(This story was published in 2005).
Basketball star Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time MVP of the WNBA, has come out publicly as a lesbian, making her the highest-profile team sport athlete to come out while playing.
Swoopes, 34, has been hired as a spokeswoman for Olivia Cruises, which specializes in tour packages for lesbians. In connection with this, she is doing an extensive round of interviews with media outlets to talk about her decision to come out.
Swoopes told ESPN the magazine for their issue hitting newsstands Wednesday that she is "tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about."
Swoopes, a native Texan who led Texas Tech to the 1993 NCAA title and the Houston Comets to four WNBA crowns, becomes the rarest of athletes – someone who comes out publicly during their career. No North American male team sport athlete has ever done so. Among women, WNBA star Sue Wicks declared she was a lesbian two years ago, and Michelle Van Gorp of the Minnesota Lynx did the same last year. Wicks, however, would not discuss anything besides her declaration to a New York City weekly newspaper.
Swoopes is the most prominent team sport athlete to declare her homosexuality. How big? She is the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her, “Air Swoopes,” in 1995. She is author of a children’s book, “Bounce Back.” She’s won two ESPY awards. She helped lead the USA to Olympic gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004. And she’s still at the top of her game, leading the WNBA in 2005 in points scored per game and minutes played among other categories.
It will be hard for sports fans to miss Swoopes in the upcoming days. She appears Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and will be featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN, MSNBC, Fox Sports Net, Gay.com, Planet Out and Outsports (where she will have a Friday interview).
“That’s awesome, that’s incredible, that’s a huge step for gays in sports. I’m really happy for her,” Esera Tuaolo, a former NFL player who came out to great fanfare in 2002 after he retired, told Outsports. Tuaolo said it was courageous of Swoopes to come out while still playing.
“Maybe this will help other athletes who are wrestling with whether to come out of the closet,” Tuaolo said, adding that the reaction to Swoopes will be a key factor. “She should just know that she has support. When you come out, you find a new family and we’re all going to rally around her.”
Helen Carroll, who runs the Homophobia in Sports project for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is a former college basketball coach and says Swoopes' announcement "dispels comments" by coaches like Penn State's Rene Portland who say they don't want lesbians on their team.
"This can change the landscape for women in sports and also for spectators and fans to see an athlete the caliber of Sheryl Swoopes simply speaking the truth and being the whole person she is," Carroll told Outsports.
The decision by Swoopes to go public came after she and her partner, Alisa Scott, booked an upcoming Olivia cruise. Through an intermediary, Swoopes wound up meeting with Olivia CEO Amy J. Errett in August in Los Angeles. Errett offered Swoopes an endorsement contract that she accepted. Swoopes, who is playing in Italy this fall, flew to Houston this week to begin telling her story to various media outlets. Reporters who interviewed her on Wednesday said she admitted to being nervous but also articulate and confident.
“This is phenomenal,” Errett told Outsports. “It’s a really big thing for sports, for Sheryl personally … and a big thing for gay African American community.”
The endorsement deal is worth about six figures, the New York Times quoted Errett as saying. Swoopes told the Times "she had struggled with debt that forced her to file for bankruptcy in 2004 because she mismanaged her money." The paper cited "bankruptcy records from June 2004 [that] show that Swoopes owed $711,050, including $275,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. When her Chapter 13 bankruptcy claim was dismissed last month, she had not paid all of her creditors in full." Swoopes said she is "working on things."
Swoopes, who named her 8-year-old son Jordan Michael Jackson after Michael Jordan, joins tennis legend Martina Navratilova and pro golfer Rosie Jones as athletes who endorse the cruise company.