Two years ago, on April 29, 2013, Jason Collins came out as an openly gay NBA player and it seemed as if sports had changed for good. A question Cyd and I frequently heard was whether this heralded the end of Outsports, since it was assumed even more male pro athletes would come out, rendering out site meaningless.
Two years later, Outsports is still here and stronger than ever, primarily because not a whole lot has changed in what might be called "elite-level men's sports." The sports world has moved on to other issues and gay pro athletes are staying firmly in the closet. I can't entirely blame them, but it is depressing.
For those keeping score, here are the totals of openly gay male athletes in pro team sports as of today:
MLS: 1 (Robbie Rogers)
Pretty depressing, and it something that hasn't changed much for 50 years. Add in zero players for major college football and one (Derrick Gordon, assuming he transfers) in Division I college basketball and you can see that any idea that gay people have arrived in elite sports is foolish. If numbers are an indication, we've gone a step backward in two years.
Jason Collins comes out story archive
Jason Collins becomes the first active pro athlete in the big leagues to come out as gay.
On a larger level, things are better. All the major pro team sports include protection based on sexual orientation. Many dozens of straight allies have voiced their support for having gay teammates. I firmly believe an openly gay player will be readily accepted by his teammates, because it has already happened. Overt homophobia in sports is hard to find, because it is no longer cool and people have learned to keep such thoughts to themselves.
Yet it seems like the "gay thing" is old news. A major topic at the 2014 NFL owners meetings, it didn't make the agenda in 2015. Been there, done that. Without a visible out athlete in their sport, the men who run those teams don't have to deal with a real-life situation; it's all back to being theoretical.
Collins in 2013 and Michael Sam in 2014 were important historical figures as "firsts." Both were lauded by President Obama and their journeys as out athletes dominated sports coverage. But in 2015, Collins has retired and Sam is not on an NFL roster and there seems to be no one willing to step up and be the next openly gay male pro athlete.
I think both men serve as a cautionary tale for anyone considering a similar move. Collins was a free agent who did not get picked up on a roster for training camp prior to the 2013-2014 season. He finally was signed by the New Jersey Nets in February 2014, halfway through the season. He played without incident through the playoffs and then retired.
Sam, the 2013 SEC co-defensive player of the year, saw his draft stock plummet after he came out. Projected by some to go as high as the third round, he wound up lasting until the seventh, becoming the 249th out of 256 picks. He went through training camp with the St. Louis Rams and appeared in all four preseason games, registering 3.5 sacks. Sam was one of the last cuts by the team and his teammates and coaches talked about how much they enjoyed having him in camp.
Despite his preseason performance, he languished in limbo for three days while other players who had been cut were signed to various practice squads. He was finally signed by the Dallas Cowboys to their practice squad, where he lasted until Oct. 22, when he was released.
It is impossible to prove how much their being openly gay hurt either athlete, and that's the problem. It is easy to look at their performance and come to a reasonable conclusion that they just weren't good enough. Collins was at the tail end of a 13-year NBA career, so his best days were behind him. It was understandable that teams weren't clamoring for his skills.
For his part, Sam's performance at the NFL Combine was lackluster and there were real questions about whether his size and speed were a good fit for most NFL teams. In the preseason, he played against backups and players soon to be cut, so it was hard to tell how he would fare against top-level players.
Had either man been a star and lingered on the job market, the case would be closed on what role their sexual orientation played. Absent that, we'll never know for sure. So why would a closeted player want to take the risk of possibly hurting his career by coming out? There doesn't seem to be much of an upside, although I would argue that not having to hide and lie is reason enough.
Also, given the media fascination with the story, no athlete can come out quietly. Even a bench player on a small-market team in the NBA, NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball would be a huge deal. It is a lot to ask the average athlete to become the public face of an issue. The attention would be overwhelmingly positive, but the attention could also be overwhelming. So we remain stuck in a situation where acceptance has never been higher but we have no one willing to stand up and be true to themselves.
The real action is occurring in high school and in smaller collegiate sports. Outsports regularly runs coming out stories of athletes from practically every sport and these young LGBT athletes inspire others with hope that it is possible to be yourself and also play the game you love. With gay pro athletes missing in action, we will take our heroes any place we can get them.