June 14, 2023

Professional Sports and the 2SLGBTQI+ Community (2 minute read)

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By Trish Arab

We are halfway through Pride Month, and even though our society is getting better for members of the 2SLGBTQI+ (the Canadian acronym referring to; Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersexand the plus reflecting the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify), there is still a lot of shame around men coming out in professional sports.

Let me stop here and add a disclaimer; I am no expert on these topics. I'm neither male nor a member of the rainbow community. I work hard to be a consistent ally and champion as best as possible. However, it's hard to write a pride-themed blog post for a predominately sports-centred media network and not point out the glaring fact that this group is severely underrepresented.

When talking about this subject with others, a common theme came up - the perception that all mainstream sports are viewed with very profoundly rooted stereotypically masculine characteristics. This perception is part of why women in sports struggle for legitimacy. Ever wonder why female tennis players can make so much money compared to other female-led sports - it's because tennis is considered more gender-neutral, and the idea of cheering on a woman is perceived as being more appealing, meaning popular, meaning money making (which is really what it all comes down to).

With that in mind, over just the past decade, male athletes coming out in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues have been few and far between.  

In 2014 Michael Sam became the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL. He was dropped by the St. Louis Rams the following year, never playing a regular season game, and announced he was leaving the sport for good, "citing the toll on his mental health in the year after he came out." 

It would be seven years before another NFL player spoke their truth, Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021, becoming the first active player in the NFL to come out. There are roughly 1700 players in the NFL; Nassib is the only one who is "out."

Ryan Russell was the first openly bi-sexual male in the NFL. Russell, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a defensive end before becoming a free agent, "made headlines in 2019 when he announced he is bisexual in an essay on ESPN."

At the end of the 2012-13 season, Jason Collins became the first male NBA player to come out and the first active male athlete to come out as gay in any of the major North American sports. As of 2023, no NBA player out of the 450 in the league identifies openly as part of the community.  

In 2021 Luke Prokop became the first NHL player under contract to come out as gay. Out of 1123 players, he's still the only one.

And finally, in the MLB, Glenn Burke, a player from the 1970s, did come out after his retirement. However, only two others have come out since, Billy Beane in 1999 and former Blue Jay Pitcher TJ House in 2022, after they also had retired from the sport. There are currently no openly gay players on any MLB team.

Any sports fan who is a member of 2SLGBTQI+ community, or considers themselves an ally, can't bury their heads in the sand regarding the lack of representation in sports; we also can't forget our responsibility in creating a safe environment. No matter how many professional athletes there are, there are more of us fans, and it's up to us to start showing that a person's sexual preference or gender identity is something to be celebrated, not something that takes away from their talent or our support of them or their team.  

If we want professional sports to be more inclusive and safe, the change really has to start with us.