Posted: Thursday October 27, 2005 12:41PM; Updated: Thursday October 27, 2005 12:41PM
By admitting that she's gay, WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes broke ground that no male team sport athlete has yet done.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE via Getty Images
Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes revealed in the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine that she is gay. In some circles, that didn't come as a big surprise: when she accepted her third WNBA MVP trophy in Sacramento last month, the 34-year-old Swoopes publicly thanked "Scotty," whom WNBA insiders knew to be her girlfriend, former Old Dominion and Houston Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott. What is surprising is that such revelations are still so rare and newsworthy.
Swoopes, who has won three Olympic gold medals, four WNBA titles and an NCAA championship -- and who was, incidentally, the pregnant, married poster girl for the WNBA in its inaugural year in 1997 -- is the most prominent active team sport athlete to come out to date. She follows two other WNBA players, Sue Wicks and Michelle Van Gorp, in publicly declaring her homosexuality.
No active American male team sport athlete has done that. Sadly, most gay and lesbian athletes still feel they have a great deal to lose by being open about who they are or whom they love. Sadder still, that feeling may be more than just a perception in some places. Jen Harris, one of three Penn State basketball players who were abruptly dismissed from the team after last season, is alleging that coach Rene Portland kicked her off the team because of suspected homosexuality. Harris is not the first Penn State player to claim such harassment. Before the school adopted a policy in the early '90s that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, Portland had gone on record about having a no-lesbian policy.
Will Swoopes's revelation help chip away at the homophobia that is rampant in some locker rooms and fuels much of the negative recruiting that goes on in women's sports? Let's hope that at the very least it generates discussion of a topic that remains taboo in a lot of precincts.
For most fans, it probably won't make much difference in how they support Swoopes or the league. "Just put the ball in the hoop," wrote one fan on the blogosphere. Endorsements? So far, Swoopes is ahead on that count. The very impetus for her coming out was a new deal with Olivia Cruises, which caters to lesbians. One of her other sponsors, Nike, to whom Swoopes lent her name for its first endorsed womens' basketball shoe, the "Air Swoopes", has said it has no problem with Swoopes's lifestyle. WNBA president Donna Orender has dittoed that, declaring it a "non-issue."
Perhaps someday this kind of news will be a non-issue with everybody. Meanwhile, it may give other gays, athletes or not, the courage to live more openly. For Swoopes, a divorced mom who told the New York Times she didn't want to make "a big deal" of coming out, let's hope her announcement settles quickly into its proper context: as a footnote to her remarkable career rather than the defining moment.