Earlier this week Brittney Griner, widely considered one of the best female basketball players of all time, did something no one in a major men’s sport in the U.S. has done so far: She came out as gay.
Perhaps even more remarkably, no one cared.
Maybe it is because there are already out WNBA players (like WNBA great Sheryl Swoopes). Maybe it is because people aren’t surprised that a woman who is athletic is gay. Or maybe it’s because Griner wasn’t in the closet to begin with.
As she put it in an interview for Sports Illustrated, “I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all.”
But for the three “money-sports” in the U.S. (football, men’s basketball, and baseball), it seems like we are no closer to having an openly gay current athlete than we were ten years ago. Even with fantastic charities like the You Can Play Project making inroads at major colleges and some professional teams, we still have NFL scouts asking potential players about their sexuality at the combine. There are still players stating publicly that they wouldn’t be comfortable with a gay teammate in their locker-rooms.
Sexism definitely plays a role in this dichotomy. Women who are involved in the sports world, be they athletes, announcers, writers, or fans, are often accused of acting “unfeminine.” Brittney herself is often criticized for being too “manly” in the way she plays: mean, tough, and physical on the court. So people tend to be less surprised that a female athlete would be taking on a manly role.
However, things may be starting to change. Griner is one of the highest-profile female athletes in history, and her being open about her sexuality can only be a good thing for gay athletes who want to come out, especially if she gets the sort of endorsement deals that most female athletes never get near. Charities like the You Can Play Project are partnering with the National Hockey League to promote LGBT tolerance in sports. The NBA has cracked down on the use of gay slurs, even by superstars like Kobe Bryant.
But, despite claims that a multiple players in the NFL may come out soon, I think we are still five years away from seeing a current U.S. “money sport” athlete come out. Not because there aren’t any, because I am positive there are closeted gay athletes in these sports right now than ever before, but because it is going to take a Jackie Robinson-type person to do it. Someone is going to have to be willing to deal with the slurs from opposing fans and players while also being good enough to prove again and again that his sexuality doesn’t have any impact on his play.
I am thrilled that Griner felt comfortable as the number one WNBA draft pick (and possibly the greatest female basketball player of all time) to be open about herself — at a Baptist University no less: she went to Baylor! — and I hope I am wrong about my timeline for when a money-sport athlete will come out. Because every child, regardless of their race, sexuality, or anything else, deserves to know that no career path is off-limits to them for incomprehensible reasons.