Riley Tindol was the ideal student athlete in his small Alabama town where football isn’t just a sport but a way of life. His dedication earned him a spot on the Vanderbilt football team but despite reaping the success from his passion, Tindol found himself falling into a depression as he struggled to hide his sexuality for fear of losing everything he worked for.
Tindol’s story is one of many that occur frequently in the world of sports and is one of the stories highlighted in the documentary “Alone in the Game,” which had its world premiere in Washington, D.C. on June 15. It debuts on the AT&T AUDIENCE Network on Thursday, June 28 at 8 p.m.
David McFarland, creator and executive producer of the film, says he was inspired to create the documentary after working toward LGBT acceptance and equality for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. After meeting with advocates from around the world on the issue, McFarland decided to explore the deeply embedded homophobia-in-sports culture.
The film features interviews with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, former ESPN President John Skipper, former NBA center Jason Collins, former NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, MLS Cup champion Robbie Rogers, Olympic freeskier Gus Kenworthy and professional soccer midfielder/winger Megan Rapinoe.
While McFarland was able to secure numerous interviews for the documentary, he says one of the biggest obstacles was getting “certain key power players” to actually show up.
“This just reinforces what we’re still doing today,” McFarland says. “It’s a subject matter some are comfortable talking about and many aren’t at the institutional level. This begs a very serious question for our leaders in sports across all the leaders, federations and governing bodies of sports … ‘Are we living in a time where equality and inclusion truly exist for LGBTQ athletes?’ For me, the answer is no. We’re not.”
In comparison, Hollywood’s inclusivity has increased over the years with more actors feeling safe to come out as the culture of acceptance grows. Despite that trend, McFarland says sports culture is much further behind.
“They are tucked so far in the closet because there are real-life ramifications that can come back and squash their dreams of being an athlete,” McFarland says. “Imagine that collegiate or high school athlete that has the courage to come out to their coach. That coach may not be accepting. If that coach is not accepting, then all of a sudden the perception of that player changes. That can affect their playing time on the field, their position on the team. It can be as extreme as, ‘We don’t want you here.’ That doesn’t necessarily happen in Hollywood.”
Those consequences are covered in the film, which showcases the importance of fitting in for both financial gain and social acceptance.
Rogers recalls overhearing from his teammates that being gay is “disgusting” and decides he can’t come out to his team because it would be “unhealthy.” Kenworthy says he earns the majority of his income through sponsorships, something he was concerned he would lose when he came out.
In one interview, a closeted NCAA Division 1 football player gives an interview with a blurred face and distorted voice as he says he doesn’t believe his teammates would be accepting and is certain his coaches would treat him differently.
Other stories explore the challenges of being a gay college athlete, similar to Tindol’s story. Haley Videckis and Layana White are former Pepperdine University women’s basketball players who tell of the discrimination they faced from the university for their sexual orientation and for being a couple.
Trevor Betts, a transgender student athlete, also gives insight into the transgender experience in athletics as a team member on a male high school wrestling team.
The theme of the film explores the challenges attached to coming out in such a homophobic culture, which leads many athletes to develop depression and suicidal thoughts.
They’re stories McFarland has heard time and again including from one closeted professional athlete who told McFarland he was afraid to come out, but at the same time, was ashamed of his silence.
“Unfortunately his lucky break is tied to him believing that because he’s gay he has to live a closeted life to hold onto his life and dreams and to keep moving forward physically and mentally,” McFarland says. “He then begins to question his own future. And perhaps the love of his life will have to wait. Perhaps indefinitely. That’s a real issue that is still alive and well today. Sports is truly one of the last frontiers that the LGBT community has to break down in terms of the closet.”