In 2020, gay men and women are living in one of the most progressive periods in modern gay history. With same sex marriage legalized in many western countries and general attitudes towards gay and lesbian people becoming more accepting, why do we still face the struggle of having so few, if any openly gay male athletes in professional team sports?
Despite all the progress made in gay rights, sports are still perceived to be an unsafe environment for LGBTQI individuals. In the five major professional sports leagues for men in the USA, that is the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS, only NFL player Ryan Russell who came out as bisexual in 2019 and MLS player Colin Martin who came out as gay in 2018 are the only openly gay/bi men currently active in a professional sports league.
Despite this, there have been scores of players who have come out just after retirement, including Dave Kopay and Ryan O’Callaghan. As well as a handful of openly gay athletes in individual sports including Gus Kenworthy, Tom Daley, Adam Rippon and so forth. There have even been athletes who’ve come out during their active playing careers to achieve the coveted title of “first openly gay *insert sport league here* player” including Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers and others. However, many of those athletes who came out either waited until they were close to retirement before coming out (Jason Collins) or staked their entire career on it (Michael Sam) with the only athlete who went on to continue playing for several more years being Robbie Rogers.
A lot of discussion revolves around the lack of openly gay male representation among active athletes in sports. Statistically speaking, there should be a lot of gay athletes in sports than there are currently known to be; and there are. So, why aren’t they stepping out of that closet to open the door for everybody else? Simply put, the pressures of success vs failure based on previous athletes who’ve come out might be the biggest barrier.
Sports teams and organizations are now trying to embrace this illusion of inclusion and diversity to show the world that their sport is safe and open for gay athletes. From pride nights, rainbow jerseys and even sponsoring LGBTQI sports events. Yet, the sports teams and organizations themselves have done very little (if anything) to create a team culture around acceptance and inclusion.
For professional sports athletes now, there is a lot of pressure to perform. With sponsorship deals and playing contracts worth millions of dollars. If their performance suffers, they are cut. In other cases, non-performance related attention such as Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protest can lead to them getting cut and their career ending prematurely. This “non-performance related attention” is exactly what keeps gay athletes in the closet, because like Colin Kaepernick, the simple act of coming out has ended many careers.
The conversation of gay male athletes is always focused on questions like “what would you think if you knew one of your teammates is gay? Would you change in the locker room in front of a gay teammate? If a gay athlete comes out, they will open a flood gate of other athletes! The next gay athlete will make a fortune in sponsorships!” and blah blah blah. That is a lot of extra attention and unwanted pressure to put onto any athlete. With the pressure to perform and a multi-million-dollar career on the line, the next professional athlete to come out will be risking it all. Millions of athletes, many of them gay will be following that story to see what comes from the next gay professional athlete. Will they be successful? Will they get a lot of homophobic abuse? Will they be cut? What will happen?
This kind of stress and pressure can have a negative impact on performance. They become distracted and less able to focus on the game because they are overwhelmed with the doubts, insecurities and fears of what could happen if they are found out. In addition, the homophobic culture that is still prevalent in sport team and organization cultures can lead have a negative impact on the athlete's mental health which in turn, effects their performance. Yet, even when coming out it isn't always freeing for the athlete because of the extra stress and pressures added with the distraction of being the token gay athlete which distracts from the game itself.
So far, that hasn’t gone well for the athletes who have taken that risk, which is why floodgates haven’t open let alone the closet door barely being cracked. It’s like you’re the batter at the bottom of the 9th with the bases loaded on game seven of the World Series, your entire career is staked on whether or not you can hit the ball and get a run. Everybody is watching you, if you get a hit, you win; but if you miss, your cut. That is a lot of pressure for any one person to shoulder and the risk of failure is so high that you won’t find many volunteers willing to stake their million-dollar contracts on it.
So, while teams and organizations talk the talk to promote themselves as inclusive and diverse, they have done very little to walk the walk. Despite pride nights and rainbow jerseys, little has changed within the team culture and organization behavior in order to take some of this pressure off of the shoulders athletes who might be considering coming out. That is, the next gay athlete will have to carry this pressure regardless, but is the athlete’s team and organization ready to help carry the load? The next gay athlete will be facing a lot of new pressures in their career that will affect their performance. Psychological pressures from homophobic bullies, media inquiries, fans, even teammates who might feel that the cohesiveness of the team is lost. Suddenly the attention goes from the team as a whole and their performance to the individual athlete for something that is not directly related to the sport itself.
When Colin Kaepernick protested, everybody’s attention shifted from his and his team’s performance in the sport to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Suddenly everybody had an opinion (good or bad) about what he was doing, and people lost interest in the rest of the team or even the game itself. Is it any wonder he was cut? His teammates, coaches and managers were simply not prepared or capable of dealing with these new pressures to back up their athlete, instead they saw it as a distraction, and he was cut.
Inclusion doesn’t start with the next gay athlete; inclusion starts with teams and organizations identifying and building the support systems needed to help gay athletes navigate the unique pressures and demands they will face when they come out. Every team in every sport has, had or will have a gay athlete under their care regardless if they are out or not. Those athletes are constantly balancing their entire athletic career and living out of the closet; evaluating the risk as to whether they will be accepted or cut.
For the gay athlete, the support and acceptance of their team, teammates and coaches is vital. Building a team environment and culture that does away with homophobia and encourages athletes to be open and honest without fear of judgement is where sports needs to start with being truly inclusive. Rather than have all the pressure of coming out on the shoulders of the gay athlete; his team can help support the load so when he comes out, he can stay focused on the game.
By Dirk Smith
Coach Dirk, CSCS, is a sport psychology expert, performance coach, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 10 years of experience as a coach, athlete, personal trainer, fitness instructor, and sports psychologist to drive athletes to build their own self efficacy and express themselves through sport.