Little wonder gay athletes keep their personal lives private when some of the world’s biggest sports stars have labeled them worse than animals or used gay slurs as insults. More so when those brave enough to go public receive death threats. A lack of tolerance, however, is becoming less tolerated in professional sports. And the slow drip of athletes coming out has turned into something of a trickle. Even so, there have yet to be openly gay players competing regularly in most of the world’s top leagues. Are professional sports ready to fully embrace the diversity of their athletes?
The Rio Olympics provided a more LGBT-friendly backdrop than the 2014 Sochi Games, which took place in the shadow of Russia introducing anti-gay legislation. By one estimate, Brazil hosted more than double the 23 openly gay athletes who had competed at the 2012 Olympics in London. And almost half of them secured medals. They included British hockey players Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, the first same-sex married couple to win gold medals. In 2014, Russia's discriminatory laws prompted calls for a boycott and — not for the first time — turned the Olympics into a mirror of contemporary political tensions. The issue is likely to intensify when Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup and again in 2022 when the soccer event moves to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. In the U.S., the National Basketball Association relocated its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte after North Carolina approved a law weakening anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees college sports, also pulled games from North Carolina, but the National Football League declined to move an owners' meeting. In September, professional skateboarder Brian Anderson became the latest high-profile sportsman to come out as gay.
“Gay football players are invisible in professional football. We don't know any.” — Thomas Hitzlsperger, retired soccer player
Many groundbreaking athletes came out either without intending to — tennis star Billie Jean King in a 1981 palimony suit — or after their careers ended. The latter group included diving champion Greg Louganis, NBA player John Amaechi and Thomas Hitzlsperger, a member of Germany's 2006 World Cup soccer team. Among the few top-class gay athletes who made their sexuality public during the playing years was another trailblazing tennis legend, Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981. And Jason Collins, an NBA veteran, in 2013 became the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport. (Or, at least, the first to be acknowledged). Ian Roberts braved homophobia while still immersed in the macho culture of Australian rugby in 1994, as did Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas in 2009 and Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz in 2012. Michael Sam came out before his career properly started, becoming the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL in 2014. The first and only openly gay player in England’s top soccer league, Justin Fashanu, came out in 1990. Tragically, he hung himself eight years later.
About 80 percent of gay athletes have experienced homophobia in sports, according to one international study, and just 1 percent felt completely accepted in sports culture. One NFL player said he was released by a team merely for supporting same-sex marriage. Still, the increasingly positive reaction to high-profile athletes coming out — most recently the professional skateboarder Brian Anderson and women’s basketball player Elena Delle Donne — suggests an improving outlook. And just as sports have contributed to the fight against racism, activists see it playing a part in eroding discrimination based on sexual orientation. A 2014 survey showed only a small minority of Americans opposed gay athletes in professional sports, while another poll revealed 86 percent of NFL players would be comfortable with a gay teammate. Some 82 percent of U.K. sports fans would have no issue with a gay player, while 8 percent would stop watching their team, a BBC survey found. Sports leagues and organizations are coming under increasing pressure to review their practices, with critics pillorying the embattled soccer ruling body FIFA for its choice of World Cup hosts and its reaction to criticism. After the furor over the Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee introduced an anti-discrimination clause into its contracts with host cities.
The Reference Shelf
- The Guardian: The Courageous Journey of Ian Roberts.
- The Guardian: Boxer Orlando Cruz on coming out.
- The Atlantic on the U.S. baseball player who tried to change sports culture in the 1970s.
- Thomas Hitzlsperger and Martina Navratilova interviews on coming out.
- A New York Times Q&A with Jason Collins on coming out and his article in the Players' Tribune after he retired the following year.
- Chicago Tribune: NFL Still in Closet About Anti-Gay Culture.
- A study on homophobic attitudes in sport: Out on the Fields.
- Justin Fashanu's niece, Amal Fashanu, presents a BBC documentary about gay footballers.
- The Guardian interviews the first transgender soccer international.
- U.S. soccer player Robbie Rogers discusses coming out in the Guardian.
- Principle 6 campaign website.
- Pew Research Center’s 2013 report: The Global Divide on Homosexuality.
First published Jan. 21, 2014
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