When women’s basketball star Sheryl Swoopes publicly came out of the closet on October 26, she became one of the first openly gay athletes in professional team sports, and by far the most famous. It was a groundbreaking step made all the more remarkable by Swoopes’ star power: The WNBA’s only three-time MVP and a three-time Olympic gold medalist, Swoopes even has a Nike shoe in her name. She’s also the first prominent African-American athlete ever to come out.
But while Swoopes’ act may reflect—and produce—a slight lessening of the homophobia that has long afflicted professional sports, the media reaction to her coming out made clear that homophobia and sexism remain powerful forces in the sports press.
Media have always placed much more attention and value on men’s sports than women’s (Extra!, 11-12/94), but the Swoopes story brought that lopsidedness into stark relief. Instead of covering Swoopes’ declaration as the landmark event that it was, most sports columnists tended to react as if it weren’t a “real” story, simply because Swoopes is not a man. ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde, for example, wrote (10/30/05) that while Swoopes opened a door, “what will take considerably more courage is for a man to do the same thing.”
Newsday sports columnist Wallace Matthews’ response (10/27/05), headlined “Male Athletes Have Much More to Lose,” also downplayed the story’s significance. “It’s different for men,” Matthews began, turning to two gay male sources who argued that Swoopes’ act was simply not as “world-shattering” as it would have been had a man done it. One source pointed to Swoopes’ new lesbian cruise line endorsement as evidence that “in some ways this will turn out to be a plus and a bonus” for her, whereas “there seems to be no benefit for a male athlete to come out.” Matthews wrapped up with a final quote from one of his sources that sealed the diminishment of the story: “What Sheryl did was phenomenal for her. But for a man to do it? You’re talking about a whole new level of courage.”
The notion that coming out is so much easier for women than for men is sharply contradicted by the fact that Swoopes is the only out player in the entire roughly 150-player WNBA—despite the fact that, as many columnists stressed in their attempt to downplay the story, the WNBA is rumored to be chock-full of lesbians. (In the eight-year history of the league, only two other players have come out—both now retired.)
For some writers, the relative difficulty of Swoopes’ coming out was largely irrelevant; what mattered was the effect it had on men. In the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Mark Morford (11/2/05) seemed at least partly aware of the media’s overemphasis on male sports when he wrote that her coming out was “a nonstarter—[because] it’s not about manhood.” But he went on to describe the presumed non-reaction of the “male fan” to the news—though it’s not clear why journalists should judge the newsworthiness of the story based on the presumed reaction of male sports fans alone.
And though most of the purveyors of such male-centric views are male sports writers who dominate the profession, they by no means have a monopoly. Jemele Hill of the Orlando Sentinel (10/27/05) claimed that “lesbians don’t pose a threat and have a certain appreciation in a male-dominated culture,” and concluded: “The only way we’re going to address homophobia in sports is if Peyton Manning, the NFL’s MVP last season, makes a similar disclosure. Or Brett Favre. Or Michael Jordan.”
Hill’s vision of lesbians in sports is astonishingly naïve; to say that Swoopes’ coming out does not address homophobia in sports is to dismiss the very real and virulent homophobia that female athletes have faced since the beginning of their entry into competitive sports. Opponents will often “lesbian-bait” rival teams to try to hamper recruitment; Swoopes herself was used in such a scheme when the Austin American-Statesman reported rumors that she had left the University of Texas as a freshman player in 1989 in part because there were lesbians on the team. Swoopes denied it, but the label stuck to UT, and its women’s basketball program fell from its former dominance (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9/24/98; Austin American-Statesman, 3/21/04).
Other journalists went beyond an ignorance of homophobia to outright displays of homophobia, like Sacramento Bee sports columnist Mark Kreidler. Kreidler (10/28/05) demonstrated an extraordinary preoccupation with lesbianism in the WNBA, writing that it “is the rarely spoken subtext to almost every conversation anyone ever has with me about whether or not he (or she) watches the WNBA or follows the league.” (Remember that before Swoopes, the league had exactly two former players who were out.) He went on: “Substitute ‘steroid user’ for ‘gay,’ and you have baseball’s recent image problem in a nutshell.”
In an environment where sportswriters consider being gay a problem akin to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, it’s no surprise that professional athletes are afraid to come out—and perhaps all the more remarkable that Swoopes did so anyway.