On Wednesday, Sheryl Swoopes, the three-time MVP of the WNBA Houston Comets, came out as a gay woman. She used the occasion to announce a one-year endorsement deal with Olivia Cruises and Resorts, a company that runs ocean cruises for lesbians.
Gay athletes are afraid that they will lose endorsements if they come out of the closet. Olivia is doing good work by providing financial support to gay athletes who want to come out. LPGA golfer Rosie Jones previously came out by announcing an Olivia endorsement deal.
Martina Navratilova also has a contract with Olivia. This should surprise no one; she has been out of the closet since 1981. Anyone who comes out today rides on her shoulders. Pioneers in any movement become the public focus of intolerance. Reprisals and lack of endorsements were only part of the punishment Navratilova received. When Chris Evert retired after a long rivalry with Navratilova that was arguably the best rivalry in modern sports history, a journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press praised Evert’s “demure” ground strokes and criticized “European women with a lot of facial hair” who come to the net like “some disgusting Buffalo.” The journalist was clearly referring to Navratilova. You can read about this article and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova in the excellent book by Johnette Howard, The Rivals.
Swoopes is the first African-American athlete to come out but she may suffer more for behavior having nothing to do with sexual preference. Swoopes declared bankruptcy because she mishandled her money and took off on an Olivia cruise in the middle of the season while playing for a European team she plays with in the WNBA off-season. O.k., no big deal. Many people are filing for bankruptcy now because new laws will soon make filing for bankruptcy harder. And her European team knew before the season started that she would be leaving to take the cruise.
When Magic Johnson assured us that he got the AIDS virus from a woman, no on questioned it despite the fact that it is statistically much harder to contract AIDS from a woman than a man in this country.
Swoopes and her partner of seven years, Alisa Scott, started dating while Swoopes was still married to her husband. Dating someone while you’re still married and have a child? Not fair to your spouse but, then, we don’t know anything about Swoopes’s relationships with her husband.
However, Scott was an assistant coach with Swoopes’s Houston Comets team until 2004. That is most definitely not o.k. It is taboo in team sports with good reason. Imagine being a professional athlete and worrying that your teammate will get more playing time than you because she’s sleeping with a coach. Swoopes had access to her coach when other players didn’t. She would have been privy to information about other players that should have remained within the coaching staff.
If she didn’t want to come out when she started to date Scott, she should have asked for a trade or Scott should have left the team. This has nothing to do with being straight or gay. By keeping her relationship with Scott secret, Swoopes was being dishonest with her teammates and unfair to the coaching staff.
There is some consolation that being gay is less of a problem for Swoopes than other behavior in her life. It means that being gay is not such a big deal anymore. Unfortunately, that is not true for male athletes. An active male athlete in a major sport has never come out as a gay man. When Magic Johnson assured us that he got the AIDS virus from a woman, no one questioned it despite the fact that it is statistically much harder to contract AIDS from a woman than a man in this country. I’m not suggesting that Johnson did not get AIDS from a woman, I’m saying that the subject of homosexuality is so buried in the professional male athletic culture that we accepted his version of the story with little resistance.
In many places in the world, being gay will get you killed. The NBA markets itself in China, the NFL and MLB played a preseason game in Tokyo, and the NFL played a regular season game in Mexico. As American sports spread around the globe, it’s important that American athletes stand up and come out. I adore Martina and I applaud Swoopes, but I hope that male athletes will soon be brave enough to join the party.