The unfortunate thing about WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out last week was also the best thing: It wasn’t a very big story.
Most of the coverage focused on whether Swoopes’ announcement would encourage or discourage gay male athletes in American team sports who may be contemplating going public. The consensus, in case you’re keeping score, was that it would have little or no effect. Very different things, male and female sports, lesbians and gay men. Next subject, please. Thank you.
Part of that lack of big-headline coverage was good old-fashioned sexism: What happens among women is only important to the extent it affects men. I confess my first thought was to address that angle, since we’ve talked before around here about gay male athletes in the team sports coming out.
Another part, a bigger part, was that the WNBA is a minor sport, a niche enterprise, and Swoopes, for all her MVP awards, college and pro titles and Olympic gold medals, was not a particularly famous person beyond that niche.
Most casual sports fans had probably heard her name before last week, but wouldn’t have been able to tell you what team she played for or what she looked like.
Part of that is sexism too, but not as much of it as die-hard fans would like to believe. The WNBA is an uncompelling product that’s been marketed poorly. That’s not to say women’s basketball is necessarily uncompelling. The pro league, a subsidiary of the NBA, has failed to capitalize and expand on the excitement and growing popularity of college hoops.
But the WNBA is big enough, and Swoopes was well-enough known, that the reaction to her as-told-to story in ESPN the Magazine could have been a lot stronger, and a lot more negative. That’s the best thing. This wasn’t a big deal partly because the WNBA isn’t a big deal, but partly because a star female athlete coming out really isn’t that big a deal.
Why not? Well, because most of the people who would squawk the loudest at an NBA or NFL star coming out probably figure all female athletes are lesbians anyway and to hell with the whole butch bunch of ‘em.
And also because the culture of female sports has always been more accepting of homosexuality than the culture of male sports, though that can be overstated. It took eight years for Swoopes to come out, there have only been two other publicly lesbian players in the league, neither of whom have talked much about it, and there’s still thinly veiled hostility toward gay athletes in many college programs, veiled at all only because of anti-discrimination rules.
Look at Penn State, where basketball coach Rene Portland, who spoke openly of a no-lesbian policy in the ’80s and early ’90s before such rules were put in place, has been accused of kicking a player off the team after last season because she suspected the player is a lesbian. Portland denies the charge.
But while it’s not a monumental event in the ongoing history of the acceptance of gays in the sports world, it’s a nice little moment, a signpost of progress along the way. Billie Jean King, a much more famous athlete, lost all her endorsements a quarter-century ago when she was outed in a lawsuit. Swoopes decided to come out after being offered an endorsement, by Olivia Cruises, which caters to lesbians.
Years from now, when the history of gays in sports is written in a world that’s changed enough that a professional athlete, female or male, coming out is about as shocking as a supermarket manager doing so, Swoopes will get a mention, but not her own chapter.
She’ll be most notable not because she was first at anything, but because she’s by far the most prominent black athlete to come out, and one of the most famous black Americans. Alice Walker was more famous than Swoopes when she came out as bisexual. That’s a pretty short list.
“I mean, you have Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell, but you don’t have your well-known gay African-American who’s come out,” Swoopes said in her ESPN Magazine piece. “Not to my knowledge. I know it’s not accepted in the black community. I know I’ll take a lot of flak.”
That’s no small thing, to chip away at that cultural flaw. But it’s not monumental either.
Have you noticed that? Every time a step is taken on this road toward acceptance of gays in sports, it’s not as big a deal as we might have guessed.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
The NBA returns [PERMALINK]
I gave up on the Dallas Mavericks-Phoenix Suns TV double-header nightcap after three quarters Tuesday night, with the Suns up by 11. They built the lead to 17 in the fourth quarter before blowing it and losing in double overtime.
I was long since in bed, dreaming of a world in which the home team didn’t wear its road orange uniforms on opening night as part of a sponsorship deal with a hardware store whose signature color is orange. Feh.
I did watch the entirety of the opener, the San Antonio Spurs’ beginning defense of their championship by clocking a good Denver Nuggets team at home, 102-91. The salespeople in the Spurs front office must be sleeping on the job. San Antonio actually wore white uniforms. Can you imagine?
Seven quarters of long-way-to-go basketball was enough for me. I’m not in midseason form yet, but it’s good to know Charles Barkley’s already in playing, uh, shape. His halftime analysis of the Mavericks: “They play defense like I did! They can’t guard anybody.”
Previous column: NBA preview
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Bookmark http://www.salon.com/sports to get the new Kaufman column every day. To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.