Almost a decade ago, when Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam all came out publicly in three different pro sports leagues within a year, I was convinced that there would then be a stream of gay and bi pro athletes who followed suit and came out publicly.
In the eight-plus years that have followed, that hasn’t happen. Forget about a “stream” or a “trickle” — It has barely been a leaky faucet.
Now in 2022 we have Carl Nassib out on a new team in the NFL, Solomon Bates out on a new team in minor league baseball, Luke Prokop as an NHL prospect, Collin Martin in the USL Championship, and a few other gay guys playing pro sports while publicly out in other countries.
Over the years reporting at Outsports about gay athletes, there has been one most-common question I’ve heard the most often, and it’s picked up steam over the last year: Are we on the precipice of a slew of gay and bi men coming out in pro sports and changing the game?
And maybe not.
If we have five athletes in the Big Five American sports leagues come out publicly in the next year, I won’t be surprised.
And if we have none come out publicly in the next year, I won’t be surprised by that, either.
I’ve learned a lot covering LGBT athletes with Jim Buzinski and our staff of writers over the last 23 years. The main lesson we’ve learned: Coming out is a distinctly personal process.
There is not one answer for why anyone does or does not come out, either privately or publicly. Each person has to navigate what is best for them and make personal choices.
And that’s what coming out — even publicly in front of the whole world — is: a personal choice.
“It’s different for everyone,” said former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out publicly after retiring. “But I think you can draw a lot of similarities between people’s thought processes.”
While the overwhelming majority of men who come out in sports — either privately or publicly — who talk with us at Outsports express receiving an incredible system of support, there is of course still fear in doing so.
So what goes into that personal choice for gay athletes to come out in big-time men’s sports? Here are some key observations from all those years covering these men.
People think mens’ professional sports locker rooms are rife with homophobic language. By all accounts I’ve heard, that’s false.
I’ve spoken to straight and gay athletes from various generations — Michael Irvin, Chris Kluwe, O’Callaghan, Trenton Thompson — and they’ve each told me that yeah, you’d hear some homophobic stuff in high school, but by the time guys enter the ranks of professional sports, that’s mostly gone (though Kluwe had choice words and a lawsuit for one coach).
There are a couple key dynamics here.
First, they did hear that language when they were in high school. No doubt. And for a gay or bi athlete, that language can really sting during the most formidable years of their development. The idea that a men’s locker room is an inhospitable place lingers.
“When I was in the thick of it, I never stopped to reconsider and realize the NFL locker room could be accepting,” O’Callaghan said.
Second, while homophobic and anti-gay slurs may be rare as athletes elevate to high-level college and pro sports, conversations about women still abound.
Women’s bodies. Sex with women. Hot women. Hot women’s bodies. Hot sex with women.
It happens. Even amongst pro athletes, who are often married.
What does a conversation about hot women’s bodies say to too many gay athletes: “You don’t belong.”
Today, if I were in the same situation I’d retort: “Dude, you have no idea until you’ve been with a gorgeous guy with a great body.”
Still, that’s me. While gay pro baseball player Bryan Ruby has written about athletes asking him about his relationship, I’m not going to profess that every locker room is quite there yet.
Agents and the dynamic of pressing time
I know for a fact some agents have, over the last decade, told athletes to stay in the closet. This is very real and not discussed enough.
Athletes pay agents a commission to make them as much money as they can. Agents sign athletes to make them a ton of money, either as fast as possible or as long as possible.
In leagues where the average playing career is only a couple years, from a business perspective one could argue that an agent is doing themselves justice by trying to milk their client-athlete for as much money as possible in a few years.
Of course, this fails to recognize the windfall that awaits gay and bi men in men’s pro sports.
Still, the weight of agents’ voices is huge, and I know for a fact some agents suggest gay athletes stay in the closet. A short-sighted, but sadly effective, tactic.
There are simply fewer gay and bi men in men’s pro sports than we thought
For years I’ve assumed that the percentage of gay men in society at large — around 3-4% — is the same as professional sports.
I’ve changed my tune a bit.
I now believe that the percentage of gay and bisexual men is lower in the male pro leagues than society.
How did I get here? Two main thought processes.
This year, over 20% of the active players in the WNBA were publicly out as LGBT. That’s a lot. And when I’ve talked to elite-level women’s college team-sport athletes, or pro athletes in women’s soccer, ice hockey or basketball, the percentage of the women they think are LGBT in their league or on their team has ranged from one-third to three-quarters.
Does anyone think that there is even a Marvel Comics Universe where, say, a quarter of the NFL is gay or bi?
So if there are sooooo many LGBT women in elite sports, what gives?
My best guess — and this comes from talking to a lot of people at different levels and roles in sports — is that for whatever reason, straight women are more likely to bow out of elite-level sports, and LGBT women aren’t.
Playing out my theory on the other side of sports, men’s elite leagues are dominated by straight guys because so many of the gay and bi athletes have decided to focus on another vocation before they get here.
Sound crazy? Maybe not.
Some gay men may opt out of sports as they enter their teens
Connected to that, I’ve been talking a lot with Eric Anderson, the world’s leading academic on the topic of sexuality in men’s sports.
For a long time he was like me, thinking the percentage was the same, or even higher! He had a theory many years ago (unproven) that gay men gravitated to sports because it was a great hiding spot: If you’re a football player, no one assumes you’re gay. If you’re a kid stuck in the idea that you’ll be rejected if you come out, this could be a powerful draw.
Yet in all these years I’ve spoken to only one pro athlete — Ryan O’Callaghan — who has said this.
“We can definitively say that gay men are numerically less attracted to popular mainstream sports and more attracted to aesthetic sports,” Anderson told Outsports. “This is less about being repelled by homophobia than we thought, as cultural homophobia has dropped massively over the decades. Instead, gay men are highly over-represented in multiple other sports: sports that are judged, require aesthetic appeal, and are more individualistic.”
If you accept this premise — there are simply fewer gay and bi men who choose professional sports than in the general population — the rest of these reasons substantiate the power of being a minority of a minority in a minority in elite-level men’s sports.
They don’t want to be known as ‘the gay athlete’
It’s a bit of a catch-22.
Athletes — or any public figure — are known for what makes them unique or special. When athletes break records or win titles, that becomes a part of their public profile and persona.
Given how few out gay and bi men there are in professional sports, anyone coming out in pro sports anytime soon will have that as part of their legacy. Not necessarily chapter one in the story, but a part of it.
In the women’s game, there are so many out athletes in basketball and soccer and hockey that part of the story of many of them is barely a chapter. There are so many out women in pro sports that people like Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon can be totally out and people don’t even know it.
But, again, the men’s game isn’t there. It will get there eventually, but not for a while.
In the meantime, some athletes don’t want their being gay or bi to be part of how they’re most-known. For that reason, some of these men will choose to keep that part of their life private... which delays when they won’t feel they have to anymore.
This dynamic is shifting, for sure. Carl Nassib being gay has been a non-story in 2022 season, with him fitting onto the Tampa Bay Buccaneers team as just another player. The media has followed suit, treating him as a backup linebacker. Now in his second season as an out NFL player... he’s just another NFL player.
Over time this will shift, but even in 2022 this is a dynamic in the minds of some gay athletes.
Mama and Grandmama
Sometimes — a lot of times — it’s simply personal.
Athletes are individual human beings. It’s why I refuse today to answer questions about when more athletes will come out — You can’t knowingly say when athletes will come out, because it’s individual and personal.
Some athletes are driven by their family’s reaction. They think their father, grandmother or someone else might flip out.
“My grandfather is 82, I don’t want him having to deal with this now in his life.” I’ve heard this many, many times.
Sometimes the choice gay athletes make to keep their personal lives away from the public has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with family.
As a football official, there’s a saying I’ve learned from some people entrenched in living the sport day-to-day: Faith. Family. Football.
Most faiths don’t love people being gay, and some families don’t like it either.
Yet football gets blamed for the dearth of out football players (despite the NFL having more current and former out gay and bit athletes than all the other men’s American pro leagues combined).
Extending the welcome mat to all people in sports
No doubt, the people with power in men’s pro sports can do a lot more.
Sure, there are people like Lon Rosen and Erik Braverman at the Los Angeles Dodgers who are doing as much as they can. Guys like Reggie Bullock with the Dallas Mavericks can help a lot.
Yet athletes and coaches themselves can do so so so much more by simply saying publicly, “Yeah I have no problem with a gay teammate. Let’s just win games. Next?”
Take Tom Brady for example. He’s played in two places that have been at the center of the conversation about LGBT equality. He’s had guys who are former and current teammates come out.
Yet he’s stayed silent.
And yes, the sound of silence can be extremely loud.
Having more players and coaches publicly talk about their gay friends and family members, in addition to their undying support for people on their team who are gay, can absolutely help gay athletes and coaches be their true selves both on the team and to inspire others.