On Monday, NBA veteran Jason Collins became the first openly gay male professional athlete in America, a huge step forward for American sports, culture and society as a whole.
As the mainstream sports media, players, fans, owners and bloggers all reacted to the news, a common untruth was repeated again and again: “Collins is the first professional athlete to come out
during his mid-career.” This is simply false. He is the first male professional athlete to come out during his career.
(As an aside, he is the first male professional athlete to come out during his career. Indeed, several retired male professional athletes have come out: former NFL player Dave Kopay retired in 1972 and came out in 1975; former MLB player Glenn Burke retired in 1979 and came out in the 1990s, former NBA player John Amaechi last played in 2003 and came out in 2007. There are more; ESPN has a list, so does Wikipedia.)
Tennis great Martina Navratilova, whose career spanned from 1972 to 2006, came out in 1981. (Billie Jean King‘s story bears mentioning but doesn’t necessarily follow either narrative; she was outed in 1981 after retiring in 1980, but came out of retirement in 1982). Maybe Navratilova is different than Collins; if part of the worry about being gay in sports is locker room dynamic, maybe we need to only look at team sports. Soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who had 1 goal and 3 assists for the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and 3 goals and 4 assists in the 2012 Olympics and who now plays for Olympique Lyonnais in France, came out in July 2012.
Several female basketball players in the WNBA have come out during their careers. Among them are Michelle Van Gorp, Ann Wauters and Sue Wicks. Maybe you’ve never heard of them, and maybe for some reason that makes it less newsworthy. But how about Brittney Griner, who dazzled viewers with dunks for Baylor in this year’s March Madness tournament, who was the first pick overall in this year’s WNBA draft, and who Mark Cuban said he’d consider inviting to try outs for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks? She noted that she is gay in an interview with Sports Illustrated two weeks ago. (I say “noted” because she simply mentioned it in passing, something that I hope can be the norm one day). When asked about her sexuality in light of being the first overall pick, Griner said: “It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”
From Someecards.com, via @zombiemarcus
Griner’s statement made very little news, but since then I’ve been thinking a lot about why. So has OutSports, where Anna Aagenes wrote:
Undoubtedly, Brittney is a basketball legend-in-the-making, and the fact that people aren’t making a big deal out of her coming out is both shocking and disappointing. Imagine if this happened with the same caliber athlete on a men’s team. (Let’s say the male equivalent as a young LeBron James.) I assure you, my Facebook page would be exploding with friends and family saying, “Did you see this? It’s all over the news!” I’d no doubt receive text messages and voice mails from well-intentioned friends about how sports culture has “finally changed.”
With all the recent media frenzy over pro male athletes coming out or not coming out, we lose our focus on the incredible female athletes who have come out. Here are a few recent headlines regarding coming out in sports from this month: “Leagues prepare for day when gay athlete comes out”; “Professional athletes coming out would be biggest step yet for gay rights”; “Major Sports Leagues Prepare for the ‘I’m Gay’ Disclosure.” The list goes on.
I hate to break it to them, but there are already out pro athletes. They are women.
This double standard is highlighted all the more now that an active male athlete has come out. So why? Why does the #1 WNBA draft pick come out to little fanfare but the first male athlete to come out during his career — a decidedly mediocre player in the twilight of his career (or should this not matter?) — gets a front page Sports Illustrated spread? (I’ll stop short of saying “top billing on Sportscenter,” because ESPN was pretty terrible about coverage, opting to focus on the Jets’ expected announcement to cut Tim Tebow [about which I would be more mad but I just relish so much in Tebow's failure, see here] and allowing Chris Broussard to say this on the show Outside the Lines).
I think there are primarily two reasons, which in my research for this post I saw were both mentioned in the comments on an OutSports post on the issue.
- People don’t care about women’s sports. We write all the time on this blog about women’s sports playing second fiddle to their male equivalents, which is reinforced by sports media who apparently would rather ignore women’s sports instead of market them and make money off of them. Women’s team sports struggle to exist, are scheduled at weird times and in weird places. Why? Because people, self-fulfilling prophesy or no, do not seem to care. So I guess if you don’t really consider them to be important, in stark contrast to the “big four” pro men’s sports, then female athletes coming out is likewise not important.
- Lesbian athletes reinforce stereotypes about who plays sports. Take the classic trope that playing sports is what boys do. Sports are manly, girly girls are girly and they don’t play sports. So if a woman plays sports, she’s manly, a tomboy, boyish. Hey, maybe she actually is a man, let’s test her DNA! Certainly Brittney Griner has had her fair share of being called a man. So it follows in this gendered, transphobic, heteronormative logic that female athletes, manly as they are, should like women. Brittney Griner rocked a totally badass white suit and Chucks for the draft when other players wore dresses. If you subscribe to stereotypes, she looks butch, so she likes women. Whereas with male athletes, all the stereotypes are subverted. Collins himself addressed this in his piece when he said: “My mouthpiece is in, and my wrists are taped. Go ahead, take a swing — I’ll get up. I hate to say it, and I’m not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher. I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows?”
Griner at the 2013 WNBA draft, via MoreThan-Stats.com
But I’ll go one step further and say there’s a third reason why female athletes who come out while active are treated differently.
One driving force behind homophobia is the same thing that’s at the root of racism and sexism: fear of dismantling the hegemon. If the ruling class — comprised of straight white men — “gives” rights or equal treatment to an oppressed group, the thinking must go, they cede some of their power. I mean that’s really at the heart of discrimination against “minority” groups, the unwillingness to give up any power currently held by the majority.
Women are already an oppressed group. We are a suspect class in American constitutional law. We are underrepresented in our “representative democracy.” So if women are already oppressed by, for example, the pay gap, or the lack of paid parental leave, or the incessant attacks on our ability to control our reproduction, then what difference does it make if a woman is gay? She’s not a threat to those in power anyway. But men are different; men benefit from patriarchy. As a result, gay men are more threatening than lesbian women and a gay man causes a bigger stir, especially in the male-dominated arena of professional sports.
I’m not quite sure where we go from here. Jason Collins’ announcement is a huge step forward for American sports and the LGBT community as a whole. At the same time, it’s patently false to call him the first professional athlete to come out pre-retirement. All three reasons that I suspect contribute to the prevalence of that falsehood are based in stereotypes about women’s place in society and in sports. If women were considered equal to men in sports and elsewhere in society, the milestone we reached on Monday would have been reached decades ago — another reason the fight for women’s equality is so important.