Game Changer: Sports’ Shifting Attitudes Toward LGBTs
NBA center Jason Collins recently made headlines and history when he became the first openly gay athlete currently playing for one of sports’ Big Four professional leagues. While Collins’ declaration is undoubtedly a game changer, several athletes and organizations, both past and present, have contributed significantly to an increased presence of LGBTs in professional, semi-professional and amateur sports.
On May 31, New Jersey-based Minor League Baseball team, the Lakewood Blue Claws, will host an LGBT Night at Energy Park. The Blue Claws, who are affiliated with Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies, join the ranks of countless minor and major league sports organizations that sponsor an LGBT Night. These themed events, which also include Irish Heritage Night and Faith Night, are designed to attract and welcome fans from a wide arc of backgrounds to live sporting events.
Cyd Zeigler, Jr., award-winning journalist and co-founder of Outsports.com, spoke candidly to EDGE and noted that "teams with these nights are not interested in making a big political statement, but there could be an occasional executive who does have that in the back of his mind. Baseball has 81 home games every year that they have to sell out during the course of the season. Gay Night or LGBT Night just happens to be one of those ways that they make money. In a lot of ways, that’s great that we’re treated, in the eyes of major league baseball, like every other niche group."
Skeptics may attribute sports’ push to be more inclusive of LGBT persons to "pink money," a slang term that refers to the purchasing power of the gay community. A 2011 article in the Philadelphia Business Journal predicted that disposable income held by LGBT individuals would exceed $835 billion.
Zeigler put the theory to rest, saying that everyone’s money is green.
"Sports teams don’t care if it’s pink dollars, purple dollars, yellow dollars, or red dollars," said Zeigler. "They just want the dollars."
Zeigler, who has collaborated with MLB’s New York Mets and the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers to produce several LGBT Nights, mentioned that "some teams will go the extra mile because they do recognize that there is some importance behind this particular night given the state of homophobia in sports."
NBA’s Jason Collins Gives a Voice to Gays in Sports
The issue of homophobia in sports reached an uncomfortable boiling point earlier this year when cornerback Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers made homophobic remarks in an interview with Artie Lange.
"No, we don’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out of here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff," said Culliver. When prodded further, Culliver intimated that that, even hypothetically, he could not share a locker room with a gay teammate, saying, "You gotta come out ten years later."
Culliver later apologized for his remarks, but that rarely spoken sentiment likely contributed to why it has taken so long for a professional sports team to have its first, active, openly gay male athlete emerge.
That changed on Apr. 29 when seven-foot tall, 34-year-old NBA center Jason Collins gave a face and a voice to others who want to "just try to live an honest and genuine life."
Collins’ announcement, which came in the form of a Sports Illustrated article he co-authored with writer Franz Lidz, by no means diminishes the courage and contributions of athletes like former professional tennis player Martina Navratilova or the WNBA’s first overall 2013 draft pick, Brittney Griner.
As perhaps the most high-profile, currently-active lesbian athlete of her generation, Griner shares the spotlight with other openly-gay female athletes including professional soccer players/philanthropists Joanne Lohman and Lianne Sanderson, as well as MMA fighter Liz Carmouche -- all of whom were named to the Advocate’s Top 40 Under 40 list of public LGBT figures.
Yet, until now, a double standard seemed to exist for lesbian athletes as opposed to openly gay male sports figures.
"Women are simply more willing to share their emotions and personal life than men are, but I also think that money makes a huge difference," said Zeigler, who noted that when comparing the salaries of female professional athletes to those of their male counterparts, women make considerably less. The average salary for a WNBA player in 2012 was $72,000, which stands in stark contrast to the $5.15 million average for an NBA player.
"When you’re making a quarter-million dollars a year playing your sport, it’s a lot easier to make life decisions separate from money than when you’re making $20 million a year," said Zeigler. "The amount of money put at risk goes up for men because male athletes are simply making more money."
Although they hail from different ends of the sports spectrum and are divided by several decades, both Navratilova and Griner chose to declare their sexual orientation while active in their careers.
Prior to Jason Collins’ announcement, the decision for male athletes to come out was typically delayed until after that athlete had retired from professional sports. Former NBA basketball center John Amaechi and former NFL players Esera Tualolo, Don Kopay, and Wade Davis all came out after their respective retirements.