Coming Out in an Up-and-Coming Sport

The announcement by WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes that she’s gay has been greeted by the nation’s sports commentators mostly with an accepting shrug. Swoopes can be who she is and be open about it, seems to be the consensus.

That’s good. Or, I should say, mostly good. In a society in which homophobia remains deeply ingrained, many millions of mainstream Americans have also come to believe it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. There are also millions of un-closeted gay and lesbian Americans who believe they have a right to live free of discrimination. Society’s closet isn’t quite the dark, airless space it used to be.

Yet the mostly accepting response accorded Swoopes announcement also highlights some of the ambiguity that still surrounds popular attitudes toward women’s sports. It’s the attitude that says Swoopes’ gay status doesn’t matter because who really cares about professional women’s basketball anyway? Besides, the WNBA is obviously a gay-dominated sport, so what’s the newsflash?

In comments from Oct. 30 in the New Jersey-based newspaper, The Trentonian, columnist Jeff Edelstein, for example, ridicules the “SuperBigImportant news” that a leading WNBA player is gay as about “as culturally important as the guy who played Nat on ‘Beverly Hills 90210.'” Edelstein writes with the snarly cynicism typical of so much of today’s sports commentary. At least he isn’t taking a personal swipe at Swoopes. His rather is a class action swipe at all professional women’s basketball. These otherwise slight remarks are worth mentioning only because they’re perhaps indicative of how easy it is for some commentators to express their public lack of interest not in a particular sport, but in a particular sport as played by women.

Closets Still Exist and Bigots Still Roam the Land

As for gays and lesbians, no minority in sports is subject to the open bigotry that still greets this community. You can find evidence of the latter in some of the racket heard by callers and hosts on the testosterone-driven sports talk radio circuit.A few NBA players also responded to Swoopes’ coming out with thickheaded comments about how they wouldn’t play in a game with a gay player (as if they haven’t already!). Then there are the media Internet and chat and discussion boards, where opinionated trolls for every seamy prejudice in American life prowl like angry bottom-feeders on the days headlines. Oh, yes. And let’s not forget the major religions that declare their “love” for homosexuals as they condemn their “sinful” manner of loving.

Ironically, it was ESPN: The Magazine that ran the interview in which Swoopes announced she was a lesbian. Yet the sports network also features sometime ESPN commentator (and full-time bigot) Debbie Schlussel, who last summer blasted WNBA players as “bad role models for young girls.” Why? Apparently, WNBA players as a rule are not attractive enough (compared to, let’s say, race car driver Danica Patrick) for this Ann Coulter of sports commentary. “Take a look at the raven-haired, petite Patrick, with her long tresses,” writes the right-wing Schlussel. “Then, look at 7’2″ Margo Dydek of Connecticut’s WNBA team-if you dare. Which one would guys rather date? Which one would most young girls rather be like when they grow up?”

Schlussel does not bother to reveal what she knows about Dydek as a human being beyond her height and job. No matter. It’s all more than enough for her to pass judgment on Dydek, assuming as she does that the Polish hoop star just has to be a lesbian. You’ve got to wonder how in the world such an intellectual air-rifle like Schlussel manages to get a forum in the mainstream media? One more question: What exactly does dating guys have to do with race car driving or playing basketball?

WNBA President Donna Orender has rightly said that Swoopes sexuality is a “non-issue” for the league. The WNBA website did post links to the first news stories about Swoopes coming out. But one report from an online women’s hoops discussion board claims that Swoopes’ profile on the “Our Voices” feature on the league site quietly came down within a day of her announcement.

No doubt WNBA management is sensitive to being labeled the “lesbian league.” No doubt also that in an enlightened world homosexuality in general would be a non-issue, or I should say, the strictly personal issue it should be. But the WNBA’s lesbian label is unfair not because the league doesn’t have a large lesbian fan base or whatever number of players. It’s unfair because it’s just more evidence of the way women’s sports are subject to a kind of cultural grand jury not applied to men’s sports. Unfortunately, the image of strong, competitive female athletes still pushes against old traditions that view women as the “second sex” to the God Almighty Male. That’s the historic backdrop every advance in women’s athletics implicitly challenges. The result is that despite significant advances in opportunities (and attitudes), women’s sports seems to wage a continual struggle for equal status with men’s sports.

In fact, that struggle for equality has sometimes taken form as a challenge for even the basic right to play. How many people know today that the birth of basketball in the 1890s was originally very much a coed sports phenomenon? The first decade of Illinois basketball, for example, saw some 300 girls high school teams spring up throughout the state. The teams often played by the same rules as boys and interscholastic meets were regularly attended by large and enthusiastic crowds. But the young female athletes of the day also evoked the consternation of proper school administrators, who feared dire consequences in the alleged “masculinization” of female sports. By 1907, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) took the extraordinary step of banning all interscholastic sports for females. Ironically, the next year the IHSA sponsored its first state basketball tournament for boys.

Such is more or less the conflicted history of women’s basketball, played out over the last 100 years as a kind of rolling tug-of-war between the game’s advocates and physical education theorists and school administrators who, from one region to another, have, at one time or another, opposed competitive sports for females. In South Carolina in the 1920s women’s high school basketball tournaments would draw hundreds or even thousands to games. Yet by 1954 the South Carolina state legislature had nixed the long-standing girls regional and state tournaments. Only in Iowa, where the six-player version of the game prevailed for decades, has an annual girls state high school championship tournament been held without interruption since the 1920s.

Watch and Learn

Today, women’s basketball is a sport with a growing fan base, at all levels. Witness the NCAA’s Women’s Final Four Tournament last April in Indianapolis attended by some 30,000 enthusiastic fans. I was there and saw in attendance 1) families with kids, 2) student fans from the participating universities, 3) men and women who just love basketball, and 4) (yes, it’s true!) lesbian couples and groups.

As a fan of the sport, I can’t help but think that the only way the WNBA could avoid being labeled by the folks who put the phobia in homo would be to ramp down the talent. But it’s not going to happen. In fact, women’s basketball at the higher levels today may be the best team basketball being played today. Take note: Not everyone prefers the one-star, power-dunking system that has come to dominate NBA play.

On the road to the team Gold Medal in women’s basketball at the 2004 Olympic Games, team member Lisa Leslie remarked on national television from Athens that she thought the struggling U.S. men’s team should come and watch the women play. Watch and learn from these modern-day pioneers of an international women’s game that is now less up-and-coming than having come into its own. And here to stay.

As an athlete, Sheryl Swoopes is one of the game’s true pioneers, a player whose legacy is likely to someday be remembered the way the NBA remembers Bob Cousy or major league baseball remembers Cy Young. But her decision as one of the WNBA’s leading players to let the world know she’s a lesbian also marks her now as another kind of pioneer, a human rights pioneer. In doing so, she will invariably help to nudge open the still heavy closet door regarding homosexuality that remains mostly slammed shut in the sports world.

This is a good thing. Because it’s about the freedom of individuals to be more than sports commodities, but who they are. From Sheryl Swoopes, the sports world can indeed watch and learn.

MARK T. HARRIS lives in Bloomington, Illinois. He can be reached at:



Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: