This August, Vogue profiled Elena Delle Donne, a forward for the Chicago Sky and last year's WNBA MVP. In the article, for the first time, Delle Donne discussed her fiancé, Amanda Clifton, effectively coming out as lesbian. While media outlets commented here and there, the news hardly made a blip on the sports media radar. Life carried on as usual.
Had this year's NBA MVP Stephen Curry made a similar announcement, it's practically guaranteed a media tsunami would ensue.
Delle Donne is one of several WNBA players who have come out to general indifference within the past few years, from Brittney Griner to Angel McCoughtry. And of the 55 out LGBTQ athletes who competed in this summer's Rio olympics, 44 were lesbian or bi women, as reported by Outsports. Nine were American. Of the 11 publicly out men at Rio, none hailed from the US.
The NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB are the pinnacle of American sports, and their athletes command Herculean levels of physical, emotional, and mental toughness. But despite recent victories for gay equality and a broadening conception of what gay men can act or look like, few professional male athletes have come out of the closet. With a few exceptions—like former NBA player Jason Collins, who came out in 2013, and Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay man to enter the NFL Draft in 2014—it seems our society still can't wrap its head around the idea of gay men playing in hyper-masculine sports.
"The internet would break if Curry came out tomorrow," said Wade Davis II, a former NFL player who came out publicly in 2012 and currently works as an independent diversity consultant and speaker, in an interview with VICE. "Because having a gay man as a world-class athlete would question the very idea of masculinity. It's not a shock to me that Elena Della Donne, one of the most talented athletes—male or female—in the world, doesn't get a lot of attention for coming out. Because people think, well, of course she's a lesbian, she's in the WNBA. That's the easy answer."
Bree Horrocks can relate. The Purdue University basketball player came out last spring, and her announcement caused little stir, though she was the only out player in the entire 2016 Women's College Basketball NCAA Tournament. She wasn't surprised.
"I feel female athletes, especially in basketball, have an easier journey coming out, because of the preconceived notion that athletic women are gay," Horrocks told VICE. "There's this notion that being gay makes men less of an athlete, but that somehow makes sense for successful women athletes."
It's a notion Davis experienced firsthand. "We learn what it means to be gay in sports at a young age," he said. "I wasn't out in the NFL, I wasn't out in high school, and I wasn't out in college. I knew from the time I was 12 what it meant to be gay from a negative viewpoint, and no one helped me unlearn that."
It's been said that athletes avoid coming out because they fear loss of income, particularly from sponsors. But with sportswear behemoths like Nike and Adidas publicly sponsoring LGBTQ athletes like Gus Kenworthy, Megan Rapinoe and Griner—and Adidas going so far as to add a clause to its contracts stating that coming out won't affect sponsorship deals—such fears have proven to be outdated. What it comes down to now, Davis said, is the impact on an athlete's reputation and public perception. And for pro athletes trying to build their brand, that's a far greater risk.
"When I talk to gay athletes, what they tell me, in so many words, is that they know once they come out, then they are no longer an 'NFL or NBA player who happens to be gay.' They are a 'gay NFL player' or a 'gay NBA player,'" said Davis. "And once you have that attached to your name, that's it. It doesn't add anything for them, because of the negative way American culture still views gay men."
"One thing I've been musing on a lot is how we understand what it means to be a gay man in America," he continued. "And if we're being honest with ourselves, being a gay man means that you are less of a man. Right? Like, there is no value in being gay in this country when it comes to sports."
Dr. Cheryl Cooky, president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, believes that it's going to take more than one individual coming out to change the negative connotation of the "gay male athlete."
"There's some promise in having high-profile athletes taking a stand on social issues," Cooky told VICE. "Most recently with Colin Kaepernick, WNBA players with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the US Women's National Soccer Team with wage discrimination. It makes sense to think that if an athlete of that caliber were to come out, it would make a difference. But in terms of whether individual activism could create a collective movement that would bring about change within a league like the NFL, that's questionable. That's where I'm cautiously optimistic."
The culture of men's professional sports is inextricably masculine, down to the language used in media coverage and fan interactions. Whether it's a sportswriter referring to a college football team's loss as an "utter emasculation" or opponents using homophobic slurs in trash talk, a fundamental cultural shift in how we value masculinity is all but necessary before we see conditions ripe for more male athletes to come out.
According to Davis, that shift is in progress, and it's the increased visibility of strong, successful female athletes that's facilitating it. "They're performing at higher levels and their visibility is increasing, so men are watching them play more. With women's sports coverage increasing and the increased visibility of LGBT athletes, the conversation is growing."
That conversation, Cooky added, begins at home. "It starts with parents teaching their kids positive values and breaking down the stereotypes and language that go hand in hand with masculinity," Cooky said. "And there needs to be a no-tolerance policy [on homophobia] at the college and pro levels. Overall, it's going to take a cultural transformation for positive and lasting change to occur."