This story is part of ESPN’s ongoing series exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post-acceptance world. Look for stories on Derrick Gordon, Megan Rapinoe, Chris Mosier and others in ESPN The Magazine’s Being Out Issue, on newsstands Oct. 30. Subscribe today!
NOT SO LONG ago, it seemed as if it was finally happening, that the revolution of athletes coming out of the closet had arrived and was passing, all within a few short years.
Robbie Rogers had come out and played in MLS. College hoops star Brittney Griner had come out and played in the WNBA. Veteran NBA big man Jason Collins had come out and joined the Nets for their playoff run. Defensive prospect Michael Sam had come out before the NFL draft and been selected by the Rams.
It looked as if we as a society were ready to take a quick leap from having no out gay athletes in major team sports to considering it ordinary. That what had been a thing might suddenly become no big thing.
Except that we haven’t seen that. There was no wave of pro athletes coming out. Instead of seeing Michael Sam’s sack dance on the gridiron, we saw him on Dancing With the Stars. Now Sam is most famous for something he didn’t get to do. And we haven’t seen anybody come out in the major pro leagues since. What was a thing is still a thing, which leaves us with a big question: Who hit the pause button?
“For the most part, the gay revolution is over, and now we’re in the gay evolution,” says Hollywood PR guru Howard Bragman. “And evolutions move slower than revolutions.”
Bragman is in a position to know. He’s helped steer Collins, Sam, former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, former NBA player John Amaechi, former WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes and others through their public coming outs. His observation is a reminder that we haven’t yet reached the end of the beginning and that what’s to come is the hard work of forging not just acceptance or understanding but actual integration.
THE CHALLENGE OF coming out is complicated for athletes who are already juggling more familiar pressures. There’s the pressure to perform on the field, to have a full career. There’s the pressure of fulfilling expectations — imposed by outsiders or oneself — of how to be the player they always dreamed of becoming. And then, after coming out, there’s the pressure of being a public torchbearer for the LGBT community. Suddenly, they must assume the media spotlight, as well as responsibilities to the advocacy community whose needs transcend excellence on the field. Not everyone wants to sign up for that. The rest of us have an obligation to ask ourselves why we would expect them to.
“Athletes watched what happened to Michael Sam,” says former big leaguer Billy Bean, who came out publicly in 1999 after his career ended and now works on inclusion efforts for MLB. “And they’re asking themselves: ‘Are people going to forget that I’m a big league ballplayer, in my fourth year, chasing that big contract, trying to be an All-Star or the team MVP, and now I might be defined by something that has nothing to do with the thing that has been the most important thing to me since I was 8 years old?'”
It’s important to remember that professional athletes didn’t grow up in the more accepting environment we live in today; chances are, in coming out, they have to overcome a lifetime of exposure to anti-gay attitudes. And the media often don’t make the process any easier. Active top-level athletes not only have to find time to shoehorn their self-defining announcement somewhere into their careers, they then have to wind their way through the PR ritual. While that moment can help create visibility and understanding, in the sports world it often seems to have less to do with LGBT people embracing their truth among the people they work and live with and more to do with the media’s self-importance. It’s a news conference, or it didn’t happen.
“You look at Jason, you look at Michael, it’s a huge frickin’ deal,” Bragman says. “The media is just drooling like a dog, treating this like a piece of prime rib, waiting for this happen, and I think that media attention can be a magnifying glass that most people don’t want to be under.”
It’s an observer’s paradox, in which the journalist and the wider world insert their own perspectives into whatever the athlete needs to say in coming out. “Michael Sam is a great example of this, a guy who gets ordained as our ‘leader,’ and then once that story has been out there, he’s on his own,” Bean says. “You hear him now, and it’s starting to feel like he’s starting to think that if he had to do it over again, he might do it differently than the way he did it. It’s a beginning, not some culmination, the decision to come out. The guy still has to go out and play.”
Rather than indulging this self-absorbed mania for the new as a way of demonstrating how much better things are today, we should remember the history of LGBT people in sports. In MLB, for every David Denson (the Brewers prospect who came out this summer) or Sean Conroy (the independent league pitcher who did the same), there are former big leaguers like Glenn Burke and Bean, or umpire Dave Pallone. For every Michael Sam in the NFL, there’s a Dave Kopay or Esera Tuaolo or Wade Davis or Jerry Smith. LGBT people have played sports for decades. This isn’t new, even if it’s news.
The “outness” of historical figures is often a matter of opinion or moral relativism, telling us more about the expectations we have of athletes than whether or not they lived their truth. Many teammates and opponents knew that Burke and Smith were gay — Burke in particular suffered for it at the hands of A’s manager Billy Martin in the late 1970s and early ’80s, while Smith was accepted by Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi a decade earlier. “Glenn would have thrived in this generation, because he was unafraid to say, ‘This is me, if you don’t like me, tough s—,'” Bean says of Burke. “But he was way ahead of his time.”
There is also a different set of expectations placed on athletes coming out today — a balancing act that isn’t easy to manage in addition to an active career. “These things aren’t necessarily core to how you want to be perceived as an athlete,” Bragman says. “Unless you’re someone at the end of your career, like Jason, you don’t want to be perceived as an activist, you want to be perceived as an athlete. Yet at the same time, by the simple act of coming out, you’re an activist!”
The majority of gay, lesbian and transgender athletes don’t want to spend much time talking about what makes them different. “Unless you’re in the elite 5 percent who don’t have anything to worry about, you’re somebody who’s worried about your job every week on every play,” Bragman adds. “And talking to some of the guys who are in the closet, they just don’t want to make it an issue. They would just like to play and go on and deal with it later.” Instead, they’re looking for cues that it’s OK to be different while they strive within their sports to be like everyone else on the field. It’s a delicate balance that’s negotiated in real time, and the process doesn’t stop after an athlete’s coming-out moment, as shown by Derrick Gordon’s complicated evolution over the past year and a half. Achieving that balance happens only on a case-by-case basis; it depends on the strength of the individual allies that LGBT players find in each locker room.
“We need people ready to send micro-signals so that athletes know, if they were to come forward, that people would have their back,” Collins says. “I had those signals from Doc Rivers when I was a player; he did an interview with an LGBT magazine. He was asked about how he would respond if a player came out, and he said that player would be treated no differently than any other member of the team. So I knew that I would have an ally when I read that article.”
THIS CAN, ALL told, make for a complicated landscape for LGBT athletes trying to navigate a decision to come out publicly — but that’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. First, all of the major pro leagues have adopted policies and public stances that show an enthusiasm to embrace their LGBT employees. The overt discrimination Burke faced isn’t likely to happen today, at least not in a pro locker room.
Meanwhile, the wave of coming-out stories has come, and it’s bigger, deeper and more permanent than anything we’ve seen before at the highest levels of pro sports. If athletes in their 20s or 30s — a generation that grew up with gay-straight alliances in their schools — aren’t ready to come out publicly for the benefit of the media or the LGBT community, younger athletes see far less to lose. Hardly a week goes by without another teen’s coming-out story on Outsports.com.
“David Denson has a unique opportunity to prove he can play every day in the minor leagues,” Bean says, “and if he can kick some butt the next two or three seasons, with that question already out there, and the Brewers get to see him, they’re not going to hesitate to bring him up if he can help them. He may have taken the pressure off himself without even realizing it, because he’ll have gotten all of this out of the way in the minors.”
Each of these developments adds up to a future all stakeholders want: that time when anyone can be out, with nobody making a big deal of it. And it creates an interesting situation for the media. If somebody who came out in high school plays in college and then goes pro, does that “count,” even if it wasn’t leveraged around a high-profile media moment? The revolution has already come, even if nobody was there to report it.
“I think we’re moving at the same speed that civil rights movements do,” says Helen Carroll, a former NCAA women’s basketball coach and now sports projects director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “I think what we’re seeing that is huge is the big number of college athletes who come out, get support from their coaches, writing their own stories. And we’re seeing a big number of high school athletes come out. We’re even seeing junior high school students coming out and have the support of their parents. So my thought is that in five years, we’re going to be where we want to be today.”
In the meantime, the most helpful step — for those who watch sports and for those who cover them — is to take a step back and let these moments happen. What athletes coming out want, in addition to shedding the burden of being in the closet, is to be accepted — not on the basis of what makes them different, but on what makes them the same as everyone else on the field: They’re here to play.