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Swoopes's
announcement shows progress—sort of

Swoopes's
announcement shows progress—sort of

No one called for a boycott of the WNBA after Sheryl Swoopes announced she was gay. The league didn't ask for any of her MVP awards back. Her sponsors are still writing her checks. Any initial surprise has quickly turned to a shrug of indifference, and even if the WNBA is not the NBA in terms of public appeal, that reaction shows how far society has come. And how far we still have to go. While Swoopes is accepted whether she's a wife, a single mother, or a lesbian, gay men are buried deep in the pro sports closet. "I don't see that happening any time soon," Swoopes said Friday about the possibility that a high-profile male athlete might come out. "But you know what? I didn't really see this happening either. At least not now, and it did. I wish, as a society, as a world, that this wouldn't be an issue anymore. Unfortunately, it is." Times have changed since 1981, when Billie Jean King lost millions in endorsements after admitting to a lesbian affair. Today, numerous athletes in women's golf, tennis, and basketball are open about their sexuality and aren't punished for it. Martina Navratilova, Rosie Jones, and now Swoopes even added endorsements from Olivia Cruises, a lesbian travel company. There have been a few openly gay male athletes, mainly in sports like figure skating. But football, baseball, basketball, and hockey remain straight man's land. There's never been an openly gay athlete in Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, or NHL, and only a handful have come out after they've retired. "We've been socialized to put male athletes on a pedestal with regard to their manliness, their toughness, their strength, their machismo," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "Because we've also been socialized to think that anything that references a less than macho image is negative or less than good, there's created this phobia about homosexuals in a male locker room." When there were whispers about quarterback Kordell Stewart's sexuality, he set his teammates straight in no uncertain terms. Mike Piazza felt compelled to call a news conference three years ago to say he's not gay. But the culture persists. Last year, Miami Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau had to apologize after he jokingly used the term "faggot" in describing the relationship with his teammates. "The display of masculinity, in too many cases, is almost the essence of how we play the sport," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida. "That does not make for a comfortable situation for an athlete to come out." So why should we care? Unless a crime is being committed, what an athlete does off the field is really nobody else's business. Except that sports are the prism through which we view society. Real progress in the civil rights movement didn't come until after Jackie Robinson put on a Dodgers uniform. AIDS was a disease for gay men and drug addicts until Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. Cocaine was a "recreational drug" until it killed Len Bias. Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues in this country today, with a debate raging about a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But if an openly gay male wore the New York Yankees' pinstripes or played for the New England Patriots, it would take the arguments in an entirely different direction. It's a little hard to hate someone when he's hitting cleanup for your favorite team. "It will be a turning point on the discourse and will signal that homophobia is becoming a thing of the past," said Eric Anderson, a professor at the University of Bath and author of In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. "It's more of a benchmark of how we're doing as an American people than sport in general." We're not there--not yet. But maybe someone like Swoopes moves us a little closer. She's a three-time WNBA MVP, the female Michael Jordan, and the first player after M.J. to get her own Nike shoe. And while the WNBA is still on the fringe of professional sports, Swoopes is the highest-profile athlete to come out since Navratilova. "I was concerned," Swoopes said. "I can see why it would be hard for people to make that decision. Seeing the reaction has been so good, it does make me think, Why the hell did it take me so long?" (Nancy Armour, AP)

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