Believe it or not, Dakota Cochrane's story isn't unique in sports. Back in 2004, baseball's Cleveland Indians signed a Japanese pitcher named Kazuhito Tadano who had appeared as an actor in gay pornography during his college days before embarking on a professional career.
Like Cochrane, Tadano faced taunts, insults and scrutiny, and had his career affected by the revelation. Unlike Cochrane, Tadano faced much of it in private.
When TUF: Live begins on Friday night on FX, Cochrane will be faced with the prospect of living in a house for 13 weeks with 15 other athletes of varying backgrounds, belief systems, and dare we say it, prejudices. He will be taped nearly 24 hours a day, and any backlash he receives is likely to be broadcast to an audience of millions.
"I don't know if I have 15 homophobes here or 15 guys that can care less about it," UFC president Dana White said during a recent media day for the show. "I have no idea. Nobody has been talked to on the show. Nobody's [said], 'We have a very sensitive issue.' None of that's happened. We don't do that s---. Whatever happens in that house happens, and then I'm going to have to deal with it."
That approach is a risky one for an organization just months into the first year of a seven-year deal with FOX Sports, and one that has faced accusations of homophobic behavior in the past. In 2009, White himself used an offensive gay slur word. He later apologized.
On the other hand, how real would a "reality" show be if its participants were told to mind their behavior? The fact that they'll go in unwarned and uncensored will provide an unfettered look at attitudes towards homosexuality and sports in 2012. That makes TUF: Live an interesting social experiment.
Professional sports has never had an openly gay athlete. Cochrane isn't gay, but after appearing in gay pornography, is likely to face any bias and intolerance from prejudiced castmates as if he was. That could mean major controversy for the UFC and FX, who stuck to their guns in selecting Cochrane on the strength of his record and his personality.
"If I was afraid of this topic and afraid of this, it would have been real easy to snip him," White said. "He doesn't make it. He gets cut. I don't care. I'm not worried about what he did in the past. It doesn't affect me or the company or anything else. I'm sure there is going to be some issue. Maybe there are going to be some knuckleheads here who stay some stupid s--- to him. I'm not hiding from that either. It is what it is. But if I was someone in the gay community, I would think this is a good thing, not a bad thing."
The fact that the UFC offered him an opportunity may sound insignificant, but it's more than what many baseball teams could say about their dealings with Tadano, the Japanese pitcher.
According to published reports of the time, he was effectively blackballed by the Japanese league. A highly regarded collegiate pitcher with a fastball that could reach the mid-90s, he was expected to be a high first-round pick in the 2002 draft but ultimately went unselected. It was just prior to that draft when his involvement in the video surfaced, and teams suddenly lost interest in him, claiming a shoulder injury.
After being passed over in Japan, his past followed him to the US, where according to reports, teams including the Twins, Padres and Braves backed off after initially expressing interest in a deal. According to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper, a source within the New York Mets confirmed that team owner Fred Wilpon refused to sign him because "he was worried about the trouble it might cause."
Tadano eventually made it to the big leagues with the Indians -- the only team that offered him a contract -- though he only pitched in 15 games over two years before getting cut by the Oakland A's and eventually returning to Japan.
When Tadano joined the Indians, he addressed the team and told them of his past. Reportedly, his teammates were quite supportive of his courage to face the truth. But tellingly, he joked about the taunting and harassment that might come his way.
"I don't understand English, so it really doesn't matter," he said.
It won't be that way for Cochrane. Part of him is expecting it, as he told me during a recent interview. Everyone in the house is going to know about his past, and in a setting that's already emotionally charged because of the competition, any discriminatory attitudes are bound to come out.
"It shouldn't matter to anybody what somebody else does in their life, who they choose to be with, who they choose to spend their life with," White said. "It's none of your f---ing business. What you better be worried about is this dude's going to come kick your f---ing ass. So if you want to be the guy who's going to talk a lot of s--- and say goofy stuff like that, you're going to get your ass kicked on national television by the guy that you're talking about. The thing you better be worried about is his fighting abilities, because he's not coming in the house to f--- you. He's coming in the house to kick your ass."
TUF is always a fishbowl, us watching the pressure cooker unfold. This social experiment might show MMA to be a bit more enlightened than its critics claim or it might prove that when it comes to tolerance, like many other sports, we still have work to do. At least Cochrane got a chance. At least from this, we know that when the time comes, and an openly gay fighter is deserving of the opportunity, he'll get it, and maybe we'll also have an idea of what he'll go through. And maybe it won't be any different than any other fighter. Maybe.