In 2017 we saw an increasingly loud conversation about why more current professional athletes in the Big Five sports leagues don’t come out publicly. No one has come out publicly since three men took the leap — Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam — in 2013 and 2014.
Pundits wonder about potential abuse by fans, harassment in the locker room, the loss of endorsement deals and a whole slew of red herrings that are raised every time the conversation pops up.
Yet the more puzzling question that no one ever asks is why more retired professional athletes don’t come out. If external elements like fans, teammates and endorsement deals are the forces keeping male athletes in the closet, why aren’t they coming out after they are free from them?
In 2017 only one former athlete from the Big Five — former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan — took the leap. His heart-wrenching story opened eyes to the real struggles of gay professional athletes and the steps that teams can take to identify possible problems and even help save the lives of their gay athletes.
O’Callaghan’s story spread quickly across the entire sports world. Team and league executives, athletes, coaches and members of the media took notice of his honesty and willingness to talk about some of the deepest, darkest moments of his life.
His coming-out story was by far the most-read story on Outsports in 2017 because of that honesty. Diving into his use of drugs, his plans to kill himself and his ultimate salvation with the help of three Kansas City Chiefs staffers, O’Callaghan single-handedly advanced the conversation about the struggles of professional athletes, and the pressures all of them face regardless of their sexual orientation.
While he gave everyone a glimpse into the life of a closeted NFL player, they got only a glimpse. He still has so much more to tell.
O’Callaghan’s story provided some of the most forceful arguments about why male athletes stay in the closet: because that’s all they know. Ever since family picnics as a kid they heard gay jokes. In the high school locker room you weren’t welcome if you were the queer.
The internal pressures built from a young age, when you are wrapping your identity around your macho presence in these physical sports, don’t simply go away because same-sex marriage is legalized or the NFL commissioner talks about having a gay brother.
By letting us inside his world in a way few athletes have, O’Callaghan helped us all better understand the depths at which so many male professional athletes struggle with who they are.
O’Callaghan took opportunities to make more inroads in the NFL, speaking about his experiences at an NFL Pride event in New York and working with You Can Play and the New England Patriots on an NFL Kickoff event inspiring LGBTQ youth.
The real power of O’Callaghan’s story was demonstrated by the reaction he got from other people struggling with these same things. Within a couple days he had received at least 5,000 emails from athletes around the world and at every level of sport who found some comfort in reading a story much like theirs. He heard from straight men who said they understood the lives of gay men just a little bit better thanks to O’Callaghan.
It’s hard to overstate the power in American culture of the NFL and the athletes who play in the league. O’Callaghan used that power this year for one purpose: to help other people.
For his courage, honesty and impact in sharing his story, Ryan O’Callaghan is Outsports’ Person of the Year.
This year we have only one Honorable Mention:
Last year soccer player Megan Rapinoe took the extraordinary step of kneeling for the National Anthem in an effort to demonstrate her support of efforts to raise awareness about racism. She was the first non-black athlete to do so. Over the last 16 months she has continued to use her platform to talk about injustice where she has seen it, often drawing public ire. She has dedicated her career to excellence on the field and to advancing understanding of not just LGBT people, but those who don’t look like her as well. For her efforts, we salute Megan Rapinoe.
Previous Outsports Person Of The Year winners: