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Why Have Female Pro Athletes Come Out, While Male Ones Lag Behind?

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Thursday Oct 25, 2012

We’ve all been witnessing one of the most remarkable sea changes in the history of sports as members of the National Football League, individual athletes, team owners an the back offices have been falling over themselves in support of gay rights, specifically marriage equality.

Several straight NFL players have not been loudly voicing their support for marriage equality, they’ve been encouraging closeted players to come out. They say they would happy and proud have a gay teammate -- or opponent.

The most vocal and articulate NFL supporter of gay rights has to be 30-year-old Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. But despite his and others’ efforts, no pro athlete in the NFL, the National Basketball League, Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League has yet to come out during his career.

In recent days, it should be noted, there has been one U.S. male major pro sports star who has come out successfully. Featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz came out came out just a few days ago . The cheers from an adoring throng of admirers as he won his first bout after that dramatic announcement when he trounced Jurge Pazos in Orlando showed that, even in the most macho of all pro sports, fans would not only not jeer an out-athlete, but that they would rally to him.

Two Female Tennis Pioneers

Male athletes in the pro teams may not yet brave the high glare of publicity that would come with precedent-shattering self-outing. But professional female sports stars have been coming out for years.

In 1981, after a nasty palimony suit with another women effectively outed her, Billie Jean King became the first prominent professional female athlete to announce that she was gay. Around the same time, fellow tennis star Martina Navratilova publically came out.

But her announcements were, if not detrimental to her career, certainly to her pocketbook. Navratilova has said that she believed she lost about $10 million in endorsements because corporate executives in the ’80s didn’t want anything to do with her during the AIDS epidemic.

More Recent Female Out Athletes

More recently, in 2005, Women’s National Basketball Association superstar Sheryl Swoopes, popularly known as the "female Michael Jordan," announced that she was a lesbian, which made her the highest-profile U.S. pro team athlete to come out of the closet.

Swoopes signed an endorsement deal for Olivia cruises, a travel company catering to lesbians. Navratilova herself had previously served as an Olivia spokeswoman, as did professional golfer Rosie Jones, who came out to the public in 2004 after she also signed a deal with the travel agency.

"It doesn’t change who I am," Swoopes said when she came out. "I can’t help who I fall in love with. No one can. Discovering I’m gay just sort of happened much later in life. Being intimate with [my partner] or any other woman never entered my mind. At the same time, I’m a firm believer that when you fall in love with somebody, you can’t control that."

Minnesota Lynx star and Olympic athlete Seimone Augustus actually gained endorsement deals after she officially came out. ESPN reported that she signed a deal with Nike soon after she came out in May.


  • Anonymous, 2012-10-25 12:36:20

    My guess is because straight men (who own the majority of pro teams) are not intimidated by women who love women enough to ruin their careers. Now, gay men are an entirely different ballgame, if you will. It hits too close to home and makes them consider ’there but for the grace of genetics go I’. Some men don’t do well with that reality staring them in the face. At this point in time the risks and potential backlash far outweigh the benefit of being an "out" team player.

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