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WNBA's Swoopes has the balls to come out

By Nancy Goldstein | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

Sheryl Swoopes, star forward for the Houston Comets, is to the Women’s National Basketball Association what Derek Jeter is to major league baseball, Brett Favre is to football, and Kevin Garnett is to the NBA — with just a few minor differences.


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 sports.

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].


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