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Out players in men’s Big 5 sports report wide levels of acceptance, survey finds

Outsports-sponsored survey of out athletes in football, men’s basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey found 71.7% having at least a ‘good’ experience.

Derrick Gordon, shown in 2016, was openly gay on his Seton Hall basketball team.
Derrick Gordon, shown in 2016, was openly gay on his Seton Hall basketball team.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There is a dichotomy between the perceptions of coming out as gay, bi and queer in one of the men’s major sports and the reality from those who responded to the Outsports survey of the experiences of high school and college LGBTQ athletes.

A common perception is that it’s very difficult to be out at any level of the big five men’s sports, and that perception is borne out by the absence of publicly out players in those sports this year.

But in reality, players do come out in these sports, even if they don’t do it in a public manner via a media interview or on their social media.

In our survey of more than 800 athletes, 92 coming-out experiences of athletes were reported coming out to high school or college teammates in football, men’s basketball, baseball, soccer or hockey, with 71.7% having at least a good experience.

Here is the breakdown on how these athletes said coming out to their teammates went overall:

  • Perfect or near perfect: 25%
  • Very good: 28.2%
  • Good: 18.5%
  • Neutral: 20.7%
  • Bad: 5.4%
  • Very bad: 1.1%
  • Worst possible: 1.1%

Nathan Hayes played wide receiver for Lamar University’s football team (Class of 2012) and recounted what a positive experience it was coming out to his team.

“I just remember the stress I put on myself and the weight I felt I had to carry,” Hayes told Outsports. “Surprisingly, once I came out and my teammates showed no indifference towards me, I noticed my overall play on the field improved. Not having to feel like an outsider who was accepted on his athletic abilities alone but accepted for all that I was just took a lot of weight off my shoulders and I was able to unlock my full potential.

“It was like I wanted to give everything I had for my team because they finally gave me something I’ve wanted most of my life which was true brotherhood. Nothing else mattered.”

Much of the reluctance to coming out we’ve heard the past two decades concerns how teammates would react. All told, 77% of the athletes from the Big 5 sports in high school and college said their teammates’ initial reaction exceeded their expectations.

“It was less about my ‘bravery’ to be out, but I give them all the credit for being as loving and accepting as possible,” wrote one football player who rated his coming out experience as “perfect or near perfect.”

“I didn’t have to teach them or groom them ... they just immediately loved and accepted me.”

Widespread acceptance was counter to the expectations many athletes in men’s team sports had in the survey. Overall they said their teammates’ reactions to them coming out exceeded their expectations.

Our survey asked, “How was your teammates’ initial reaction to you being LGBTQ, compared to your expectations?”

  • Much Better: 47.8%
  • Somewhat Better: 29.3%
  • Same: 20.7%
  • Somewhat Worse: 1.1%
  • Much Worse: 1.1%

“It was a learning process for everyone on the team as anti-LGBTQ slurs were part of some of their vocabularies,” one basketball player said. “The team did great about calling out the use of those slurs and over time those slurs were nonexistent on the team.”

In reviewing the comments that athletes made in these sports, there was a lot of nuance accompanying their rating of their experiences. Several who said they had perfect or near perfect experiences nonetheless pointed to issues of feeling somewhat isolated at times from their teammates.

“The culture around anti-LGBTQ verbiage changed while I was there because I was a football captain, an all-conference and an All-American player, but it definitely was still there in some players,” wrote one football player. “I noticed which players stopped talking to me, started avoiding me in the weight room and on the field, etc. All in all, my position group — the offensive line — were there for me the whole journey. They never let it change how they looked at me or how they treated me as a person.”

Despite the high levels of support, not everyone had a positive experience. For example, a soccer player and a football player, each who rated their experience as bad, said they were outed, an experience that is fraught since the person has lost the choice of coming out on their terms.

Others noted how corrosive anti-gay language was hard to stamp out, even when players knew they had a gay teammate.

“It seems like there are a handful of guys who are homophobic, but they know that’s wrong so they won’t say anything outright. It’s more like they make comments about how they think I’m weak or not good enough when that’s not the case,” wrote a soccer player who rated his experience as neutral.

The experiences of these athletes who answered the survey show that being out on a team generally goes smoothly, but it’s understandable that hearing about bad outcomes can make people leery about taking that step.

The fact that there are no players publicly out on major Division I men’s college teams this season, for example, shows that going from coming out to teammates to discussing being gay publicly is a step few want to take.

That’s why I am hopeful that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Carl Nassib coming out in the NFL with the Las Vegas Raiders might inspire others at lower level of sports to do the same.

In a podcast last week, Nassib summed up the frustration he felt having to announce he was gay balanced with why he thought it was imperative.

“What other fucking gay dude has to come out to his entire fucking business?” Nassib said. “I did it because I felt an obligation to the LGBTQ community.” The sense of obligation is one we hope more and more LGBTQ athletes feel, despite the stress of coming out. Our survey of the major men’s sports finds that there is a lot of acceptance out there.