Former NFL running back Dave Kopay came out as gay in 1975 after his career had ended. Forty-five years later, there still hasn’t been an openly gay NFL player, despite swelling support for gay rights, and the NFL getting fully on board with inclusivity — even producing its own “National Coming Out Day” video this year.
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Kopay expressed his frustration. “We now have gay marriage but we don’t have any openly gay athletes in the NFL,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
It’s worth mentioning this particular conversation is largely exclusive to elite male team sports. The women don’t have this dilemma. Some of our most prominent female sports stars, from Sue Bird to Natasha Cloud to Megan Rapinoe, are openly gay.
A record 15 openly LGBTQ athletes competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics. College and high school athletes come out on these pages every week. There are an increasing number of openly LGBTQ sportswriters — including six who write for us!
But as we (mercifully) close the door on 2020, the number of openly gay athletes in pro male team sports is still almost non-existent. Collin Martin plays in the United Soccer League and Zach Sullivan plays in the American Hockey League; Ryan Russell is an NFL free agent. But that’s about it — at least here in the U.S.
It’s a perplexing contradiction, and few are more mystified than openly gay athletes themselves. Former MLS player Robbie Rogers, who came out in 2013, told the Chicago Tribune he’s tired of waiting for others to follow him — and that was four years ago.
“I’m at the stage where it’s kind of stupid. What’s going on?,” Rogers said. “I would never force anyone out, and everyone has their time, but come on, it’s 2016. A lot has changed in the United States and around the world.”
Along with Rogers, a mini-wave of football and basketball players came out in 2013-14. There was Jason Collins, Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon (who’s currently playing pro basketball in Cyprus). Britney Griner, one of the most dominant women college basketball players in a generation, also came out — but the world collectively shrugged.
The muted reaction to Griner’s announcement was a stark example of the cultural differences between elite men’s and women’s sports. As Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski told the New York Times: “Can you imagine if it was a man who did the exact same thing? Everyone’s head would have exploded.”
That’s what happened when Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on TV when he was selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. But his training camp run with the Los Angeles Rams went without incident, except when ESPN ridiculously reported on his shower habits.
Sam’s teammates stood up for him.
The following year, Sam confirmed he’s not the only gay player around the NFL.
“I am not the only gay person in the NFL,” he said at the time. “I’m just saying there is a lot of us. I respect the players that did reach out to me and had the courage to tell me that they were also gay, but they do not have the same courage as I do to come out before I even played a down in the NFL.”
Today, Sam still speaks warmly of the support he received from his college teammates at the University of Missouri.
In the 2019 season alone, there were at least eight publicly out gay or bisexual players in college football.
It was also front-page news when Jason Collins came out, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. NBA superstars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James celebrated his announcement; In fact, nearly 190 pro athletes immediately expressed their support.
Keep in mind, this was 2013 — just one year after President Barack Obama had announced his support for same-sex marriage.
Collins told Reuters last year he’s surprised no other players in the NBA have come out since him. “I am a little surprised that ... since I’ve retired, that I haven’t seen any other NBA players come out publicly,” he said.
The disconnect is surprising, because the vast majority of contemporary out athletes, even in male team sports, have overwhelmingly positive stories to share. A study looking at 60 coming-out stories on Outsports confirmed as much.
This year, we saw Martin’s team, the San Diego Loyal, forfeit a game and deprive themselves of a playoff berth after he said an opposing player had called him a gay slur. It was an incredible show of support.
In a recent interview with The Advocate, Martin said the episode shows the inclusivity of sports. He’s not sure why more of his peers aren’t out.
“I don’t think there is a better time to come out,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know what’s holding some of these athletes back from coming out.”
“What’s holding them back?” It’s a question some openly gay male athletes have been asking for years.
At the end of 2020, it remains unanswered.