Yes.” It took another two years before I could tell my family, another year after that before I mustered up the courage to tell my closest friends and, well, six years after that to finally write about it in the Chicago Tribune.
I spent years and a lot of sleepless nights before admitting to myself and others that I was gay. It was not an easy process.
The rest of the column, though, focused on the issue of the question.
For the record, Apple said he is not gay, but it never should have come to the point where he had to reveal anything about his sexuality. The NFL has taken some commendable action in working with organizations like the You Can Play Project, which provides resources to LGBTQ athletes and is working to change attitudes toward them in locker rooms across the country.
But the episode that played out at the combine during Apple’s interview was disgraceful and illuminates just how far the NFL has to go before its culture embraces an openly gay player. It is still a league where being gay is seen as negative.
In our interview last week, Hine said: “In the gay community, when you hear a question like that, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Nobody in the media was saying why this was such a big deal. I wanted to write, ‘Here’s what it’s like to be gay and be asked a question like that.’ I wanted to say why that question shouldn’t be allowed.”
Hine approached his sports editors, Joe Knowles and Tim Bannon, about doing the column. He said they wanted him to take his time to confirm he was ready to write about such a personal matter. He was.
“It just seemed like the right time to do it,” Hine said.
Up until that point, Hine had not disclosed to the Blackhawks that he is gay. He said he reached out to Blackhawks president John McDonough and team PR men, Brandon Faber and Adam Rogowin, prior to the publication of the March 8 column.
Last week, Hine said he received excellent feedback from the Blackhawks. And he expects nothing will change with the organization condemning Shaw’s slur Wednesday.
Hine said one Blackhawks player complimented him about the initial column.
“I’d prefer to keep the player’s name to myself, but he said, ‘It was really good that you wrote that,’” Hine said.
Hine isn’t the first sportswriter for a major publication to come out. Columnist Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald and Chuck Culpepper of The Washington Post, who covers national college sports, are among those who have written about covering sports and being gay.
However, it isn’t clear exactly if Hine is the first gay sportswriter to cover a pro team beat for a major paper. He referred me to Cyd Zeigler, the founder of Outsports.com, which covers gay athletes and issues in sports.
In an email, Zeigler wrote: “Hmmmmm. Tony Paul for The Detroit News — he covers the Tigers and [Major League Baseball]. SB Nation has a bunch of gay bloggers who cover specific teams. Someone on ONE [team] beat for ONE DAILY paper? We’ve stopped trying to figure out “firsts” at Outsports, because every time we do someone comes along and says, ‘Nope — I did X in 2004.’ Lol.”
Zeigler later scoffed at the notion that coming out would impact Hine ability to cover the Blackhawks.
“Why on earth would anyone think that a sportswriter coming out would have any adverse affect on his ability to do his job or the willingness of his editors to let him?” Zeigler wrote.
Zeigler is right. This is 2016.
Yet Hine received a note that shows the need for role models among gay journalists considering careers covering sports. An aspiring journalist told Hine that the March 8 column “inspired him.”
“He said that he had been feeling down on himself because he wasn’t sure he could be gay and have a career in sports media,” Hine said. “That one touched me.”
Indeed, if the reporter who covers the Blackhawks for the Chicago Tribune is gay, it shows the opportunity exists for someone else.
“I don’t feel like I’m breaking down any barriers,” Hine said. “I really think it is a non-issue. However, if it does make it easier for the next person, then that’s great.”