On the heels of Michael Sam’s engagement announcement, we wonder: Is it still possible to make Big News in sports? Dan Woog thinks so, as he writes here.
Back in the day — “the day” being, say, 2012 — an athlete coming out as gay or lesbian was Big News. In 2014, you had to do something really outstanding to make headlines. You had to be a National Basketball Association player, like Jason Collins — and then you had to sign a contract with a big-city team like the Brooklyn Nets. And your #98 jersey (worn to commemorate the year Matthew Shepard was killed) had to become the bestselling sports shirt in the country. Not just for basketball, but any sport.
You had to be a college football player like Michael Sam. Not just any football player, mind you, but one who was a consensus All-American, and your league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Then you needed to endure the media circus known as the NFL draft. And when you were drafted, you had to kiss your boyfriend, as cameras clicked and whirred.
You had to be a Major League Soccer player like Robbie Rogers. And because MLS is off many sports fans’ radars, you had to do something like play in your league’s championship game. And help win it. (We’ll run an interview with Rogers next week.)
You must have done those things because, in 2014, it was not just enough to come out as an openly gay athlete. Dozens of men and women did it. They were college football and basketball players, swimmers, baseball players, volleyball players and shot putters. They were Olympic speed skaters, lugers, rowers and gymnasts.
They were non-competitors too, but working in the sports world nonetheless. Coaches declared their sexuality publicly. So did pro teams’ front-office executives, and college teams’ sports information officials.
Major League Baseball umpire Dale Scott came out too. A year or two ago, that would have been Stop the Presses News. Now it was so unremarkable that — after he mentioned his partner in a Referee magazine article — it went unnoticed by everyone for a couple of months.
This long-awaited-but-still-unexpected state of affairs — an outpouring of openness across a broad swath of the sports universe — has created a gigantic ripple effect. Straight teammates have reacted with a range of emotions. Some give virtual high-fives, tweeting messages of support. College and pro teams have produced “You Can Play” videos, conveying the message that if you can dunk, dribble, pitch, row, run, dive, or do any other type of athletic activity, just go right ahead and do it — sexual orientation be damned.
Other teammates have reacted with who-cares shrugs. That’s appropriate too.
The ripple effect has reached down to high schools, and beyond. An entire generation of boys and girls are growing up knowing that they will have — may already have, in fact — LGBT teammates and coaches. It’s the same as realizing they’ll meet people of different colors and religions. Sports teaches many life lessons, and this is just one more.
The lesson is more profound for young LGBT athletes. They are joining the big, wide, only slightly dysfunctional sports world on their own terms, not even realizing that just a few years ago they would have faced formidable barriers to entry. This does not mean that thousands of gay boys and lesbians are suddenly signing up as out, proud Little Leaguers. Many of them have not yet figured out who they are. But they are playing their games in a rapidly changing environment. And as they concentrate more on batting and passing and shooting and whatever, they’ll spend less time on hiding.
Though, as with the rest of society, change comes more slowly in the transgender arena than others, the field is shifting for trans athletes too. But if a trans-inclusive vote earlier this month by Minnesota’s high school sports governing body is any indication — and why shouldn’t it be? — the “T” in LGBT sports is becoming more than just an afterthought.
So if in the year ahead you have to do something truly outstanding to make LGBT headlines in the sports world, what do you do?
Fortunately, there remain a few frontiers to conquer. You can be a professional sports franchise owner who hires the first openly gay head coach. You can be an ABC, CBS, NBC or ESPN TV announcer who announces, on air, that you are so proud of out athletes because you yourself are gay.
Or you can still be that elusive, still-unidentified-but-we-know-you’re-“out”-there man: a professional superstar, at the top of his game. You can be the guy to say — holding aloft the Super Bowl, World Series or NBA championship trophy — “I’m here. I’m queer. I’m going to Disney World.”
Even in 2015, that’s guaranteed to be Big News.