By Dave Zirin, April 30, 2013
With great fanfare and media buzz, Jason Collins came out of the closet. He was the first active player in major men’s sports to do so, and his frustration with other gay male athletes and their fear of coming out helped compel him to act. Ten days before his courageous act, the best college women’s basketball player also came out. Her name is Brittney Griner.
There is a myth that it’s somehow easier for star women athletes to come out of the closet than men. In this telling, being a gay male athlete is to exist in a sea of oppressive homophobia, while being a female gay athlete is like spending a week on an Olivia cruise in the Caribbean. It is certainly true that female athletes have had trailblazers like Martina Navratilova and Sheryl Swoopes amongst their ranks, but you can still count the number of out female athletes on less than ten fingers. The notion that women in sports would turn the daughters of America into “mannish” lesbians has been around since the first female athlete laced up her shoes. The glass closet is real, and that’s what makes Britney Griner’s public statement about her sexuality so welcome.
For those uninitiated in the mightiness of Brittney Griner, she might be the finest women’s basketball player to ever live. The 6’ 8” Griner was a three-time All American at Baylor and the first NCAA basketball player ever to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban even mused about drafting her to play with the boys if she’s “the best player available” when the NBA draft arrives in June. Griner’s response was, “Bring it on!” Now we also know that she’s out and proud, telling Sports Illustrated of her sexual orientation after she was drafted number one by the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
As significant as Griner’s coming out is perhaps the way in which she did it. Griner didn’t hold a press conference or make a public announcement. She just said it with a demeanor that suggested that she wasn’t really coming out of the closet because she had never been in.
“I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality,” Griner told Sports Illustrated’s Maggie Gray. “So it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”
The men of the NFL could certainly learn a lot from the courage of Jason Collins and the nonchalance of Brittney Griner.
Right now, there is a great deal of angst in the NFL, where four closeted players told former Baltimore Ravens linebacker—and marriage equality activist—Brendon Ayanbadejo that they wanted to come out jointly over the summer so as to reduce the scrutiny and soften the backlash.
But they scuttled their plans. “What we [now] want to facilitate is getting them all together so they can lean on each other, so they can have a support group,” Ayanbadejo told CNN.
It’s understandable why NFL players are so reluctant. This is still a league where prospective general managers ask rookie players whether or not they “like girls.” It’s a league that has no formal nondiscrimination policy. It’s a league where in far too many locker rooms, being gay is equated with weakness. It’s also a league, however, where players like Ayanbadejo, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, and former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Scott Fujita have all been public and active in their support for anti-bullying campaigns as well as marriage equality.
But as Britney Griner shows us, sometimes being comfortable in your skin is the best revenge against anyone trying to keep your humanity a secret. As Griner put it, “Just be who you are.”
Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, “Edge of Sports Radio,” and the sports editor for The Nation magazine. His newest book is “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down” (The New Press).
Dave Zirin wrote this column for the upcoming June issue of The Progressive magazine.
Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down