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LGBTQ researcher has 2 theories on lack of openly gay players in male team sports

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Researcher Rory Magrath says he thinks international travel and a possible dearth of elite gay male athletes are far more responsible than homophobia.

St Louis Rams v Miami Dolphins
Michael Sam came out prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. There hasn’t been an openly gay player drafted since.
Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

One of the great mysteries in LGBTQ athletics remains the lack of openly gay male players in major team sports. Each year, an avalanche of athletes come out in all corners of the sports world, from high school to the Olympics.

And yet, the four major U.S. pro sports leagues don’t have a single openly gay male player. There is no openly gay man playing in the Premier League, either.

On a recent edition of our Outsports podcast The Sports Kiki, I talked about this phenomenon with academic researcher Rory Magrath, who helped spearhead a study with colleagues Adam J. White and Luis Emilio Morales looking at 60 coming-out stories, all of which were published on Outsports in 2016.

The study found male athletes are universally accepting of gay teammates. Out of the 60 samples, only four athletes included some form of negative reaction to their coming out from some corner of their lives — and even they claimed an overall positive coming-out experience.

So what’s the deal? At least when it comes to soccer, Magrath says the volume of international travel could play a significant role. Elite soccer players don’t only play in liberal E.U. states. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was held in Russia, and the next World Cup is slated for Qatar.

Neither countries are gay bastions, to say the least.

“These guys have to travel to parts of the world where attitudes towards homosexuality in broader society are far more conservative than the west,” Magrath says. “They also compete with and against athletes in those parts of the world as well. So this international hypothesis that undoubtedly complicates matters — it kind of muddies the waters, if you like, in terms of coming out.”

In addition, Magrath theorizes the lack of openly gay male athletes in elite team sports might just be a numbers game. Only an estimated 4.5 percent of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2018 Gallup poll (3.9 percent of men and 5.1 percent of women).

The fact is, there just isn’t that many of us.

On top of that, LGBTQ people are overrepresented in some fields, and underrepresented in others. Elite male team sports could fit into the latter category.

“Gay men are a finite resource, so they can’t exist in great numbers in every quarter,” Magrath says. “Gay men are overrepresented in some areas, and as a consequence are going to be underrepresented in sports.”

Still, we know there are active openly gay male athletes in pro team sports. When they do come out, they will be entering an overly accepting sports landscape. Just ask gay pro soccer Collin Martin: there has never been a better time to come out.

Click here to check out “The Sports Kiki” podcast. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.