The latest ESPN: The Magazine, dubbed the “Being Out” issue, contains five excellent pieces about the state of the LGBT athlete. It features some great writing, conveys fascinating insights into the odd combination of necessary egomania and unexpected insecurity that elite athletes are often prone to, and leads to the depressing conclusion that the gifts that make people very good at sports don’t necessarily exempt them from the problems that beset the rest of us.
Pablo S. Torre’s profile of Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball, is the package’s most frustrating component—perhaps because it’s a media story disguised as a sports story. When he first came out in April 2014, while playing at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Gordon made a big splash. He was voluble in interviews, walked the red carpet at the GLAAD Media Awards with an actor from CSI, and saw himself as a role model who could help kids who were dealing with rejection and harassment. When Torre first pursued the story, Gordon talked his ear off. But after transferring to Seton Hall, a Catholic school in the Big East conference, Gordon shut down—he stopped returning the reporter’s texts and emails, deleted his Instagram account, and switched to a rainbow-free Twitter avatar. Although Torre seems shocked by Gordon’s decision to “suddenly shun the spotlight,” it seems clear that he recognized that talking about his sexuality would “not add value to [his] basketball career.” As the piece notes, Gordon was always “a marginal prospect with outsized ambitions.” Coming out brought him invitations to cool events and a lot of positive attention, but being out and famous isn’t a paying position. Getting the job he’s obsessed with—signing with an NBA team—depends on Gordon showcasing his defensive skills, not his willingness to give the kind of highly quotable interviews that reporters love.
Olympic silver-medal freeskier Gus Kenworthy has already earned a spot at the top of his sport, but as Alyssa Roenigk chronicles, until last week he was afraid to be honest about his sexuality. Although his sport might appear to be the province of countercultural ski bums, it’s a world that stresses the importance of being cool, and “being gay has never been looked at as being cool,” he says. It’s clear, too, that Kenworthy sometimes underperformed on the slopes when he was worrying about personal concerns—that he was deceiving people by staying silent about being gay, that he didn’t have a girlfriend the TV cameras could cut to during his run—instead of focusing on skiing. And while Kenworthy’s income doesn’t depend on a team offering him a spot on the roster the way Derrick Gordon’s does, his recent coming out comes with some financial risks. As Roenigk notes, “Sponsors equal an athlete’s livelihood. A top athlete like Kenworthy, who is sponsored by Nike, Atomic, GoPro and Monster, takes in around 80 percent of his $500,000 to $1 million a year from sponsorships, which are based as much on image as they are contest wins.”
It’s striking that the lower the financial stakes, the more self-actualized and happy athletes seem: In her interview with Julie Foudy, out soccer star Megan Rapinoe seems free of the conflicts that afflict participants in big-paycheck sports. Rapinoe concedes that it’s easier for female athletes to come out—she never felt that her sponsors were going to abandon her, and she says teammates and coaches are more likely to know which members of the squad are lesbian. Rapinoe’s advice to other queer athletes who are thinking about coming out is unequivocal: “[W]hatever the worst thing that you’ve conjured up is, it’s probably way worse than what would ever happen.”
The most compelling piece in the package is Samantha M. Shapiro’s story on Chris Mosier, the first out transgender athlete to make a U.S. national team. After Mosier started to transition and shifted to competing against other men, he was worried about the response of his fellow competitors in the sport of triathlon—his event is the sprint duathlon, a run-cycle-run race—but to his surprise, “no one cared. … [N]o one gave me a hard time.” When he qualified for the U.S. national team, Mosier started his preparations for the 2016 world championships in Spain, but because of ridiculously unclear and clearly transphobic rules about who is allowed to participate in gendered competitions, it’s not clear if he’ll be able to compete there. As Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, sums up the state of affairs: “The [International Olympic Committee] is very concerned about a woman athlete having a penis. Officials in men’s sports don’t believe a person born a female could ever be talented enough to be super competitive as a transgender man.” Chris Mosier has proved that they’re wrong about that—we just have to hope that the sports world’s ignorance won’t get in the way of his showing just how competitive he can be.