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Rethinking the coming-out template for athletes

Despite success stories, Michael Sam lingers as cautionary tale

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coming out, Michael Sam, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Sam never played a down in the NFL after coming out and being drafted. (Photo by kathclick; courtesy Bigstock)

Tanner Williams didn’t have a typical coming-out sports story. In 2014, the 22-year-old Norman, Okla., resident, a pole vaulter on the University of Oklahoma track and field team, posted on Facebook that he’d gotten engaged to Scott Williams, his boyfriend of less than a year.

He wrote about the experience in a more prominent coming-out moment when Outsports, an LGBT sports news site, published his story in April 2015.

Even in Oklahoma, which Williams himself (he’s a native of Ardmore, Okla.) admits is “a very conservative and religious state,” the experience has been overwhelmingly positive, he says.

“It’s probably been one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It helped me, my family, my friends to know that it’s OK to be gay. It made a huge impact in Oklahoma with the inclusion-in-sports aspect. … I got a lot of positive attention. It’s all been great.”

Williams had read other coming-out stories on Outsports and became friendly with Jim Buzinski, who co-founded the site in 1999 with Cyd Zeigler, Jr.

“I think I just messaged him thanking him for all the stuff he’s done and told him, ‘If you ever want to share my story, I could probably come up with the courage,’” Williams says.

The only thing he might have done differently is to have come out sooner.

“There were a few negative comments, but it was pretty mild,” he says. “After the Outsports piece ran and some other papers here in Oklahoma wrote about it, there were a few comments. People said, ‘Why is this news?’ and a few things like that. But then I was elected co-captain of my team and it just showed that they respected me and being gay has nothing to do with what kind of person or athlete you are. It was even more positive. It got an overwhelming amount of attention through Outsports.”

But how typical is Williams’ experience? Buzinski says in 16 years of telling the coming-out stories of “probably a couple hundred” athletes on “all levels,” there’s rarely been any issue.

“We leave the final decision up to the athlete,” Buzinski says. “The bottom line for them is once you come out, you can’t go back in. If you’re going to come out, even in some of the smaller sports, you have to know that there’s going to be different levels of attention and you have to be ready for that. Most of the time they write their own stories and even if we work, shape and edit them, they have to sign off on the final version. It’s their story to tell.”

He says a few times they’ve had athletes ready to come out, but he and Zeigler have urged them to wait.

“We’ve never pushed,” Buzinski says. “It’s frustrating to us as journalists, but we’ve never forced [anyone].”

He says negative feedback has been rare. He recalls “maybe two or three” who asked later for their stories to be removed from the Outsports website, which is not practical since the pieces live on in web archives. He guesses “less than” five have had second thoughts after the fact.

With lots of positives to point to — everything from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA to 41 out LGBT athletes competing at this month’s Rio Olympics — and LGBT rights overall making previously unheard of strides in the U.S. and around the world, some assume there’s little risk in coming out.

Yet the sting of Michael Sam’s aborted NFL career is still fresh and there’s also a sense in some circles that things aren’t always so rosy for out athletes once the media buzz and excitement wears off.

Robbie Rogers, a soccer midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy who came out in 2013, told the Chicago Tribune this summer he assumed he was on the outer cusp of a sort of domino effect of male athletes coming out that never materialized. Despite many out female athletes in the WNBA, Rogers is now the lone openly gay male athlete in the U.S.’s five major pro sports leagues (the NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL and MLS).

Sam came out to great fanfare in 2014 with ESPN, New York Times and Outsports profiles (Zeigler writes of how it all went down in a lengthy Outsports piece called “The Eagle Has Landed”). He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 draft but was cut at the end of training camp before ever playing a game. He also had a short stint with the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad but was waived. In 2015, he played a single game with the Montreal Alouettes becoming the first openly gay player to play in the Canadian Football League before leaving citing “mental health” concerns.

Since then, he’s made many appearances for LGBT rights, did a season of “Dancing With the Stars,” appeared in a documentary on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) and returned to the University of Missouri (his alma mater) to pursue a master’s degree. His NFL career is, for all practical purposes, likely over.

Although stressing he has “no regrets whatsoever,” as he told Dan Patrick on his eponymous show last year, Sam has now said in several interviews that he’d likely be in the NFL today if he’d not come out.

“It probably would have been better for me if I didn’t come out,” he told Patrick. “I would be on a roster.”

He also told Edge of Sports, “I think if I never would have came out, never would have said those words to the public, I would still be currently in the NFL. But because of me saying those words, I think it could have played a huge part in my current situation.”

Even Zeigler agrees.

“He would have played in the NFL last season if he hadn’t come out,” Zeigler wrote in a September 2015 Outsports column. “The NFL teams have, individually and collectively, discriminated against Sam because he is an openly gay man. Homophobic jerks keep saying that’s just sour grapes, but it’s not. He’d be in the NFL right now if he hadn’t come out.”

Sam parted ways with former agents Cameron Weiss and Joe Barkett and Howard Bragman, the gay PR guru who masterminded Sam’s coming-out media strategy. Bragman, with whom Sam had a profanity-strewn clash in clips seen in the OWN documentary, is laying low on the matter now. He declined a Blade interview request.

Buzinski says it’s hard to say to what degree homophobia might have hurt Sam’s career. There were several contributing factors — the Rams having been well stocked in defense (Sam is a defensive end) at the time of the draft, perhaps most notably.

“There were probably X number of teams that wouldn’t touch him because he was gay, but not all 32,” he says. “The NFL has a ways to go, but if teams thought Michael Sam could have helped them, they would have picked him. I don’t believe it was exclusively because he was gay. That’s something that can never be fully proven or disproven. It’s an assertion that can never be knocked down or supported. There are hundreds of guys who are flushed out of the NFL every year for all kinds of reasons.”

Christina Kahrl, an ESPN sportswriter who’s transgender, isn’t so quick to let the NFL and some of its other franchises off the hook.

“I’m a Raiders fan so I’m going to tell you this as an LGBT person,” Kahrl told the Blade. “When Michael Sam was up, the Raiders were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. They should have taken a chance on him. You couldn’t get any worse than the Raiders were at the time, so if he’s out there and freely available, for Christ’s sake, sign the guy. Clearly there were some management problems. There’s no excuse why a team like the Raiders wouldn’t have taken a chance on Michael Sam.”

Kahrl says Sam’s advisers had him doing too many other things when he should have been focusing on football, a point he made himself to Winfrey.

“All of a sudden, he was everywhere doing everything, every gala, every GLAAD and HRC thing, he was dancing with the stars,” Kahrl says. “My throwaway line from that was we saw Michael Sam dancing with the stars before we even saw his first sack dance. He was famous before he ever did the thing he was supposed to be famous for doing, being a football player.”

And now with Jason Collins retired from the NBA, Sam’s never having played a down in a regular-season NFL game, David Denson, a 21-year-old outfielder who plays for the Minor League baseball team the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, is the only other pro male out athlete to have come out. The wave many expected never happened.

“I’m at the stage where it’s kind of stupid,” Robbie Rogers told the Chicago Tribune in June. “I would never force anyone out and everyone has their own time, but come on, it’s 2016. A lot has changed in the United States and around the world. Obviously there are a lot of rights to fight for and a lot of hate here toward the LGBT community, but it’s an opportunity to be a role model for millions and change the lives of kids not only in sports, but in our culture and around the world. It’s a little disheartening.”

Gospel singer Jennifer Knapp, who says she experienced “total blackout” from the Christian music industry after coming out in 2010, knows what it’s like to go from industry darling to non-entity. Despite a handful of gospel singers who’ve come out in recent years, none were invited to the CCM United industry celebration concert last year that celebrated 40 years of contemporary Christian music. She says anytime money’s involved, homophobia is likely present.

“Sexual orientation is a very real factor but it’s one of those things that’s very difficult to put your finger on how much it affects things,” Knapp says. “You can say, ‘Well, [Michael Sam] would have been higher in the draft pick, but they already had a strong defense,’ or in my case, they have the cover of saying, ‘Well, we don’t stock her old albums because she’s not relevant in this field anymore, she’s not making gospel music,’ and I would agree with that to a point, but what you see happening — and this is a very difficult thing to measure — is when they try to minimize the impact that person had before they came out. … If your name is mentioned at all, it’s, ‘Oh where did she go,’ ‘What a waste,’ ‘What a black hole,’ ‘She’s not relevant,’ and when you couple that with a few things that may be true, it becomes this really murky thing that’s hard to pin down. Was Michael Sam pushed out of football because of his sexual orientation? Only the long run will tell.”

Tanner Williams disagrees and wonders why anyone in any field would want to be with people who don’t support being out.

“I think he’s throwing blame because he’s not in the NFL,” Williams says. “There are plenty of athletes out there who are very successful.”

Kahrl mentions athletes such as Collins and Denson who’ve been successful, but says several factors contributed to Sam’s trouble — getting involved in too many outside activities when he should have been concentrating on football, lingering anti-LGBT bias in football and the timing of his coming out.

“You might have said in 2013, 2014 that we were riding this wave that was going to go up and only getting better and instead what we’ve seen is this kind of chilling effect where the players in the professional leagues are more reticent in coming out,” she says. “The Michael Sam situation is a pretty clear indication of what I would call an observer’s paradox where all of us in the community want out athletes and want to get to the point where it goes to being no big deal.”

So what went wrong?

“I think a lot of people had a lot of good intentions from his advisers to people in the community to people in pro sports in general who all wanted the best thing and it still ended up getting screwed up,” Kahrl says. “It had nothing to do with Michael Sam’s ability to play football. He was doing all these wonderful things, but they had nothing to do with playing football and that was particularly frustrating and it had to have been immensely frustrating for him as well.”

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NFL player’s misogynistic, homophobic comments spark outrage

Harrison Butker gave Benedictine College commencement address on Saturday

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Harrison Butker (Benedictine College YouTube screenshot)

Addressing a friendly audience at a private, Catholic liberal arts college, three-time Super Bowl champion Harrison Butker spoke from his heart about his faith and revealed his personal beliefs as a cisgender man about women and the LGBTQ community. 

In his 20-minute commencement address at Benedictine College on Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs kicker said LGBTQ Pride Month events are an example of biblical “deadly sins,” denounced “dangerous gender ideologies” and the “diabolical lies told to women,” declared a woman’s most important title is “homemaker,” and offered his take on abortion, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, as well as President Joe Biden. 

Butker, 28, criticized Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and questioned his devotion to Roman Catholicism, calling him “delusional.” Speaking directly to the men in the audience, the athlete advised them to “be unapologetic in your masculinity,” and to “fight against the cultural emasculation of men.”

The pro football player announced that God had given him a platform to speak and that, “I have no other choice but to embrace it,” he said. 

Those in attendance laughed in support of Butker when he mocked Pride Month as he cited a recent article by the Associated Press, headlined: “‘A step back in time’: America’s Catholic Church sees an immense shift toward the old ways.” The article detailed the institution’s shift “toward the old ways” and highlighted Benedictine’s rules that “seem like precepts of a bygone age,” which include “volunteering for 3 a.m. prayers” and “pornography, premarital sex, and sunbathing in swimsuits being forbidden.”

“I am certain the reporters at the AP could not have imagined that their attempt to rebuke and embarrass places and people like those here at Benedictine wouldn’t be met with anger but instead met with excitement and pride,” said Butker. “Not the deadly sins sort of Pride that has an entire month dedicated to it, but the true God-centered pride that is cooperating with the Holy Ghost to glorify him.” Butker went on to say that only by surrendering one’s self to Christ will anyone find happiness. 

“Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity,” the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer Jonathan Beane said in a statement addressing his comments. “His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, called Butker’s speech “inaccurate, ill-informed, and woefully out of step with Americans about Pride, LGBTQ people, and women.”

“Those with expansive platforms, especially athletes, should use their voices to uplift and expand understand and acceptance in the world,” she said in a statement. “Instead, Butker’s remarks undermine experiences not of his own and reveal him to be one who goes against his own team’s commitment to the Kansas City community, and the NFL’s standards for respect, inclusion and diversity across the league.”

Butker called on religious leaders “to stay in their lane and lead,” and told women their place was in the kitchen and the maternity ward.  

“I’m beyond blessed with the many talents God has given me, but it cannot be overstated that all of my success is made possible because a girl I met in band class back in middle school would convert to the faith, become my wife, and embrace one of the most important titles of all: Homemaker,” said Butker, and his words were met with thunderous applause. 

“It is you, the women, who have had the most diabolic lies told to you. Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world,” Butker said.

The Chiefs did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but someone who handles social media for Kansas City posted on X that Butker doesn’t even live in Kansas City but in a suburb 30 miles outside city limits, in a now-deleted tweet. 

Someone then posted an apology using that account:

And Kansas City’s mayor himself apologized, also on X, saying “A message appeared earlier this evening from a city public account. The message was clearly inappropriate for a public account,” he posted. “The city has correctly apologized for the error, will review account access, and ensure nothing like it is shared in the future from public channels.”

Butker’s comments earned him comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” both in his words and in how his beard appeared similar to one of the Hulu series’ characters. 

You can watch Butker’s commencement address in full here: 

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Brittney Griner considered suicide in Russian prison

WNBA star sat down with Robin Roberts

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ABC News ‘Good Morning America’ anchor Robin Roberts interviews WNBA star Brittney Griner for a primetime special. (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

CONTENT WARNING: The following story discusses suicide ideation.

Her first few weeks behind bars in a Russian prison took a terrible toll on Brittney Griner, the lesbian WNBA star who is breaking her silence on the 10 months she was held on drug-related charges. 

“I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks,” Griner told ABC’s Robin Roberts in a primetime interview Wednesday. “I felt like leaving here so badly.”

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time WNBA All-Star, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, said she ultimately decided against suicide, partly because she feared Russian authorities would not release her body to her wife, Cherelle Griner. 

While Cherelle and the White House worked to gain her release, Brittney reflected on what she admitted was the “mistake” that landed her in Russian detention. 

“I could just visualize everything I worked so hard for just crumbling and going away,” Griner told Roberts, who is co-anchor at “Good Morning America” and is herself a lesbian and former college basketball player.

Griner, 33, was arrested on Feb. 17, 2022, at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow. Authorities said they found vape cartridges in her luggage containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.

Griner told Roberts that was the result of a “mental lapse” on her part — packing the cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage, Griner said that she had overslept on the morning she was leaving for Russia to play during the WNBA’s off-season, which is how many of the league’s vastly underpaid players earn a living, compared to NBA players. 

So, she packed while she was “in panic mode,” Griner said. 

“My packing at that moment was just throwing all my stuff in there and zipping it up and saying, ‘OK, I’m ready,’” she told Roberts.

After landing in Russia, Griner realized that she had those two cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage as Russian security officers inspected her bag at the airport. She recalled the moment as a sinking feeling. 

“I’m just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Like, ‘How did I — how did I make this mistake?’” Griner said. “I could just visualize everything I worked so hard for just crumbling and going away.”

Russian authorities immediately arrested Griner, but her trial would not take place for five months. She described the horrible conditions of her imprisonment during that delay, saying that she didn’t always have toilet paper and that the toothpaste they gave her had expired about 15 years ago.

“That toothpaste was expired,” she said. “We used to put it on the black mold to kill the mold on the walls.”

“The mattress had a huge blood stain on it, and they give you these thin two sheets,” she added. “So you’re basically laying on bars.”

On July 7, 2022, Griner pleaded guilty at her trial to drug charges, admitting that she had the vape cartridges containing cannabis oil but stating she put them in her luggage unintentionally. She testified that she had packed the cartridges by accident, and had “no intention” to break Russian law.

Roberts pressed Griner on this point: “You know there are those who say, ‘Come on. How did you not know that you had cartridges in your luggage?’”

“It’s just so easy to have a mental lapse,” Griner replied. “Granted, my mental lapse was on a more grand scale. But it doesn’t take away from how that can happen,” she explained.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on Aug. 4, 2022, and in October 2022, a judge denied the appeal filed by Griner’s attorneys.

The sentence landed Griner in a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia.

“It’s a work camp. You go there to work,” said Griner. “There’s no rest.” Her job was cutting fabric for Russian military uniforms.

“What were the conditions like there?” Roberts asked.

“Really cold,” Griner said. So cold that her health was impacted and she decided to chop off her long dreadlocks.

“What was that like losing that part of you, too?” Roberts asked Griner.

“Honestly, it just had to happen. We had spiders above my bed — making nests,” she said. “My dreads started to freeze,” she added. “They would just stay wet and cold and I was getting sick. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to survive.”

Her arrest came around the same time as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, further increasing tensions between Russia and the U.S. But as the Los Angeles Blade reported on Dec, 8, 2022, Russia agreed to release Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

However, before winning her freedom, Griner revealed authorities forced her to write a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“They made me write this letter. It was in Russian,” she said. “I had to ask for forgiveness and thanks from their so-called great leader. I didn’t want to do it, but at the same time I wanted to come home.”

Griner said her heart sank upon boarding the plane to freedom and finding that Paul Whelan, another American the White House said was “wrongfully detained,” wasn’t leaving Russia with her.

“I walked on and didn’t see him, maybe he’s next. Maybe they will bring him next,” she said. “They closed the door, and I was like, are you serious? You’re not going to let this man come home now.”

Griner recounts on the experience in “Coming Home,” a memoir set to be released on May 7. 

988 is the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and is available 24/7 via phone, text or chat to everyone of all ages, orientations and identities. If you are a transgender, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. You can still also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities.

Additional resources:

If you are in a life-threatening situation, please dial 911.

If you are in crisis, please dial 988 or contact Rainbow Youth Project directly at +1 (317) 643-4888

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Bisexual former umpire sues Major League Baseball for sexual harassment

Brandon Cooper claims female colleague sexually harassed him

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Arizona Complex League game in 2023. (YouTube screenshot)

A fired former umpire is suing Major League Baseball, claiming he was sexually harassed by a female umpire and discriminated against because of his gender and his sexual orientation. 

Brandon Cooper worked in the minor league Arizona Complex League last year, and according to the lawsuit he filed Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan, he identifies as bisexual. 

“I wanted my umpiring and ability to speak for itself and not to be labeled as ‘Brandon Cooper the bisexual umpire,’” he told Outsports. “I didn’t want to be labeled as something. It has been a passion of mine to simply make it to the Major Leagues.”

But that didn’t happen. Instead of being promoted, he was fired. His suit names MLB and an affiliated entity, PDL Blue, Inc., and alleges he had endured a hostile work environment and wrongful termination and/or retaliation because of gender and sexual orientation under New York State and New York City law.

“Historically the MLB has had a homogenous roster of umpires working in both the minor and major leagues,” Cooper claims in his suit. “Specifically, to date there has never been a woman who has worked in a (regular) season game played in the majors, and most umpires are still Caucasian men. To try to fix its gender and racial diversity issue, defendants have implemented an illegal diversity quota requiring that women be promoted regardless of merit.”

Cooper claims former umpire Ed Rapuano, now an umpire evaluator, and Darren Spagnardi, an umpire development supervisor, told him in January 2023 that MLB had a hiring quota, requiring that at least two women be among 10 new hires.

According to the suit, Cooper was assigned to spring training last year and was notified by the senior manager of umpire administration, Dusty Dellinger, that even though he received a high rating in June from former big league umpire Jim Reynolds, now an umpire supervisor, that women and minority candidates had to be hired first. 

Cooper claims that upon learning Cooper was bisexual, fellow umpire Gina Quartararo insulted him and fellow umpire Kevin Bruno by using homophobic slurs and crude remarks. At that time, Quartararo and Cooper worked on the same umpiring crew and being evaluated for possible promotion to the big leagues.

This season, Quartararo is working as an umpire in the Florida State League, one of nine women who are working as minor league umpires.

Cooper said he notified Dellinger, but instead of taking action against Quartararo, he said MLB ordered Cooper to undergo sensitivity training. According to his lawsuit, he was also accused of violating the minor league anti-discrimination and harassment policy.

Cooper’s suit says he met with MLB Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Billy Bean — who the Los Angeles Blade reported in December is battling cancer. 

The lawsuit says at that meeting, Bean told the umpire that Quartararo claimed she was the victim, as the only female umpire in the ACL. Cooper said he told Bean Quartararo regularly used homophobic slurs and at one point physically shoved him. He also claims that he has video evidence, texts and emails to prove his claim. 

But he said his complaints to Major League Baseball officials were ignored. His lawsuit said MLB passed him over for the playoffs and fired him in October. He said of the 26 umpires hired with Cooper, he was the only one let go.

Through a spokesperson, MLB declined to comment on pending litigation. Quartararo has also not publicly commented on the lawsuit.

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