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Five years after Jason Collins came out as gay, little progress in pro team sports

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Leagues have adopted pro-LGBT policies, but athletes still don’t come out.

Brooklyn Nets v Denver Nuggets
Jason Collins came out in 2013 and played for the Brooklyn Nets in 2014.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Five years ago, Jason Collins came out as an openly gay NBA player and it appeared as if the sports world — especially in pro male sports leagues — was about to undergo a seismic change in regards to LGBT athletes.

Collins’ coming out was the lead story on the CBS Evening News on April 29, 2013, his name was splashed across Page 1 of newspapers and it became the talk story in sports. President Obama even took time from a news conference to applaud Collins.

Just two weeks earlier in April 2013, WNBA star Brittney Griner announced she was a lesbian. A month later, MLS signed Robbie Rogers, an openly gay pro soccer player. And less than a year later, Michael Sam came out as gay and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.

There was so much LGBT news in sports that a New York Times reporter told me it was becoming an old story and was close to being played out. This assumption has proved to be wrong.

Fast forward to 2018 and we see the following:

0 out MLB players
0 out NFL players.
0 out NBA players
0 out NHL players
0 out MLS players
(There are also 0 out English Premier players, male pro golfers or tennis players).

Collins’ coming out turned out to be less a herald than an anomaly. This is not to minimize what Collins did — he has become a great advocate for LGBT equality in sports and proved to be a role model for young athletes. In 2014, he also became the first openly gay NBA player to see action in a regular season game, which is quite an accomplishment. Collins is a pioneer who is still making a difference.

Yet we are no closer to having a critical mass of out male pro athletes than we were before he came out. There are several out WNBA players and women have long been the trailblazers in sports, but for historic and sociological reasons we have long written about, gay female athletes don’t get the attention they deserve. In contrast, an out man in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB is still the white whale everyone is pursuing.

I used to make predictions as to when there would be the next gay athlete in a pro team sport, but I’ve stopped. I would have scoffed had someone told me in November 1999 when Outsports first published that more than 18 years later we would have had only three openly active gay male athletes from the five major U.S. pro team sports come out in that time — Collins, Sam and Rogers. I would have guessed there would have been dozens.

There simply is no predicting when the next big-time pro male athlete will come out. Not only have there been no out pro male team sport athletes since Sam in 2014, there’s been only one retired athlete who has come out, former Patriots and Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan. I don’t hold out much hope that we will see an out pro male athlete anytime soon, and if it does happen, it’ll be pretty random.

It had always been the assumption that one coming out led to others. While that appears to be true in less visible sports in high school and college, it is clearly not the case in the pros. Randomness is much more the factor. When Dave Kopay came out in 1975 after a nine-year NFL career, he was convinced he would quickly be followed by others. However that never happened. Since Kopay came out 43 years ago there have been only 10 other NFL players who have declared they are gay; all except Sam had retired when they came out.

This doesn’t mean there has been no progress in pro sports. Every major sports league now includes sexual orientation as part of its nondiscrimination policies. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have had people from their league offices or teams march in LGBT Pride parades. This year, more than half of Major League Baseball teams will have pride nights, while every NHL team had a pride game this past season.

Collins this month said, “I think the NBA is definitely ready for another athlete to step out and live their life.” I agree.

I’m convinced that if an openly gay player came out in any of our major sports, he would get 100% support from the league office. He would also get enthusiastic support from most other players and coaches, something that happened when both Collins and Sam came out.

However the support does not translate into an athlete deciding he wants to come out publicly. The coming out process is fraught with emotion, worry and uncertainty, and adding an extra layer of being a pro athlete on top of an already difficult decision is why I think athletes are reluctant to take that step. It’s easier to stay closeted, or be out to a small group of people, than it is to subject oneself to what will certainly be intense media attention, even if that attention is overwhelmingly favorable, as was the case with Collins.

Many gay athletes have told Outsports that accepting themselves was the biggest hurdle they had to face. They figured that even if teammates and coaches would be fine, until they embraced their sexual orientation themselves, coming out publicly was a non-starter. I think this is probably even more true in a major sports league, where no one wants to be the proverbial “distraction” or draw too much attention to themselves for something that occurs off the field and could prove uncomfortable to some teammates.

While I have no faith that we will see any out pro athlete in the near future, I am more encouraged by what is occurring in high schools and colleges.

Heading into the 2018 season, for example, there will be two openly gay college football players in the FBS division — Kansas State’s Scott Frantz and Arizona’s My-King Johnson, both of whom will be eligible for the draft in two to three years. If either of them are good enough to be drafted, their sexual orientation will have been known years before a team would take them, minimizing the public attention on them being out. It’s the organic way for a pro athlete to come out.

The past Winter Olympics had the first openly gay male competitors and all the attention given to Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon showed that society is becoming much more accepting of elite athletes being gay. This trend will continue at the Olympics and I hope that future generations will make it a reality in pro team sports. Until then, happy anniversary, Jason Collins.