On November 14, 2017, Australia overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage – becoming the most recent nation to do so. The fact that roughly 62% of Australians who voted wanted to see it become legalized reflects a growing trend towards acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Many other countries have already legalized same-sex marriage, despite any protests raised by opposing groups.
Our cultural view towards homosexuality has gradually started to change, and this change has been reflected in the sports and entertainment industry. Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most popular daytime TV hosts and is a lesbian. Famous supermodel Cara Delevingne is openly bisexual. While many celebrities and other famous people have come out over the past decade or so, this trend has not continued into the world of professional sports quite yet for one reason or another.
One of the world’s biggest professional sports leagues, the NHL, has not yet seen an openly gay player. This is in spite of NHL being at the forefront of building relationships with the LGBTQ+ community, such as through the You Can Play project. MLB has seen a minor-leaguer and a retired baseball player come out, but the last time they had an openly gay player reach the major leagues was in the 1970s. The NBA saw Jason Collins come out during his playing days, albeit toward the end of his career, not too long ago. The NFL, for all the controversies the league has endured of late, has seen the most openly gay players of any of the biggest pro sports leagues.
All of this is to say that there is still a long way to go in terms of acceptance within the pro sports world. Though there have been some notable athletes to have come out during their playing careers, many still feel the pressure and remain closeted – at least until after they retire. This article will look at eight athletes who bravely came out during their careers and another seven who stayed in the closet, only to come out after their careers ended.
15 CAME OUT: JASON COLLINS
Jason Collins was a first round pick by the Houston Rockets in the 2001 NBA Draft (18th overall). He spent time with many organizations for a decade and was a solid role player. Following the 2012-13 NBA season, Collins publicly came out as being gay. He wrote a first-person story for Sports Illustrated, in which he noted that he wanted to keep his privacy. He said he was wears #98 as his jersey number in honour of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a notorious anti-gay hate crime.
Collins was met with praise from fellow NBA stars (Kobe Bryant), his corporate sponsor (Nike) and even President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the NBA commissioner David Stern. Despite this, Collins was not signed by a team for that season. The Brooklyn Nets, at the request of Jason Kidd, signed Collins in February 2014. In doing so, he became the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major pro sports leagues (NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL).
14 CLOSET: ESERA TUAOLO
Esera Tuaolo spent a decade in the NFL between 1991 and 1999 for the Packers, Vikings, Jaguars, Falcons, and Panthers. He had a mostly successful career in the NFL, before calling it a career in 1999. In 2017, Tuaolo auditioned for season 13 of singing competition The Voice, and chose to be on Team Blake (Blake Shelton). He advanced through a few rounds, before sadly being eliminated during the ‘Playoffs’ round.
In 2002, after retiring from the NFL, Tuaolo announced on HBO’s Real Sports that he is gay. Since that time, Tuaolo has been a prominent advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, he remains involved with the NFL to assist them in combatting homophobia in the league. It’s good to see Tuaolo using his platform to try to change the attitude towards same-sex relations in the NFL.
13 CAME OUT: AMANDA NUNES
Amanda Nunes made history in the UFC, as she became the first openly gay fighter to wear championship gold. Nunes has been in a relationship with UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff for over four years and she credits the relationship with giving her success in the UFC. Nunes is a Brazil-native and has amassed a 15-4 professional record. She captured the UFC Bantamweight Women's Championship after choking out Miesha Tate in Tate's final fight. Following the victory, she went on to credit her partner for helping her: "It’s amazing, I am so happy with my life,” she said in a post-fight press conference.
“Nina is the best training partner I have in my life,” Nunes said. “She is shy,” Nunes said laughing. “She is going to show everybody. She helps me every day … and I love her.”
Nunes then went on to dominate a returning Ronda Rousey in late 2016, defeating the former champ in less than a minute via TKO.
12 CLOSET: GREG LOUGANIS
Greg Louganis is often considered one of the best divers of all time and he's used his athletic success to do his part in being an activist for LGBTQ+ rights. Louganis has been very open about his sexuality for a long time. Throughout the 80s, he was in a relationship with his manager Jim Babbitt, but Louganis described the relationship as abusive. Six months before the start of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Louganis was diagnosed with HIV, contracted from Babbitt.
While those close to Louganis knew of his sexual orientation, he didn't make it official to the public until the mid 90s, several years after the '88 Olympics.
In a piece with ESPN in 2016, Louganis has said society and sports have come a long way in accepting other sexualities: "Things are different now. I think we've come to a place of acknowledging bullying and recognizing the importance of standing up for your fellow teammate. I think there is less of that. There is much more sensitivity, and people are much more open."
11 CAME OUT: ABBY WAMBACH
Abby Wambach is one of the great American soccer players, who spent over a decade playing on the Women’s U.S. Soccer teams. She competed in four FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments, two Olympics, and is currently the highest all-time goal scorer for the U.S women’s national soccer team. Wambach announced her retirement in October 2015, but has since released an autobiography, Forward, and become a soccer coach.
Wambach married her girlfriend, Sarah Huffman, in October 2013. When asked about it, she said that she had never been closeted so she didn’t feel like the marriage represented a ‘coming out’. Though the couple has since divorced, Wambach married author Glennon Doyle Melton in May 2017.
10 CLOSET: JOHN AMAECHI
John Amaechi played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, and Utah Jazz in the NBA as well as various Euroleague basketball teams during his playing days (1995 – 2003). Post-retirement, he was worked primarily as a broadcaster, consultant, and an educator.
Amaechi is perhaps most widely known as being the first former NBA player to come out. He did so after retirement, and in his 2007 memoir, Man in the Middle. This revelation, as well his advocacy since then, has led to Amaechi being regarded as one of the most high-profile gay athletes. There were many mixed reactions within the NBA community to Amaechi coming out. Some publicly supported him (Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley), others were in opposition (Tim Hardaway), and some expressed mixed feelings (Steven Hunter, Pat Garrity, LeBron James).
9 CAME OUT: GLENN BURKE
Glenn Burke played in the MLB between 1976 and 1979 for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics. He was a highly touted prospect, even drawing comparisons to the great Willie Mays. Bravely, Burke became the first active player in MLB to come out. This led to some difficult situations within the Dodgers organization. Burke claimed that Dodgers GM Al Campanis offered to pay for a “lavish honeymoon”, apparently to bribe Burke to marry a woman instead. Moreover, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had a gay son whom Burke had happened to befriend. That did not sit well with Lasorda, and the Dodgers eventually traded Burke to Oakland. The players were unimpressed with the trade and many believed he was traded due to homophobia, because they acquired a player who was clearly worse than Burke.
Burke received minimal playing time in Oakland, where he was isolated even further. Burke sadly died in 1995 of AIDS-related causes in 1995 at the young age of 42.
8 CLOSET: BILLY BEAN
No, we don’t mean Billy Beane, of the Oakland Athletics. Billy Bean is a former pro baseball player who played for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres between 1987 and 1995. In 1999, Bean became the second MLB player to have publicly come out as gay. Though he came out as gay following his retirement from MLB, he did open up about his sexuality to his parents during his time with Padres.
Bean lived in Florida with his partner, Efrain Veiga, who runs a restaurant in the Miami area, but they split up after 13 years. He has remained involved in MLB, and was even appointed MLB’s first “Ambassador for Inclusion” in July 2014. Notably, he helped counsel David Denson in his decision to come out as gay.
7 CAME OUT: MICHAEL SAM
Michael Sam had a very impressive college football career with Missouri. As a senior, he was an All-American and the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Once he completed his college career, and prior to entering the 2014 NFL Draft, he publicly came out as gay.
Despite his accomplishments, he fell a lot in the draft. He ended up being taken in the 7th round (249th overall) by the St. Louis Rams. He never made it into the NFL as a regular in his one year with the NFL, as he was waived by both the Rams and the Dallas Cowboys. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL in 2015 and played there for a year, becoming the first openly gay player to appear in the CFL.
6 CLOSET: KWAME HARRIS
Kwame Harris played six seasons in the NFL as an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, between 2003 and 2008. Harris had a respectable career but blocking and penalties often hurt his ability to be an even better player than he could have been.
Harris was convicted of misdemeanor counts of domestic violence and battery against his ex-boyfriend, Dimiti Geier in 2013. This unfortunate incident prompted Harris to be revealed as gay when the incident became public knowledge. Harris’ lawyer, Alin Cintean, stated Harris is a private person but that Harris does identify as gay. Harris later confirmed this himself during an interview with CNN in 2014. He stated that he believes the pressure of hiding his sexuality greatly affected his performance during his playing days.
5 CAME OUT: GREG LOUGANIS
David Denson became the only publicly gay player in MLB when he came out as gay in 2015. Denson, who spent his entire career in the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system, first came out to his teammates during the season. He then contacted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal so that he could come out publicly. In doing so, Denson became the first active player in any MLB organization to come out as being publicly gay.
Denson unfortunately never made it to the major leagues, as he opted to retire at the end of Spring Training in 2017. The outfielder told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, “My feelings weren’t in the game anymore…Baseball will always be in my heart. But wanting to do it as a career was no longer there for me anymore.” While it’s unfortunate that there is no longer an openly gay player currently playing in an MLB organization, hopefully Denson is enjoying whatever he is doing post-baseball.
4 CLOSET: ROY SIMMONS
Roy Simmons spent five years in the NFL as a guard for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. The highly recruited football star was nicknamed “Sugar Bear” because of his fun-living personality in the clubhouse. When he made it to the NFL as a regular on the offensive line, Simmons unfortunately started to fall into problems with substance abuse. He later revealed it was because of keeping his sexuality a secret, as “The NFL has a reputation, and it’s not even a verbal thing – it’s just known. You are gladiators; you are male; you kick butt.”
After leaving the NFL, one of his young cousins revealed to Simmons’ girlfriend that he had male lovers. Simmons was so embarrassed he moved away and disengaged from his family, eventually becoming homeless for a while. He later announced he was gay in 1992 on The Phil Donahue Show and that he was HIV-positive in 1997.
3 CAME OUT: LIZ CARMOUCHE
Liz Carmouche is an MMA fighter who is presently fighting in the women’s bantamweight division. Carmouche, with an 11-5 MMA record, is best known for having competed in the first women’s MMA match at UFC 157 (a loss to Ronda Rousey).
Carmouche is also openly lesbian. The former Marine experienced homophobia during her time in the Marine Corps, including from her best friend – though Liz’s coming out has caused her to do a complete 180 and become more supportive. Liz can also count UFC President Dana White among her supporters as well. To many, White supporting Carmouche could be seen as a somewhat of a surprise since he had previously been labelled a homophobe after an homosexual slur slipped through his tongue during a rant. White has since been adamant that he supports the gay community and that Carmouche has his full support.
2 CLOSET: BILLIE JEAN KING
Billie Jean King is a legend is women’s sports. She had a hugely successful tennis career, which saw her win 39 major tournament titles and become the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. King is probably best recognized for defeating Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”
King was forced out of the closet by a former partner during a palimony lawsuit in 1981, which ended up costing her her husband and, unfortunately, endorsements. Since being outed, King has become a very outspoken advocate for gay rights. Her hard work in this regard led to her being honoured by receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. Billie Jean King has not only paved the way for women in tennis, but also for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community!
1 CAME OUT: SHERYL SWOOPES
Sheryl Swoopes is to the WNBA what LeBron James or Michael Jordan is to the NBA. She is one of the greatest WNBA players and Nike has created the “Air Swoopes” shoe for her, becoming the first woman to receive that distinction. Swoopes is also a three-time WNBA MVP and has won three Olympic Gold Medals as part of Team USA. Swoopes, the first player to be signed into the WNBA, has since retired from playing, but has now taken up coaching and has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 2005, Swoopes came out publicly when she revealed she was in a relationship with her girlfriend, Alisa Scott, and raising Swoopes’ son from her previous marriage. Swoopes and Scott broke up in 2011, but Swoopes has since gotten engaged to Chris Unclesho, her longtime male friend.