For weeks the media has been a buzz with rumors of a big time professional athlete coming out of the closet. Yesterday, the news flashing across our screens was Jason Collins on the front page of this week’s Sports Illustrated.
In case you haven’t heard, Jason Collins, a 34 year old NBA center- the guy known for his promising career when he was a young startup at Stanford, for his two NBA finals appearances, and (for anyone aware of the insiders game of professional basketball that is) the three degrees of Jason Collins- came out as the first openly gay male professional to be actively playing in a major sport.
So far, the press has been fantastic. Multiple NBA MVP winner Steve Nash tweeted his praise to the 6’6 hero, stating, “the time has come”. Openly gay and now retired NBA center John Amaechi (who came out six years ago when he left the NBA) gave encouraging words in a CNN interview, stating that, ‘for most teams this is a non-issue.’
Further, the mantra of here and queer in the world of basketball has been soundly chanted this week for both men and women. The signing of openly lesbian Brittney Griner to both the Phoenix Mercury and a hefty Nike endorsement deal was applauded society over; Griner’s signing to Nike was praised for the naturalness of a big time, LGBTQ athlete signing a major endorsement deal with no (big) fuss over her sexuality. In the article, Brittney Griner and the Quiet Queering of Professional Sport, writer Wesley Morris claims that coming out, as a gay athlete just isn’t as much of a big deal as it used to be.
The response to Collins and Griner this week has been more or less akin to the sentiments of, “This is great! Let the world rejoice in our cultural progression and acceptance as a society. Lets give each other high fives and turn our attention back to episode 3 of What Would Ryan Lochte do, before it gets cancelled.
In other words…the gayness is great and all, but, so what? We are society and we are so post-coming out.
Allow me to give you the what, to your so, society.
Athletics: Still the last place we Don’t ask and Don’t tell
In athletics, there is no ‘post’ to the modern in coming out. In fact, athletics is still very much working to reach the modern. Most anyone who spent extended time in the arena of athletics (from administrative staff to being an college or professional athlete themselves) understands that both Collin’s and Griner’s coming outs are just the first steps towards improving the position of LGBTQ men and women in the athletic arena.
I ran for two universities during a (very injured) collegiate career as a distance runner. I participated with nearly 100 other track and field athletes between those two programs. I was a friend to hundreds of other athletes that participated on different teams on different universities across the Midwest and west coast region. I only knew of three openly gay athletes, all of which were female. Of the hundreds of male athletes I knew, not a one was gay (and for the record- I only graduated two years ago…things haven’t changed that much).
Athletics isn’t a magical Heterosexual Land where an estimated 3.5% of the American population that identifies as LGBTQ magically disappears under their tenth bench rep. The thing to keep in mind when reading Collin’s eloquent narrative in SI or in the recent slew of other articles glamorizing how many other athletes have come out before Collins, is that these athletes are the exception, NOT the norm. Let me repeat that: it is not normal for any athlete, to come out within any space of the athletic world, regardless of whether or not it’s a major or minor sport, the Olympics, junior college, or high school or if the athlete is male or female.
One example of how not normal it is for an athlete to come out while participating as a sponsored athlete, is how normal it is for an athlete to hide their sexuality while they are participating in athletics. For instance, were you aware that for some sports in college, players ‘code’ their uniforms based on their sexuality? I wasn’t aware, either. As a distance runner in college, ribbons in my hair before races were as much as part of my uniform as my spankies. But my perception changed one day when I was speaking with a softball player about her experiences with ribbons in her sport. Apparently, for some softball players in conferences around the nation, the difference between a visor and a ribbon in your hair can insinuate the difference in what team you bat for…sexually speaking, that is.
Many athletes feel like they have to code and silence their sexuality through small gestures like ribbons and visors. For those few athletes who are openly gay, it takes a righteous amount of athletic success to come out on your team.
For example, it took Austin Hendrix, a long distance college runner, two years at Eastern Michigan to gain enough confidence to come out. This happened only after he helped his team win the elite Mid-American cross-country championships. It was only after Austin knew he had secured his respect as an intricate member of the team by helping his team win the conference that Austin felt he was safe. In describing why this was, Austin stated,
As a gay male athlete who was afraid of being thought of as feminine, Austin felt the need to prove his manhood through his athletic performance before he could come out as gay. These feelings create a sense of isolation and ‘deviance.’ These feelings can lead players to go into depression, effect their performance and grades, or to retire from the sport at an early age.
Austin is not the norm- he makes up a mere estimated 2-5% of LGBTQ student athletes who are open on campus. Luckily for Austin, he found a warm reception on his team when he did finally come out. You can find out about how ‘it got better’ for Austin here.
But athletes aren’t the only ones getting silenced for their sexuality in the arena of sports. LGBTQ coaches are getting slammed in their recruitment of players and athletes -as well as for their ability to coach- based on their sexuality. Need some stats? There are hundreds of NCAA basketball and softball female coaches. But only two coaches are open and out; NCAA Division 1 basketball coach Sherri Murrell from Portland State and Division 1 softball coach Kirk Walker from Oregon State.
Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure on athletes and coaches to stay quiet about their sexuality. But where is all this pressure coming from, and why is it such a big deal to be gay in athletics?
There are a lot of reasons as to why this is- from the historical structure of American athletic culture to the maintenance of gender roles in sport. However, there’s one aspect of college athletics and sexuality that hasn’t been hitting the headlines. But deserves our attention.
Show me the Money
When it comes to bringing in the big bucks, colleges turn to their athletic programs to make money. Fact. Need proof? Louisville’s basketball program brought in $42.4 million in revenue during its 2011-2012 season. In 2010, the NCAA reached a 14 year, $8 billion dollar deal with Turner Broadcasting on March Madness rights alone. No matter what the level of play- from junior high to professional sports- athletics is a business. That business comes with a brand image.
The image of an athlete is important to athletic programs, because the athlete is the brand- a walking talking breathing billboard for that business. Its essential that recruited players represent the values of that brand. This includes the brand’s sexual values. And brands- whether they are universities programs or the major leagues- all have sexual values.
The sexual values of universities aren’t rules that are found in the fine print of a letter of intent. Many universities promote ‘traditional, family values’ or ‘value-centered’ styles of recruiting. For those familiar with the negative recruiting system of college athletics, these value-centered approaches to recruitment entail a double meaning outside of the initial, supportive vibe the athletic program is trying to display. The meaning of family valued programs often implies something very simple; we are straight. If you’re part of our program (our brand), we expect you to be too.
An article by ESPN highlights Iowa’s State women’s basketball staff as purposefully emphasizing the programs straight coaches, presence of children, and marriage of the head coach himself. Additionally, they told their players to emphasize those very values to recruits.
“They threw it out constantly," says a recruited athlete. "'Iowa has morals, and people who live here have values, wholesome values.'" The implication, to her and to another former Cyclone who confirmed her account, was that at other schools, "there's something going on you don't know."
Worse, there are multiple horror stories of athletes getting suspended and kicked off the team for their sexual orientation when they don’t align with their university’s sexual values.
But before you point fingers, know that a university’s sexual values don’t necessarily stem from conservative or puritan or catholic or political roots of any kind. A university’s sexual values correlate to one thing, and one thing only –their pocketbook.
Sure, there’s a lot one gains from being an athlete or a fan of sporting events; the rush, the pride, the camaraderie…the beer…the moments. But the fact of the matter is, the bottom line for university athletics (and professional sports teams) is that they run their teams like a business because athletics is a business. However, a business can fail- especially if it doesn’t make room for innovation and listen to the voice of its customers.
Anyone want to give a gander as to why UTENN and UCONN- two of womens college basketball’s toughest teams don’t play anymore? Rumor has it that the Huskies basketball staff was using negative, homophobic recruiting slanders against Pat Summit’s Lady Vols to get players to sign with them. Since 2007, the annual top matchup of female college basketball continually loses out on millions of dollars in national exposure by not playing one another. That’s a huge loss in profits to both athletic programs, the media affiliates involved, and potential endorsement deals for the programs. If the speculation is right, profit loss is due to the universities sexual values (mainly, UCONN’s slandering Tennessee’s program because it is accepting of players of all sexualities).
Though both universities take a big cut from not playing one another, this is not without the knowledge that not signing the top national recruits will not take their program to consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances and give their teams even more exposure in the national press and endorsement deals.
Winning the Game for Everyone
So how are you, my dear straight reader, supposed to help pave the way for other LGBTQ athletes on the bandwagon of post-coming out?
Remember that awesome Alma mater of yours? The one that gave you the best years of your life? The one you burned the couch in the alleyway for after you beat your rival team? The one you scored the winning touchdown for in high school? The one you played your 8th grade state winning (or season loosing) basketball season at?
As a straight ally to LGBTQ athletes, DO ask that administration about their acceptance of LGBTQ athletes. DO tell them that you’re okay with LGBTQ athletes on their team.
Email. Tweet. Write. Call. Or Text. your alma matter and ask them plainly if they have any LGBTQ players. If they say no, ask them why not. They could just be painfully ‘unaware’ that such a demographic exists. If they say yes, ask them what services they have on campus for those players to make them feel that their identity as LGBTQ is welcomed on that team.
I’m serious. And if you’re serious about being okay with Jason Collins being out, you should be serious about making it easier for other LGBTQ athletes to be out in athletics as well. Because if you’re not, your team is potentially losing great players because they wont sign with College X because they wont be able to be themselves and compete at College X. Or because they have to make a choice between being gay and playing for pro athlete for Team Y.
Above their hierarchy of its own sexual value system, athletic administrations, universities, and organizations serve you. And you, dear reader, give these athletic bodies their revenue through your purchases of their team shirts, your donations to their booster clubs, your annual alumni membership to their associations, and your tickets to their conference games.
With 15 seconds of your time, and a quick tweet with the phrase,
‘Former alum.Proud of #LGBTQathletes @UniversityZ’
‘LoyalmascotsFan.Proud of #LGBTQathletes & allies @mascot.admin
If you voice that you are okay with LGBTQ athletes…more so… if you voice that you want to ensure an inclusive space for LGBTQ athletes, then it is the responsibility of any business (and that’s what athletics is...a business) to respond to its customers.
So all you straight people -fans of sports and supporters of the LGBTQ community who really don’t care that Jason Collins came out because coming out was so 1999 -do ask. And Do tell.
There are still plenty of athletes out there who need you too.
As a side note: For any college or high school kids reading this, you can help continue your athletic program’s development towards a more positive and inclusive community by speaking up for on behalf of your LGBTQ teammates and friends.
As three time All American wrestler, current coach at Columbia, and Athlete Ally organization starter, Austin Taylor, states,
"There are thousands of LGBT athletes out there not being made to feel welcome or included in the athletic environment. Straight athletes really have the power and ability to change that," said Taylor, who is straight. "If a few straight athletes ... would stand up and say, 'This language is not OK,' I think that would go a long way to changing the culture of athletics."
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