The year is 1976, and you were just signed to one of the most storied teams in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers under the larger-than-life Tommy Lasorda. You were out in the minor leagues, and now that you're in the majors, you wear a red jockstrap and dance around the clubhouse. You ignore advances from women and openly head out at night to find the hottest gay club in whatever town you're in. Your teammates don't really care about who you bed at night, but management does — and offers you $75,000 simply to get married.
"You mean, to a woman?" you quip. Sure, you become the heart and soul of the team, and you're later credited with co-inventing the high-five with Dusty Baker. But it doesn't matter. You don't last with the Dodgers.
Instead, you get traded to the Oakland A's where your manager openly refers to you as a faggot. Then it goes downhill. Your teammates mostly hate you. You get sent to a minor league team in Utah. A debilitating car accident forces you to retire. You're proud that you got to play in the World Series as an out gay man, but that doesn't stop you from falling into a deep depression or developing a cocaine addiction or becoming homeless. It doesn't stop you from eventually dying poor and isolated at age 43.
You are center fielder Glenn Burke.
Fast-forward four decades. You're an intelligent utility player, and your teammates love you. And after living your life as a straight man for years, you realize it's time to come out as a gay professional athlete. And when you do, you land the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the president of the United States congratulates you, and so do your former teammates. Yes, there's blowback from some who just don't get it, but you become an icon for the thousands of LGBT children and adults across the country who are already out and proud, or trying to figure out how to join team LGBT.
You are NBA free agent Jason Collins.
Without players like Burke or NFL player Dave Kopay or tennis champions Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who knows if Collins would have had the strength to come out after keeping his secret for 33 years and 12 NBA seasons, or if Brittney Griner could be drafted into the WNBA and speak openly about being a lesbian? What about younger athletes like Amherst College's Avery Stone or Canadian high schooler Cory Oskam, who hit the ice with pride every time they play hockey?
These young players and dozens of other athletes, coaches, administrators, consultants, and media met in Portland, Ore., in June to work with Nike toward a lofty goal — ending anti-LGBT bias in sports by 2016. This idealism isn't only for the professionals or student-athletes, but even for the kids in Little League or adults in recreational Ultimate Frisbee.
So even with the Brooklyn Nets interested in signing Collins, Robbie Rogers playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Griner breaking records in the WNBA, and Sharnee Zoll-Norman of the Chicago Sky talking openly about her wife, there is still massive work to be done. There are no active openly gay players in the NFL, NHL, or MLB. Major players in sports media tend not to treat female athletes' comings-out as a big deal, thanks to old notions on how we value women's work, female athletes, and concepts of femininity. Some college teams have rules barring students from being out, while recruiters use wholesome images of safe, heterosexual teams to assuage the fears of prospects' parents. And then there's the fans who gather in stadiums, 45,000-strong, and shout homophobic slurs to the players on the field and each other.
The Invisible Athletes
While Griner was able to excel at the religiously affiliated Baylor University as a star basketball player, she was still stifled from speaking openly about her sexual orientation. Yet until she was drafted into the pro leagues, she became the highest-profile LGBT college athlete. Like Griner, about 5% of college athletes identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to Campus Pride. Seven total athletes, out of the 8,018 NCAA athletes surveyed, are transgender.
Similarly, there's only one out lesbian coaching NCAA Division I basketball — Sherri Murrell of Portland State University — and a smattering of LGBT coaches on the college level who are out to their teams and fans alike. But in a country without employment protections for gay workers, it can't be easy to coach for some of the major private universities as openly LGBT.
A quarter of LGBT student athletes say they have felt pressured to be silent about their sexual orientation among teammates. Nearly the same amount of students say they have been bullied online for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Still, many athletic departments in high schools and colleges are scrambling to find ways to welcome LGBT athletes into the fold. Outside organizations like GO! Athletes have been there to help athletic departments understand gay players.
Members of GO! Athletes, a coalition of LGBT athletes and allies, flooded Nike's summit. They largely represent the NCAA's several hundred LGBT athletes who want to break the silence of sexual minorities in locker rooms — or at least get through a practice without being hassled. In five years, GO! Athletes has built a network of student athletes at colleges across the country, acting as a sort of de facto LGBTQIA resource group.