For decades the sports world has been a tough place to be a gay or bisexual man. Homophobia seemed to be built into the very foundation of American sports.
Not anymore. Having written about gay athletes for over 20 years, I’ve seen a sea change of attitude, visibility and policy in sports, all trending full-speed toward acceptance once thought impossible in sports.
Earlier this month I was pretty surprised to see a headline claiming that “nothing has changed” in the sports world in regard to homophobia.
I certainly understand people’s frustration that we don’t have dozens of out professional male athletes to point to (in women’s pro sports there are in fact many dozens of out athletes). Yes, some idiots in sports still use gay slurs, sometimes even (accidentally) on the air. I’ve been the target of homophobia myself, even in the last five years.
We’re not where we want to be when it comes to acceptance and the absence of homophobia in sports, but we’re also a lot closer than we were. At Outsports in 2020, we struggle to find athletes who come out to their teams and are rejected, at any level in any sport. Again, they are certainly out there. No doubt.
Yet, we are presented with a hundred athletes who find acceptance for every one we find who faces outright rejection from their teammates. And we’re looking as hard as we can for the latter. We have found that rejection is the exception, acceptance is the rule in sports today.
The claim that “nothing has changed” for gay athletes simply does not reflect reality today, or just how far we’ve come in the last 40 years, even the last decade.
While individual anecdotes give a flavor of the story, these 11 pieces of evidence give a more full picture of sports in 2020.
1) In 2000, we knew of only one publicly out out gay-male high school, college or pro athlete in the U.S.: Massachusetts high school football player Corey Johnson, who is now Speaker of the New York City Council. In 2017, we knew of 184 athletes who came out publicly that year alone. That’s the last year we kept count because the numbers were just getting too big and too hard to track. My best guess is that the number of athletes out to all or some of their teammates in high school or college is in the tens of thousands in the U.S. alone.
2) In 2000, one Major League Baseball team – the Los Angeles Dodgers – had an LGBT Night. Last year, almost all MLB teams did, in addition to 70 Minor League Baseball teams and dozens of teams in Major League Soccer, the NHL, NBA, WNBA, NWHL, and NWSL. The Dodgers’ 2019 LGBT Night was the team’s most attended regular-season game for the Dodgers in seven years. NFL teams, which face different issues with only eight home games and tickets hard to come by, are finding other ways of engaging the community.
3) In 2019, the professional sports leagues marching in the New York Pride March included the NFL, NHL, NWHL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, MLS and UFC. In other words: virtually every major American pro-sports organization, and then some. Just a few years earlier, there were zero.
4) In addition, individual teams from these leagues – including the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia ’76ers, Minnesota Vikings, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Kings, among many others – participated in their local Pride parades, some of them like the Dodgers actually sponsoring their local pride organizations.
5) In 2012, there had never in over 100 years been a publicly out active athlete in any of the “Big Five” men’s pro-sports leagues in the history of the U.S. (though there have been many out women for years). In the eight years since then we’ve seen five out men, all of them reporting widespread support from current or former teammates. In 2013, the LA Galaxy traded Major League Soccer’s top scorer to acquire the rights to Robbie Rogers, who had come out publicly just weeks earlier.
6) In 2012, there were also no publicly out LGBTQ athletes in college football. In the 2019 season alone, there were at least eight publicly out gay or bisexual players, each one of them saying they had the full support of their teams, even in “Red States” like Kansas, Idaho, and Ohio. Legendary coach Bill Snyder, at age 78, shared many statements of pride and support for Scott Frantz, who had come out publicly on the Kansas State football team.
7) A study released earlier this month of gay and bisexual American men who had come out on their high school and college teams found that “every athlete in the sample described an acceptant and inclusive response from their teammates.” Every. Single. One. The academic study said it refutes the notion that sports are a hostile place for gay and bisexual men. “There is now a significant body of research on Western sport which challenges this line of reasoning.” Another academic who has done extensive research in this space – former coach Eric Anderson – has said it’s become so difficult to find a full-throated rejection of gay people amongst today’s youth that he’s stopped studying it.
8) There are now copious scholarships given specifically to LGBTQ athletes and people in high school and college sports. The NCAA has even created a series of LGBTQ awards, culminating in an LGBTQ Division III Student-Athlete of The Year.
9) Every major professional sports league lists “sexual orientation” in its non-discrimination policy. The NHL added the language in 2005, the NFL in 2011, and the others since then.
10) When Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King came out publicly 40 years ago, they lost millions of dollars as companies pulled endorsement deals or avoided the athletes all together. In 2018, the athlete at the Winter Olympics with the most endorsement deals was Gus Kenworthy, an openly gay skier. Companies that have forged endorsement deals with other out male athletes include Visa, Nike, Adidas, and Marriott, to name just a few.
11) Some of the most powerful people in sports have connections to the LGBTQ+ community. Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts has been totally out while winning three NBA titles; same for Dodgers VP Erik Braverman, winning his first World Series this year; MLB VP Billy Bean was out the day the league hired him; Chicago Cubs owner Laura Ricketts is a lesbian; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has spoken many times about his love for his gay brother.
Pride celebrations. Active out athletes. Policies. Endorsement deals. Scholarships. Awards. Media coverage. Academic studies.
Every single piece of evidence I can find says the same thing: American sports as an institution have changed dramatically and are widely accepting of gay and bi athletes who come out at every level.
No doubt there is still discrimination, and every incidence of discrimination hurts. We want to know about each one so we can tackle them. The fight is not over.
But the claim that “nothing has changed” in regards to acceptance of gay and bisexual men in sports simply isn’t true. Pushing that narrative only hurts the young athletes trying to find their way in sports openly being their true selves.
About the Author – Cyd Zeigler Jr is a commentator and author in the field of sexuality and sports. Zeigler co-founded Outsports and the National Gay Flag Football League.