Jason Collins shook the world of professional sports a year ago with a simple declaration on the cover of Sports Illustrated: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
It was the moment LGBT advocates and their allies in sports had been waiting for — the first openly gay man in any of the four major American team sports. And over the next year, the progress didn’t stop with Collins. University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out, and next week, he is expected to become the first openly gay man selected in the NFL Draft. And last month, University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon became the first active men’s Division I basketball player to come out as gay. Next year, he could become the first openly gay man to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Collins, for his part, signed with the Brooklyn Nets and took a torch to the idea that gay men would cause a media storm that would distract their teammates — riding a hot streak that started just before Collins signed, the Nets are in the NBA playoffs.
Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League are still waiting for their first openly gay players, and the NFL doesn’t have one quite yet. But as athletes like Collins, Sam, Gordon, and Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers continue to come out, the idea that men’s sports are a place unwelcome to gay athletes is slowly dissipating, and it is starting to feel like the battle to make pro sports an equal place for LGBT people is being won.
But there is still a long way to go — and many fights to face — to ensure that sports fully open their doors to the LGBT community. Athletes from Sam at the professional level to those at youth and scholastic levels will still face plenty of challenges that their teammates, coaches, and league executives will have to confront to produce a safe and welcoming environment that does not yet fully exist.
Language In The Locker Room
Collins has developed enormous goodwill through his 12 years in the league as an unselfish team leader. In his coming out piece for Sports Illustrated, Collins referenced how many NBA relationships he has built through “Three Degrees of Jason Collins,” and stars like Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant (who just two years earlier was fined for calling referee Bennie Adams a “faggot” during a nationally televised game) quickly demonstrated their support for him.
Will that same dynamic exist for Sam? Sam, with nary a down played in the NFL, has not yet formed relationships with veterans around the league. He will have to face the struggles of adjusting to professional football while also shouldering the burden of being an openly gay player — and the NFL’s first.
“It’s two completely different worlds,” former NFL linebacker and active LGBT ally Brendon Ayanbadejo said of comparing Collins and Sam. “You’re looking at a guy that’s played double-digit years of pro ball and ultimately is judged by the player that he is and not by his sexual orientation. It’s going to be tough for Mike.”
Sam has received an outpouring of support from the University of Missouri, fans, and NFL players. Yet while public encouragement can come in the form of a 140-character tweet, changing the culture requires significantly more effort. Sam or another gay player may have to internalize crude locker room language without knowing the intent behind it.
One problem is the basic language of the locker room. Even when teammates consider themselves allies, players still use generally-accepted language that could be preventing gay athletes from feeling comfortable. Even when those players are ultimately accepting of LGBT teammates, they often don’t realize the magnitude of their words or behavior. Travon Free, a former center at Long Beach State University who came out as bisexual after his career ended, says the difficulty of determining teammates’ true thoughts prevented him from coming out in college.
“Some people joke around about being homophobic, and some people joke around — like on our team — the opposite thing of pretending and doing really gay stuff in a joking way, and you’re kind of not sure where people really fall on the spectrum,” Free said. “So for the sake of not rocking that boat, you don’t really want to do it.”
The presence of gay athletes has already had an effect on how leagues, teams, and even players treat this language; when Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert said “no homo” during a press conference in 2013, the NBA fined him and he quickly apologized to Collins.
Free, now a writer for The Daily Show with John Stewart, said that the responsibility for changing that language and fostering a better sense of comfort is up to players — even before they know they have a gay teammate.
But Free and other athletes also said the responsibility also falls to coaches and executives, who may not always consider building trust and friendship their responsibility. But promoting at least a culture of respect is crucial.
Chris Kluwe, a former NFL punter and another vocal LGBT ally, believes that most teammates will stand by Michael Sam when he enters the league. But leadership is necessary to change the minds of those that don’t understand. That can come from the locker room, but the front office and coaches must also endorse it. The latter has been lacking on Kluwe’s longtime team, the Minnesota Vikings, who allegedly cut him for speaking out too much on LGBT issues. According to Kluwe, special teams coach Mike Priefer once told him that “we should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” While Vikings owner Zygi Wilf called Sam courageous when he came out, the team also still employs Priefer (pending the completion of a months-long investigation).
“Where [Sam] might face some issues is with coaching staff and front office and ownership because those tend to be older, white men who have a specific view of the world because they grew up in a different time,” Kluwe said. “That’s not saying that all coaches and owners and front offices are like that, but if there is going to be an issue, that’s where it’s going to arise.”
Now that the NFL will potentially have an out player — and perhaps also due to locker room harassment that the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal exposed — the league is facilitating dialogue it has avoided for years. The NFL has bolstered its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation, and this offseason, ex-NFL player Wade Davis, who announced that he is gay after leaving the league, addressed coaches at the league’s annual meeting last month. Davis is the executive director of the You Can Play Project, which works for LGBT acceptance in sports and is now an official partner with the NFL, and coaches reportedly received his message warmly.
However, the NFL and other leagues can’t pretend a longtime problem is solved with a few openly gay players and speeches. Players like Ayanbadejo and Kluwe said that the league also needs consistent trainings and discussions with individual teams to clarify expectations for tolerance. And the NFL Players Association has called for harsh punishments for teams that promote unwelcome atmospheres, as several did when executives reportedly asked draft prospects if they “liked girls.”
Sports leagues have frequently touted themselves as leaders in social acceptance, but when they lagged behind as a safe place for gay athletes, it became a source of public embarrassment for leaders like NBA commissioner Adam Silver. The recent progress they have made, though, makes it important that they re-embrace that leadership role to set an example for youth sports, which still lag behind in many ways.
Without constant media coverage, teams outside the pros often lack the same incentive to reform. Nearly a quarter of LGBT students compete in interscholastic sports, and participation in athletics is positively correlated with higher feelings of self-esteem and academic success for them. But nearly 30 percent of LGBT athletes have reported being harassed or attacked for their sexual orientation or gender expression on a sports team, according to the 2011 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2011 National School Climate Survey.
In college sports, the 2012 Campus Pride LGBQT National College Athlete Report concluded that 39 percent of LGBQ athletes have felt harassed because of their sexual identity. Cyd Zeigler runs the popular blog Outsports and hears the stories of shame or discomfort regularly.
“I talked to a college runner just a couple weeks ago who, before Michael Sam came out, literally went for a run one night and started punching himself in the stomach to try to punch the gay out of himself,” Zeigler said, referring to Moravian College runner Max Korten. “He felt so bad about being gay because of his religion and because of sports, and these stories are going to matter until that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Outsports is trying to track as many gay athletes as possible to add to the “chorus” of voices. To help these youth feel comfortable in sports, coaches must clearly state “at the very first practice” that homophobia will not be tolerated, Zeigler said. They must ensure “that language in the locker room is not casually homophobic, that people don’t just casually toss around words like ‘faggot’ and ‘sissy,’ so that the coaches are very conscious of the language that’s used not just by them but by the team. Because those things, when a gay athlete hears a teammate use the word ‘faggot,’ they hear, ‘this team hates me.’ ”
And the more professional sports lead, the more youth sports will follow.
Lessons — And Cautions — From Women’s Sports
Women’s sports can provide evidence for the idea that the fight doesn’t stop once athletes feel safe enough to come out.
Although much of the public’s focus revolves around men’s sports — the four major North American sports of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey in particular — openly gay athletes have been thriving in women’s sports for decades. From Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in tennis to Seimone Augustus and Brittney Griner in basketball, women’s sports are usually perceived as a safer space.
“Sports was a male bastion of assumed heterosexuality, whereas female sports were always a kind of ambiguous zone,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University and expert on masculinity studies.
Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Seattle Reign FC and key player for the U.S. women’s soccer team, came out to the media in 2012, although her teammates, family, and friends already knew. Rapinoe said she was fortunate to grow up without experiencing much homophobia and has found the women’s soccer community completely accepting. But despite a personal comfort level, she found making the announcement necessary to set an example.
“It was a lie by omission, in a way,” Rapinoe said. “One of the big encouragements for me was, ‘how can I ask for equality and demand that there’s equal rights in the workplace and marriage equality and all the things that the LGBT people fight for and not stand up and say I’m gay myself?’ ”
Fans often approach Rapinoe and thank her after games.
“A lot of times they don’t even say what it’s for, but I kind of know — they just give me that look,” she said.
It is often taken as a given that women’s sports are more open to LGBT people, but sports’ historical sexism and rigid gender roles have fostered their own culture of homophobia among women. Writing in her new memoir, Brittney Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and was one of the top college basketball players of all-time, discusses how failing to fit with the expected gender image can cause bullying:
Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the Cool Girls was standing in front of me. I could see her friends gathered off to the side, watching, as if they had all been talking about something. Then this girl started patting my chest. I always wore really plain clothing, like a white T-shirt without any graphics on it, and my hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Instinctively, I stepped back, startled and confused. She immediately turned to her friends and said, “See? I told you. She doesn’t have a chest!” Then they all walked off, laughing, and I heard one of them say, “She must be a boy. She’s not really a girl.”
Griner could not be open about her sexual orientation while playing for Baylor University because of the school’s discriminatory policies toward LGBT people. And plenty of other challenges remain in women’s sports.
“Most people think, ‘well of course, lesbians have just a mecca and a haven in women’s athletics to be out lesbian,’ and it just couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Helen Carroll, the Sports Project Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and former head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
“It’s dangerous for many, many women coaches to come out,” Carroll said. “They just won’t get hired again. They won’t get jobs. They’re [in] a hostile environment where they want the athletic department to have a certain image, and often times that image is how the media wants women to look in magazines.”
The fears are not just based on suspicion. Former University of San Diego coach Kathy Marpe, for instance, hid her sexuality for a 25-year career because rumors about it cost her recruits. College coaches frequently position “family values” as a selling point for their programs, demonstrating that subtle bias could be the greatest remaining obstacle in women’s and men’s sports alike.
A Separate Fight
For all the work that is finally getting started toward integrating gay, lesbian, and bisexual athletes, almost none of it will make being trans in sports easier. Transphobia in sports is still overwhelmingly overt rather than implicit.
“Trans athletes face so many challenges, and not just from misunderstanding from those identifying as straight, but from within the LGBT community as well,” Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, a group that seeks to end homophobia and transphobia in sports, wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “Take for example, the case of Fallon Fox.”
Fox, a trans woman and mixed martial arts fighter, has been criticized for possessing unfair advantages when going up against women. Carroll, who co-authored a report on providing equal opportunity for trans athletes, disputed the idea that they are cheating by not competing in their biologically assigned category, citing evidence that more variation in height and other physical attributes exists within sexes than between them.
Gabbi Ludwig, a 52-year-old transgender basketball player at Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif., still hears taunts from fans and comments that she shouldn’t be playing against women. Ludwig is six-foot-five and 217 pounds but says her weight and muscle mass have declined considerably since she started taking female hormones. NCAA policy dictates that female-to-male athletes wanting to play on a women’s team undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression before becoming eligible.
Ludwig, who has also coached youth basketball for 14 years, has found incredible support from her players and their families because of familiarity. But it’s a different story when she suits up for a game with her junior college women’s team or at a local gym with men.
“There’s all men on these courts, but they won’t even invite me to play,” Ludwig said. “And it’s hysterical because I have the talent, but I’m not welcome. Four years ago or five years ago, I used to go to the same park and just show up, and I would play until it would be night-time.”
In 2010, George Washington University’s Kye Allums drew national attention for playing as a transgender man on the women’s basketball team. Allums decided to delay his transition from female to male despite identifying as a man. Allums was not the first trans athlete in the NCAA, but his story did raise public consciousness. Nonetheless, the gender segregation of sports and roles that accompany it have left a mostly unaddressed and prejudiced gray area for trans athletes at all levels of sports.
Some states and sporting bodies have made this easier. California approved a law this year that will allow athletes at the scholastic level choose whether they want to compete as a boy or girl based on their gender identity, and the International Olympic Committee and NCAA have both passed standards for the transitioning of trans athletes. Still, some of these policies remain strict, and most states have no means for trans athletes to participate in sports with people of the gender by which they identify.
The Benefits Of Inclusion
Among the most resistant barriers to tolerance and inclusion of LGBT athletes is the idea that heightened sensitivity to them diminishes the toughness of teams — or that gay athletes will become a distraction to their teammates. Yet as more athletes come out, the myth becomes easier to debunk, and the benefits of creating open and tolerant atmospheres become easier to see.
Derrick Gordon is one of the top returning players for a UMass team expected to contend in next year’s NCAA Tournament. With the weight of coming out off his shoulders, Gordon already feels like he can be a better player.
“I struggled a lot at the beginning of the season,” Gordon told ESPNW’s Kate Fagan. “I’m not sure what it was, but after every game I had that thought in my mind, like I’m hiding. At times I cried because I was looking for answers and couldn’t find them.”
Brendan Ayanbadejo, the former NFL player and LGBT ally, views the integration of openly gay athletes as an innovation — like advanced analytic statistics — that first meets resistance before those wielding power understand the benefits. He noted that Michael Sam nearly tripled his sack output at Missouri (4.5 in his junior year to 11.5 his senior year) after coming out to this teammates.
There are numerous reasons to foster inclusive environments, from improving business opportunities to attracting new fans to simply giving LGBT athletes the freedom to be themselves without hiding from their true identities. It will take work, money, and a commitment to equality, and there remains plenty of progress to be made. But sports that are more open and tolerant to an entire community they have excluded in the past are better for everyone involved.
“It’s hard to fight the old ways—you don’t want to have to invest that money to have a sensitivity training and to address the issue and to take time out to talk to players about the issue,” Ayanbadejo said. “Because why are you taking time out to talk about equality? You’re taking time away from talking about football … [But] the sooner you do it, the sooner you’re going to reap the benefits. You’re going to capture a new fan base. People at work are going to feel safer. They’re going to feel happier.”
(Graphic by Adam Peck. Images via The Associated Press.)