Will stigma fade as ma­jor pro­fes­sional ath­letes come out?

GA Voice - - Front Page - By DYANA BAGBY • dbagby@the­gavoice.com

ngel McCoughtry, star player for the WNBA’s At­lanta Dream, sat at a ta­ble with re­porters in the belly of Phillips Arena dur­ing the bas­ket­ball team’s re­cent me­dia day.

Re­porters asked her about play­ing over­seas, about how the for­mer Louisville star felt about her col­lege be­ing rep­re­sented in the NCAA cham­pi­onships (the men won the ti­tle and the women lost the cham­pi­onship game to Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut) and her pre­dic­tions for the up­com­ing Dream sea­son.

When asked if she knew any gay play­ers, she laughed know­ingly.

And then she said she doesn’t care if a player is gay or straight.

“That has noth­ing to do with who a per­son is,” she said. “To me, I keep it pro­fes­sional. We’re team­mates. Your per­sonal life is your per­sonal life. What­ever your pref­er­ence is, I have noth­ing to do with it and I have noth­ing against it as well.”

WNBA No. 1 draft pick Brit­tney Griner came out in April, shortly af­ter be­ing drafted by the Phoenix Mer­cury. McCoughtry said she thought it was a good move for Griner if she felt she needed to do it.

“She came out and that’s great and it’s great that she is free and open and it’s great peo­ple ac­cept it,” McCoughtry said.

McCoughtry added that NBA player Ja­son Collins’ com­ing out two weeks af­ter Griner and the ac­co­lades he re­ceived from his firstper­son piece in Sports Il­lus­trated seemed a bit un­fair com­pared to women who have come

Aout in many sports be­fore him.

“I never hear about men com­ing out. Since that one guy did, Collins, he’s been get­ting all the press. But when Sh­eryl Swoopes came out she kind of like lost her en­dorse­ments. Who was Collins be­fore he came out?” she asked. “And why was [Swoopes] left in dust? And you can quote me on that.”


Griner, 22, who played for Bay­lor Univer­sity, came out in a non­cha­lant way on April 17 in an in­ter­view with SI.com along­side the No. 2 and No. 3 WNBA draft picks, Elena Delle Donne and Sky­lar Dig­gins.

SI Video host Mag­gie Gray brought up the is­sue by stat­ing that “an­other big topic in sports re­cently is sex­u­al­ity, es­pe­cially with the NFL.

“In football it was ru­mored that maybe one or more play­ers were go­ing to come out — that would be­come huge news in the sports world and in gen­eral,” Gray said. “In fe­male sports, women’s sports, in the WNBA, play­ers have al­ready come out, and it’s re­ally ac­cepted. Why is there a dif­fer­ence be­tween men and women in that is­sue?”

Re­sponded Griner, “I re­ally couldn’t give an an­swer on why that’s so dif­fer­ent. Be­ing one that’s out, it’s just be­ing who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don’t worry about what other peo­ple are go­ing to say, be­cause they’re al­ways go­ing to say some­thing, but, if you’re just true to your­self, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you re­ally are. …

“It re­ally wasn’t too dif­fi­cult, I wouldn’t say I was hid­ing or any­thing like that. I’ve al­ways been open about who I am and my sex­u­al­ity. So, it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and ev­ery­thing’s OK, then hope­fully the younger gen­er­a­tion will def­i­nitely feel the same way,” Griner added.

Griner then re­vealed this month in an in­ter­view with ESPN The Mag­a­zine and es­pnW that she was told not to come out pub­licly at Bay­lor by her coach be­cause the staff be­lieved it would hurt re­cruit­ing ef­forts if par­ents saw a team at the Chris­tian col­lege read­ily ac­cept­ing a les­bian player.

While there are and have been gay play­ers on the At­lanta Dream ac­cord­ing to re­li­able sources, so far no one on the team has come out pub­licly.

The Dream fran­chise was founded in At­lanta in 2008 and con­tin­u­ally cites low at­ten­dance among the other 11 teams in the league — de­spite be­ing a two-time Eastern Con­fer­ence Cham­pion and mak­ing it to the play­offs in the past four sea­sons.

Head Coach Fred Wil­liams said in an in­ter­view that the Dream likes to keep it “first class and clean” when asked when a player on his team might come out.

Wil­liams said he did not know of any gay play­ers on the Dream.

“I don’t get into their per­sonal lives, what they do and all that. I know when it comes to bas­ket­ball and be­tween the lines with our team and or­ga­ni­za­tion, we like to keep it first class and clean,” he said.

“And no mat­ter what their life­style is, we sup­port them be­cause they are peo­ple. They got their own mind, they are their own hu­man be­ings, and that’s how it is,” he added.

Wil­liams did praise Collins for com­ing out, say­ing if he knew the player’s phone num-

ber he would call him (like Pres­i­dent Barack Obama did).

“I would call him and say I commend you for what [he] did be­cause he’s still got to walk tall and be around other peo­ple in pub­lic,” Wil­liams said.

“I know a lot of ladies have come out and said a few things in our league. I never judge that. I re­ally sup­port what they be­lieve in if that’s their be­lief,” he added.

Wil­liams said he doesn’t think any dif­fer­ently about Griner since she came out. He knows his team will face a tough op­po­nent when they play the Phoenix Mer­cury on the road Aug. 3 and at home on Sept. 8.

“I think its good” Griner came out, he said. “Ev­ery­body is asked so many things, what you be­lieve, what you stand for, and in so­ci­ety now, es­pe­cially with the in­ter­net, peo­ple want to know. So why not? Quit spec­u­lat­ing and just come out, just say it.

“I don’t look at Griner any dif­fer­ent than I did yes­ter­day. I think she’s go­ing to be a won­der­ful piece of the puz­zle for the suc­cess to this league.”

The 6’8” Griner was one of col­lege bas­ket­ball’s big­gest stars and her en­trance into the WNBA re­sulted in a 19 per­cent in­crease in WNBA mer­chan­dise sales, ac­cord­ing to az­cen­tral.com. And the Dream is pro­mot­ing her ap­pear­ance at Phillips Arena as well.

‘it comes down to two penises’

Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Out­sports.com and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on sex­u­al­ity and sports, said there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween Griner com­ing out in the WNBA and Collins com­ing out in the NBA, one of the men’s ma­jor pro­fes­sional sports that was still wait­ing for some­one to shat­ter that glass ceil­ing.

“Ja­son was a sur­prise,” Ziegler said. “I knew Brit­tney was a les­bian. It was an open se­cret. A lot of peo­ple knew. But my reaction with Ja­son was that this was some­thing we had been wait­ing for for a long time. It took way too long, but it was great some­one had fi­nally taken the step.”

The out­ing of pro­fes­sional ten­nis player Bil­lie Jean King by an ex-lover in 1981 made it eas­ier for women to come out, Ziegler said.

“She had no choice. It didn’t make it easy for women to come out, but it made it eas­ier,” he said.

For men, the dif­fi­culty in Amer­i­cans ac­cept­ing an openly gay ma­jor sports fig­ure is, well, the pe­nis, Ziegler said.

“Peo­ple are afraid of penises go­ing where they think they’re not sup­posed to go,” he said. “It’s a weird part of our cul­ture. And that’s what it comes down to — two penises. Peo­ple aren’t as freaked out by women. We can see women full frontal in movies. But with two men, it’s do­ing some­thing with the pe­nis most peo­ple don’t do and peo­ple are weird about it — and

“[Sex­u­al­ity] has noth­ing to do with who a per­son is... Your per­sonal life is your per­sonal life. What­ever your pref­er­ence is, I have noth­ing to do with it and I have noth­ing against it as well.”

— An­gel McCoughtry

this just trans­lates into sports.”

To put it sim­ply, Ziegler ex­plained, if you play sports, you must have sex with a woman be­cause hav­ing sex with a woman is the ul­ti­mate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mas­culin­ity. And if you play sports, you have to be mas­cu­line, he said.

If a woman plays sports, she is of­ten per­ceived to be gay. And noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, said Helen Car­roll, di­rec­tor of the Sports Pro­ject of the National Cen­ter for Les­bian Rights.

“What women have to do — they have to come back at that stereo­type,” she said.

Some straight women fight this stereo­type and try to prove their het­ero­sex­u­al­ity by dress­ing in very fem­i­nine cloth­ing or even mar­ry­ing men they don’t want to, she said.

Les­bian ath­letes, mean­while, have to learn that it’s OK to be gay but still ac­knowl­edge that stereo­type shouldn’t be there.

‘I to­tally be­lieve the world will only get bet­ter as more ath­letes come out. For me, it was like freedom had come into my life.’

— Rosie Jones

Car­roll said she was thrilled with the com­ing out of Collins as well as Griner.

“Cer­tainly the world and LGBT sports ac­tivists are happy to see a pro­fes­sional male top ath­lete rec­og­nized in the sports world come out. It was time,” she said. “Now he can be out and happy who he is. And he will be a won­der­ful spokesper­son.”

Car­roll said it should be noted also that Griner and Collins are black.

“Both of th­ese ath­letes are role mod­els for ev­ery kid. Boy, girls, per­sons of color. They both have strong per­son­al­i­ties. They’re dif­fer­ent and that will help kids iden­tify with them,” she said. “Both are peo­ple of color which is very im­por­tant for dis­cus­sion of race that con­tin­ues to hap­pen.”

Women ath­letes do not have it eas­ier when com­ing out sim­ply be­cause they are women, Car­roll stressed.

“Women play­ers have to deal with sex­ism, es­pe­cially in the me­dia, and ho­mo­pho­bia so it is very dif­fi­cult — that ques­tion of is it eas­ier for women to come out al­ways ir­ri­tates me as the an­swer is no, it is not eas­ier, It is dif­fer­ent. Each gen­der has to deal with spe­cific is­sues,” she said.

‘it’s a dif­fer­ent world now’

Rosie Jones, the leg­endary LPGA player, was va­ca­tion­ing on the beach, watch­ing her dog play in the sand, when she opened up about com­ing out as gay in a phone in­ter­view.

“You know, when Ja­son Collins came out I thought it was awe­some,” Jones said, adding she tweeted him con­grat­u­la­tions. “It takes a lot of courage to come out. And it’s not that much dif­fer­ence for a guy than a girl to come out. It’s who you are pro­tect­ing — your fam­ily, your team, your sport. But I think the back­lash is harder for the guys.”

Jones, who lives in Sandy Springs and owns Rosie Jones Golf Get­aways, came out pub­licly in 2004 as part of an en­dorse­ment deal with Olivia, a travel com­pany tar­get­ing les­bians.

Dur­ing her ca­reer, she won 13 LPGA Tour vic­to­ries and an es­ti­mated $8.4 mil­lion in earn­ings. She couldn’t come out dur­ing this time be­cause she feared the loss of en­dorse­ments and the LPGA had been “brush­ing [sex­u­al­ity] un­der the rug for a long time,” she said.

One com­men­ta­tor even said les­bians were hurt­ing the sport, Jones re­called.

When the is­sue of sex­u­al­ity came up, the LPGA en­cour­aged golfers to change the sub­ject, Jones said.

“And so we did. But it even­tu­ally got to the point where the is­sue was al­ways com­ing up and no­body was tak­ing it on by the horns. The time was right when Olivia asked me to rep­re­sent them. I was ready, per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally, and the world was ready,” she said.

Of course, Jones said she was still scared to come out pub­licly; she feared re­sponses from friends, fel­low golfers, the pub­lic.

“The first day af­ter I came out I felt like I was go­ing to work naked,” she said.

She be­came busy with in­ter­views as well as fans thank­ing her for fi­nally com­ing out. She even got some more en­dorse­ments. And she was still ex­pected to per­form well. Com­ing out ac­tu­ally put more pres­sure on her game, she said.

“I wanted to prove I was still a great golfer and that I wasn’t do­ing this for at­ten­tion,” she said.

Jones re­mains in the mem­ory of many golf fans as one of the greats. She still likes to hit the cour­ses around metro At­lanta and says she talks to peo­ple 60 and 70 years old and in­tro­duces them to her part­ner. “I ap­plaud Brit­tney and Ja­son,” she said. “Times have changed, peo­ple have changed, and peo­ple like Martina Navratilova made it eas­ier for peo­ple like me. I to­tally be­lieve the world will only get bet­ter as more ath­letes come out. For me, it was like freedom had come into my life.”

Ja­son Collins, a free agent in the NBA, is the first cur­rent player to come out in one of the ma­jor male team sports. Ad­vo­cates say his com­ing out is a mile­stone for LGBT ath­letes. (Photo by NBA)

Top and inset: Rosie Jones, one of the top LPGA golfers of all time, said when she came out in 2004 she re­ceived ‘new freedom’ in her life. (Courtesy photo) Be­low: An­gel McCoughtry, star player for the WNBA’s At­lanta Dream, said she doesn’t care if a team­mate is gay be­cause that is her per­sonal life. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

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