October 27, 2005

Discussing Homosexuality in Professional Sports

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Sheryl Swoopes is gay.

Really. She announced it yesterday through an interview with ESPN The Magazine. She’s an Olympic Gold medalist, an NCAA champion, and the reigning WNBA Most Valuable Player. She’s a lesbian.

Do you care?

Think before you answer. This question has far too many layers for just a cursory examination or a mere snap judgement. Take a few minutes.

Me? I don’t care. Not one bit. I have no problems with alternative sexualities, whatever they may be – hey, whatever blows your hair back. And I certainly don’t have any issues with gay athletes. I’m a Patriots fan, and if Tom Brady held a press conference on Friday announcing that he and center Dan Koppen had been “working on their exchanges” off the field, I’d still root for them this Sunday as if nothing had happened (in fact, I’d be thrilled about this, because it would mean that Bridget Moynahan was back on the market).

It doesn’t matter to me. I just don’t see how being gay (or not) affects one’s performance on the field or on the court. It’s as ridiculous as thinking that being Catholic makes you a bad cook, or that you’re bad at math because you like to eat cheese.

Maybe you’re like me and don’t care at all. You decided to come to Cornell instead of, say, Bob Jones University, so you’re probably at least a little more tolerant and progressive than most. It doesn’t bother you that there are homosexuals playing professional sports, and it does nothing to detract from your enjoyment of the game.

On the other hand, maybe you believe that being gay is a choice, a crime against nature, and gets you a first-class seat on the next 747 to Hell. You think that homosexuality is threatening to tear our national morality to shreds. You condemn Sheryl Swoopes because, God forbid, she might turn the young female basketball fans of our blessed nation into lesbians.

Most likely, however, you fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

We need athletes like Sheryl Swoopes, who are courageous enough to be themselves even in the face of societal pressures. Especially in the face of societal pressures. She’s a lesbian, and the crime here isn’t against nature, it’s that society made her feel ashamed of who she is. No citizen of a country that claims to be tolerant and egalitarian should ever be made to live in fear of who they are.

Yet, we live in a society that shuns the gay athlete. Swoopes is a unique example because she has come out while she’s still playing. Most gay players, like former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo, have waited until after retiring to out themselves, largely due to fear of ostracism from their teammates. Swoopes intends to continue her career, and will be practicing, playing, sweating, and showering with the other members of the Houston Comets next season.

Showering. Sweating. Even for those of you who consider yourselves tolerant, you’d probably feel uncomfortable in the same locker room as a gay teammate. Most of us would. It’s a stupid insecurity, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pervasive. Sheryl Swoopes will be the first team athlete to challenge this, at least publicly.

But I fear that her message will fall on deaf ears. When I woke up this morning and saw her headline on ESPN.com, I thought to myself “hey, good for her,” and then immediately clicked over to the World Series recap. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about her sexual preference, it was that I didn’t care about her sport. Sheryl Swoopes plays in the WNBA. She might as well be playing on the moon.

Regardless of your stance on the relative morality of homosexuality, there’s a 95% chance that you don’t pay attention to the WNBA. In fact, the odds are pretty good that you’d never heard of Sheryl Swoopes before yesterday, or that your knowledge of her began and ended with “she’s that women’s basketball player, right?” The WNBA ranks somewhere in between curling and figure skating in our national consciousness. If a women’s basketball player comes out of the closet and no one’s around, does it matter?

It should matter, but I fear that it won’t. Swoopes’ announcement will be news for a few days, and then College Football and the NFL will push it off the front page into obscurity. Most likely, it will be forgotten amongst the baseball hot stove, and the daily grind of the NBA and NHL seasons. It probably won’t get another mention until the WNBA season starts in June (it is June, right?). And that’s a shame.

For any of our petty perceptions to truly change, it will take a male gay superstar athlete coming forward. If it had been Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon in that ESPN article, the world as we know it would be in the process of grinding to a halt. The announcement would be plastered over every magazine and newspaper, the story would lead every television and radio news program. Hell, they’d run a ticker under every show on every channel.

It’s almost as if we expect female athletes to be gay, or at least we’re not surprised when they turn out to be. The dark secret is that sports are still seen as predominantly male pursuits, and a physically strong woman is viewed as trying to “be masculine.” She’s entering the male domain, so she must be a lesbian. Again, this is an asinine opinion of things, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But the gay male athlete is the fly in that bigoted ointment: how could a feminine man excel in a masculine game? The national dialogue would finally be forced open, and perhaps we as a society could finally begin to realize that what goes on behind closed doors has nothing to do with what happens between the lines.

Sheryl Swoopes got an afternoon as the top story on ESPN.com before being shoved aside for Game 4 of the World Series. She has an AP story on CNN.com, NBC.com, and the like. Most tellingly, her announcement is buried at the very bottom of the WNBA site. Maybe we’re not surprised that a female athlete has turned out to be gay. Maybe we just don’t care.

What Sheryl Swoopes did automatically makes her one of our most courageous athletes. She should be hoisted up as a role model for anyone who is considered by society to be “different” and is tired of living in fear. She is the first superstar in a team sport to be openly gay, and we should all begin to lose our close-minded prejudices. But I think it’s going to take more than a WNBA player to do that.

Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer. The Victory Lap will appear whenever he damn well pleases. He can be reached at per.ostman@mac.com.

Archived article by Per Ostman