Today marks the start of Pride Month, when LGBT equality is celebrated in cities around the world and out people in all walks of life share their joy in being their authentic selves. This is true in sports, where great strides have been made in the last decade. But in one area, the closet door remains firmly shut — top level men's sports.
It's 2016 and this is the depressing tally in men's sports:
NFL, 0 out players.
Division I college basketball: 0
FBS football: 0
Pro golf, tennis, NASCAR, European top-flight soccer: 0.
These are the same totals as five, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 and 50 years ago. Pretty depressing. There is one out player in Major League Soccer, Robbie Rogers. He is thriving with the L.A. Galaxy, but he has to be feeling lonely, carrying the banner for all gay men in pro sports. Derrick Gordon this spring became the first openly gay player in the NCAA Men's Div. 1 College Basketball Tournament, but he has graduated.
Two years ago, there was hope that things were changing. Jason Collins had just completed the playoffs with the NBA Brooklyn Nets, while Michael Sam was a much-publicized NFL draftee with the St. Louis Rams. The mainstream media was covering gay athletes as never before and believed a corner had been turned. Many were expecting a flood of out pro athletes but it never happened. Collins has retired from the NBA and Sam is out of football.
It's not as if this is the case in other areas of sport. Brittney Griner is an out and proud star in the WNBA and there are now two openly lesbian women's basketball coaches. There are two gay players in the lower levels of baseball's minor leagues. There will be at least five out men in the 2016 Olympics (more may come as teams are announced), up from one four years ago. Last year, 105 LGBT people came out in sports.
This year, in the first five months, Outsports has profiled out LGBT athletes in an amazing array of sports -- umpire, rower, women's basketball player, swimmer, lacrosse player, hurdler, cross country runner, tennis player, triathlete, martial artist, volleyball player, soccer player, ultimate Frisbee player, rodeo cowboy, discus thrower, football referee, marathon runner, former college football player, surfer, pro hockey referee and diver.
More and more, high school and college athletes are coming out and finding total acceptance and talking about it publicly. There have been, and are, major college and pro male athletes out to some people, but none recently have taken the step to go public.
Going public is the only way to effect large-scale change through visibility. We saw that this week with the story of Patrick Faerber, a young umpire who stuck with his dream of one day becoming a big-league umpire, inspired after longtime MLB umpire Dale Scott came out in 2014. Scott had been out within baseball, but his interview with me that December was the first time he talked publicly about being gay. It was only then that he could become a role model for people like Faerber. "Every day reinforces the fact that I did the right thing in December 2014," Scott told me after reading Faerber's article.
We all know the reasons elite athletes stay closeted — fear of negative publicity; not wanting to stand out as different with their peers; perceived homophobia withing their team and sport; not being able to come out quietly because of media attention; concern over endorsements and fan reaction. These reasons haven't changed in years, even though a lot of them have been discredited. Every pro sports league has issued statements welcoming gay players and dozens and dozens of straight allies have voiced their support. The playing field and locker room have never been more ready.
Coming out, though, is still a very personal choice and male pro athletes still think silence is the best policy. Michael Sam's fall in the NFL Draft and not making it onto an NFL roster didn't helped. Whether it's true or not — and I don't buy it the way others do — there is a perception that Sam would be in the NFL if he stayed closeted. Sam himself has voiced this feeling, and right or wrong, his story is a cautionary tale for others considering coming out publicly.
There is little that can be done to get elite male athletes to come out. No one will out them and I doubt reading about an out high school athlete will inspire a change of heart. Pride Month will go on without them, as it has virtually forever.