LGBT sports enthusiasts were thrilled earlier this year when professional basketball player Jason Collins and pro soccer player Robbie Rogers came out as gay, becoming the first two out gay men to emerge as current players in the professional leagues for the two sports.
Around the same time, Brittney Griner, the top-rated 2013 college basketball player in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft, came out as a lesbian. Her coming out made no difference to the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team, which quickly signed her on as a player.
The decision by Collins, Rogers, and Griner to disclose their sexual orientation followed coming out stories last year of another women’s pro basketball player, Seimone Augustus, and a women’s pro soccer player, Megan Rapinoe.
While these developments are viewed as encouraging signs by LGBT sports fans and activists, they come at a time when no open gays have ever emerged as players in three of the nation’s most popular professional sports — baseball, football and ice hockey. And though the NBA’s Collins came out four months ago, he remains a free agent.
No male professional golfer has ever come out as gay anywhere in the world and just one pro tennis player who is male has ever come out, according to Cyd Zeigler, editor and publisher of OutSports, a widely read online publication covering LGBT people in sports.
“People call it the last closet. And I think that’s what it is,” Zeigler told the Blade in discussing the lack of LGBT people in professional sports. “I think homophobia for decades has been more entrenched in sports than it has in most other areas in our culture,” he said.
“It starts when these kids are young. And they’re five years old and 10 years old and playing sports and the coach calls them a faggot and tells them not to be a sissy and this idea that being a faggot is less than being a man,” he said. “It starts there.”
Zeigler and other experts in the field of gays in sports say they are optimistic that cultural and political changes that opened the way for LGBT rights advances in recent years, including the approval of same-sex marriage in a growing number of states, will soon spill over into the realm of professional sports.
Forty-three years after the Stonewall riots in New York sparked the modern LGBT rights movement, LGBT activists say they are hopeful that baseball, football and hockey along with other professional sports will soon join the ranks of other professions in becoming more welcoming for LGBT people.
Zeigler said nearly all professional sports leagues have policies that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation along with other categories such as race, religion and ethnicity.
Earlier this year, at the request of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the National Football League and Major League Baseball agreed to strengthen their non-discrimination policies pertaining to sexual orientation.
In a statement released in April, Schneiderman said he pushed for the strengthened policies after his office learned of complaints by at least three prospective NFL players that they were asked questions about their sexual orientation at the league’s recruitment scouting meeting held in February in Indianapolis.
“According to one prospective player, representatives of NFL teams asked prospects if they had a girlfriend, were married, or liked girls,” a statement released in April by Schneiderman’s office says.
The statement and a follow-up statement released in July says both the NFL and Major League Baseball adopted their initial non-discrimination policies on sexual orientation in 2011 as part of collective bargaining agreements with the NFL and MLB and their respective player’s associations, which act as player unions.
The statements say that in response to Schneiderman’s request, the NFL and MLB agreed to adopt a workplace code of conduct specifically addressing sexual orientation discrimination and to post the policy document in all team locker rooms among other places.
“Both on the field and away from it, Major League Baseball has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement related to the code of conduct document.
It couldn’t immediately be determined whether the new non-discrimination policies would encourage gay baseball or football players to come out. But experts familiar with LGBT people in sports say factors other than homophobia and anti-LGBT bias may be playing a role in discouraging LGBT people from coming out in professional sports.
“I think the athletes themselves are ready to have an openly gay teammate,” said Patricia Griffin, Professor Emerita in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Griffin, a former swimming coach and author of the book “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports,” told the Blade that concern over media attention may be keeping some LGBT athletes from coming out.
“I think one of the things that keeps athletes in the closet is not necessarily that they’re afraid of the homophobia of their teammates, but that it’s still such a news story, especially for the men,” Griffin said. “You have to be prepared to deal with all of the media attention. And I think there are a lot of gay athletes and that’s not what they want to do,” she said.
“They would like to be out. They want to be out. But they don’t want to have to deal with the attending media crush as well as probably requests from every gay organization in the world to be a spokesperson and so on,” she said.
Zeigler said he, too, believes reasons other than anti-LGBT bias have prompted many LGBT athletes in professional sports to stay in the closet. He noted that in the NFL, the average career often ends after three and a half years. The average baseball and hockey career is likely to be longer, but most players are ready for retirement by their late 30s, he said
“These guys from high school are working essentially full-time jobs and going to school,” he said. “And a lot of them say they don’t have time to explore their sexual orientation. Their idea of coming out in the middle of the pressure of trying to make a college squad, trying to get playing time, trying to make an NFL squad, trying to get a good contract” is not something that appeals to them, he said.
“So coming out is a complication, an unnecessary complication for some of them,” said Zeigler.
Robert McGarry, senior director of education and youth programs for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said his organization is working with public schools and teachers, including physical education teachers, to curtail anti-LGBT bias among youth.
“What you see at the pro level really starts in kindergarten and on the playground on recess time,” McGarry said. “The kind of exclusion of kids who step outside of what society expects of their gender fuels that. What fuels it also is educators not addressing anti-LGBT language and bias.”
He said GLSEN retained Patricia Griffin to develop a GLSEN sports project called Changing the Game, which is designed to address homophobia and trans phobia in school sports programs from kindergarten to the 12th grade.
“We’ve been doing training across the country with mostly high school coaches and physical education teachers who seem very receptive and anxious to have this kind of training because it’s not something that they get in their preparation and they don’t really know what to do,” he said. “So we’re trying to fill that gap.”
Griffin said educational programs like GLSEN’s sports project and the changing attitudes throughout the country on LGBT equality will soon lead to more openly LGBT professional sports players, including players in the NFL and MLB.
“I think one of these days there’s going to be a quarterback from some college football team, Division 1, who gets recruited up high in the draft and he’s going to come in to the NFL as an out gay man,” Griffin said. “I actually think that’s more likely to happen than having an established star come out after he’s been playing for a while.”
Added Griffin, “They never knew what it was like to be ‘in,’” she said of the up and coming young athletes. “They are out and that’s how they live their lives. That alone is going to change the face of sports in the next few years.”
McGarry of GLSEN cautioned that although it will help the cause of LGBT people in sports if more big name stars come out, that alone won’t address the underlying cause of homophobia in sports.
“It’s a shame that everybody is sort of waiting for the first NFL player to come out,” he said. “There are many people who think that’s going to be the great solution – to have a football player come out of the closet. I think there’s a lot more work to be done.”
D.C. Police Sgt. Brett Parson, the gay former head of the department’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit, is a longtime amateur ice hockey player and former referee with the National Hockey League who says he witnessed firsthand the culture of professional hockey players.
“While we’ve come a long way, football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey – those sports still have the machismo that inhibits people from coming out and disclosing they’re gay for fear of being ostracized,” Parson said.
“I think we’re maybe not a generation away but we’re still a few years away before more people feel comfortable doing that,” he said.
Griffin said more women’s professional athletes have already come out than male professional athletes, but this often goes unnoticed because historically the public and the sports media pay more attention to men in sports.
She noted that Brittney Griner didn’t receive a lot of media attention when she came out this year, even though she is recognized as the best woman basketball player to enter the WNBA draft in 2013.
“Part of that is because it’s sort of like a weird kind of sexism, where we always think men’s sports are more important and we pay more attention to men’s sports,” she said. “So it makes sense that if a gay man comes out in men’s sports we pay more attention.”
According to Griffin, the less-noticed coming out by Griner may be the better path for all LGBT athletes going forward.
“With women it’s not such a surprise because people assume that there are lesbians in sports,” she said. “But when she came out it wasn’t like a giant announcement. She was just very matter of fact. It’s who I am. I’m proud of who I am and, you know, let’s move on,” said Griffin.
“And I think that’s going to be the future of more athletes who come out rather than having this be this giant, traumatic announcement that they make and feel like they’re risking their career by coming out,” she said.