1) You’ve probably
never heard of Swoopes or seen her play, despite the
three Olympic gold medals she’s won with Team
USA, the four championships her Comets have notched
in the WNBA’s nine seasons, or the three all-league
MVP awards she’s earned. (She picked up her
latest one last month — at the age of 35.)
2) Swoopes, despite earning the maximum salary for
a WNBA player, still makes two to three times less
than the greenest rookie in the NBA.
3) Swoopes just came out as a lesbian in an
article for ESPN magazine yesterday.
Consider for a moment the deeply conservative
world of sports, where men are men, women are
women, and the separation of church and state is for
sissies. Remember that the same fans who happily watched
football players grind each others’ limbs into
paste all season long practically torched CBS after
an inadvertent glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple
during the Superbowl halftime show in 2004.
It takes guts to come out in this world. Swoopes’
announcement makes her the most prominent team athlete
to say that she’s gay in the history of modern
American sports, the only one to do so while still
at her peak — and the first African-American
professional athlete to do so, period.
Swoopes came out exactly like she plays: with strength,
skill, and integrity. Her myth-busting story is unmarred
by apology or pathology. No, she isn’t trying
to be a hero or rub it in people’s faces: she’s
just “tired of having to hide my feelings
about the person I care about.” No, she doesn’t
think she was born this way; and no, this isn’t
why her marriage ended a few years after the birth
of her son (now eight).
Yes, she’s a Christian. It troubles her when
people start telling her that she’s going to
hell, and she’s concerned about how her mother’s
going to deal with her church friends. But at the
end of the day, she doesn’t think it’s
right for people to judge one another. She wants to
be free, she wants people to know who she is, and
she wants to be able to show affection in public with
her long-term partner.
In short, Swoopes’ story sounds like the stories
of many, many women who come out. Except that she’s
Sheryl Swoopes, and her decision to do so risks everything
about her hard-earned place in sports history.
That’s why Darren Rovell’s article on
her coming out, which runs beneath it on ESPN, made
me want to take a hot shower. Titled “Swoopes’
coming out has tie-in to endorsement deal,”
it’s an unsavory mixture of cynicism and gosh-golly
naïveté. Pointing to a doubtless modest
deal Swoopes has made to endorse Olivia Cruises (a
lesbian travel service), Rovell insinuates that it’s
the motivating force behind Swoopes’ “high-profile
declaration” of her “gay lifestyle”
and takes it as evidence that there’s been a
sea change in the 25 years since Martina Navratilova
came out. “Being an openly gay athlete 25 years
ago might have hindered one’s appeal in the
business world,” Rovell enthuses, “but
times have changed.”
Really? If so much progress has been made, could
Rovell please explain the long drought in between
the two events—or why news of Olivia’s
bounty hasn’t pulled hundreds of prominent lesbians
out of the closet? Can he name three prominent sports
figures besides Greg
Louganis and Amelie
Mauresmo who have come out since 1981— and
not just anyone, but anyone as accomplished within
a popular sport as Swoopes? And does he have any idea
what the Olivia deal is worth? Because last time I
looked, lesbian travel services did not have marketing
budgets comparable to those of sneaker manufacturers
or soft drink companies.
Have you been watching too much “Queer Eye”
and “Will & Grace,” Darren? Get your
head out of the entertainment world, my friend. It’s
not real life.
The fact is that Swoopes’ bravery has the potential
to cost her plenty in terms of her league’s
support, her reputation, endorsements, professional
future, and the love and admiration of her fans. For
years now, the WNBA’s marketing strategy has
read like a master plan for convincing parents that
hoops won’t turn their little girls queer. There’s
a very real possibility that now the league will choose
to downplay what has previously been Swoopes’
fairly prominent role as a spokesperson. When Swoopes
says that her “biggest concern is that people
are going to look at my homosexuality and say to little
girls — whether they’re white, black,
Hispanic — that I can’t be their role
model anymore,” her fears aren’t baseless.
Swoopes is taking a genuine risk with her earning
potential and her professional future by coming out.
She isn’t a male professional athlete with an
eight-figure salary and lucrative endorsement deals.
She plays for a
league where even the top draft pick rookie maxes
out at $50,000 per season, a few superstars make the
top salary of $87,000, and the members of each year’s
championship team earn a measly $10,000 bonus. And
while many of the top WNBA players are retiring from
the league into college coaching careers, none have
done so as out lesbians in an environment where lesbian-baiting
remains an issue.
When a player of Swoopes’ caliber decides
to stop playing the pro sports game of compulsory
heterosexuality, she’s taking a very real set
of risks while setting a fantastic example. But she’s
sending a far stronger signal about her personal integrity
than she is about the joys of free-market capitalism.
I’m thrilled for Swoopes. At the very least,
she’s dragged an important conversation out
of the closet. At best, her coming out may bring some
much-needed positive change to the world of professional
And as always, it’s a pleasure to watch Swoopes
take it to the next level.
Nancy Goldstein’s next column will appear
on Raw Story on Thursday, November 10th. She can be
reached at [email protected].