And then there were none.
With the retirement of Robbie Rogers from the Los Angeles Galaxy, there are zero openly gay male athletes in the five largest North American pro team sports leagues — NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS. For good measure, there are no out male players in any of the major pro soccer leagues around the world.
In the acronym that encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity — LGBTQ — we have several L’s and some female B’s but zero men in the G, B, T or Q classification. Lesbians are prominent in the WNBA, winning championships, getting married and being advocates for LGBTQ rights, but out active male athletes are nowhere to be found.
At one point in 2014, Rogers was playing in the MLS, Jason Collins was in the NBA and Michael Sam about to enter training camp with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. It seemed as if the sports closet door was about to be pushed wide open.
However, since Sam came out prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, there has not been another pro team male athlete who has come out. The situation is a little better in major college sports. Scott Frantz, who is openly gay, is the starting left tackle for Kansas State. My-King Johnson is a highly recruited redshirt defensive end for Arizona. It’s possible that one or both of these players could be on an NFL roster in a few years.
The situation is far more positive in high school and college sports and what might be called “minor” sports for both men and women. Outsports adds to its coming out list each week and every year since we started tracking the numbers has seen as increase of out LGBT people in sport. People at all levels, from the executive suite to the training room, are refusing to stay closeted.
It’s a very different matter for the men’s Big 5 pro sports. As to why there are no prominent gay male team athlete? There is no single reason, though the theories have remained fairly constant in the 18 years we have been publishing Outsports.
Michael Sam was projected to be a mid-round NFL draft pick after winning SEC co-defensive player of the year at Missouri in 2013. However, he was one of the last players chosen in the 2014 draft and went to a team whose strength was the defensive line.
I have always wondered whether the NFL privately cut some deal with the Rams to draft Sam (the team had three additional draft picks that year) and avoid the embarrassment of an openly gay player going undrafted. By all accounts, Sam was given a fair shake by the Rams, who made him one of the last players cut. He was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys for their practice squad but released halfway through the 2014 season and was never invited back to an NFL training camp.
Did other gay athletes who considered coming out get cold feet after seeing Sam not make an NFL roster? Obviously, there is no way to gauge that, but this thought has been widespread with LGBT sports people I have spoken with. Sam himself has said that he thought he would still be playing had he waited until after making a team to come out.
What argues against this theory is that Sam washed out in the Canadian Football League in 2015, despite being pursued by the Montreal Alouettes and given every opportunity. Maybe he simply wasn’t good enough to play pro football. After all, every year there are players who were terrific in college and yet can’t crack an NFL roster.
We’ll never know if other closeted gay players did not want to be the next Michael Sam.
Fear of the unknown
This has always been the biggest overarching reason athletes give for staying closeted. How will their teammates react? Management? Coaches? Fans? Sponsors? Media?
Despite abundant evidence and statements of support from all the above, players must not think it’s worth it to come out and possibly harm their career. Why go through your career being labeled the “gay player.”
The counter to this argument is that the men who have come out in elite individual or lower-level sports quickly lose the “gay player” label after an initial burst of attention. To a man, they all say they have performed better after no longer having to hide.
Robbie Manson is an Olympian from New Zealand and one of the best rowers in the world and set a world record this year. Not a single article on his achievements this year in his native New Zealand mentioned his sexual orientation, because it’s already been told and has zero relevance to how he performs. Ditto for athletes like Scott Frantz and Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy. If their being gay comes up, it’s because they chose to talk about it.
The coming out process
One athlete told me recently that he had little problem coming out to his family, friends, coaches or teammates. His biggest problem was coming out to himself. I think that perfectly encapsulates how intensely personal the coming out process is, and how self-acceptance is a hurdle.
People who aren’t athletes struggle with their coming out journey and they go through it without public attention. Any male pro athlete who came out would be huge news. Even though the coverage would be positive, the attention will still be intense, even though it will fade.
There is no quiet way for a pro athlete to come out, so staying private (maybe out to family, friends and close teammates) is the path of least resistance. The downside is a total lack of role models and zero visibility. Kenworthy said it best:
“All I can really say is to encourage anybody who's in the closet to come out, and congratulate anyone who has. I know that sports is a really scary place to find the courage to do that because it is so hetero-dominated, but there's no correlation between sexuality and sports performance and capability, and the more out people that we have in sports doing well, the more we can break down stigmas and barriers and stereotypes, and the more accepting it will be for future generations.”
Maybe there are fewer gay male athletes playing pro team sports than exist in the population through self-selection. The theory goes like this: Accomplished young athletes who realize they are gay drop out of team sports since they don’t want to have to hide their whole lives. They either go into individual sports or leave athletics altogether.
I think there might be some merit to this, though it’s impossible to prove and ultimately fairly meaningless. It doesn’t matter if 1% or 10% of a sport’s players are gay. We also know they exist. People like Jason Collins, Michael Sam and former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo say they know of closeted pro athletes playing today. Even a handful coming out would make a huge difference in the public’s perceptions of gay athletes.
The total number of out LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators has grown each year since we started tracking them. Yet none of this has taken place at the elite male pro team level. Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line remains that the pro sports world is a desert when it comes to openly gay players, and I don’t see an oasis on the horizon any time soon.