- The sports world has still yet to have a star athlete come out while active. Why, and what impact could that have? LGBTQ media members from around sports answer those questions and much more.
Last week former NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan revealed on Outsports.com that he had planned to commit suicide after professional football, a result of O’Callaghan living life as a closeted gay man. The piece, written by Cyd Ziegler, was a deeply honest and thoughtful account of O’Callaghan’s coming out story. Ziegler told SI.com last week that the response to the piece has been overwhelming, one of the five most read pieces since the site was founded in 1999 (Outsports is the leading sports website in the U.S. for the intersection of sports and LGBT issues.)
I’d wanted for some time to do a roundtable with openly gay sports media members and this seemed like an appropriate week to do it given the interest in the O’Callaghan story. It’s also Pride month. Below, are seven sports media members who agreed to share their thoughts. The panel:
• Steve Buckley, sports columnist, Boston Herald
• Chuck Culpepper, sports writer, Washington Post
• Dave Doyle, combat sports writer, MMAFighting.com and Yahoo! Sports
• Christopher Hine, Blackhawks writer, Chicago Tribune
• Tony Paul, sports writer, Detroit News
• Kate Scott, play-by-play broadcaster, reporter and host for Pac-12 Network and play by play for NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports California
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity. I hope you find this as interesting as I did.
When did you first come out to readers/viewers/listeners and why did you decide that time was right?
Buckley: My coming-out column appeared in the Boston Herald on Jan. 6, 2011. I discussed the column, my decision and what went into it during a four-hour discussion later that day with Glenn Ordway on 93.7 WEEI, one of Boston’s two all-sports radio stations. I pause here to note that I was already “openly gay” in that the matter had been handled with my family, close friends and a few close pals in the media. Most media folks with whom I had not confided still knew I was gay; it wasn’t a big secret. What I wrote for the Herald was my decision to be “publicly out.” A small point, to be sure, but of relevance here. I had been putting this off for years. I had actually planned on doing it as far back as late 2003, but then my mother died, and, well, things happened—the Pats won a Super Bowl a month later, and in the fall of 2004 the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. It was a crazy time, and with everything going on I started to treat the coming-out column like a trip to the dentist: I should really take care of this, but...
Culpepper: I did so in February 2013, which forever will be later than I wish I had done so. For almost all of the seven years preceding that, I had lived and worked overseas (London, Paris, Abu Dhabi), and I had read from nine time zones away, in the Middle East, in January 2011, when Steve Buckley wrote his column in the Boston Herald. I certainly felt laggard in comparison to him and to others, and I guess that before I left the United States in early 2006, I must have feared the unknown at some stage, or worried about family considerations at another stage, and so on. Of all the nutty things, I once heard a rumor, at the 1998 Belmont Stakes, of all places, that I was about to come out publicly, but the rumor was untrue as far as I knew. I still feel astounded by the way the country changed while I wasn't living in it. By January 2013, I was riding to the AFC Championship Game with that same Steve Buckley, and staying at his house after that. We had talked about it some, as by then I had a column at Sports On Earth, a forum most viable, and he had relayed both his exceedingly positive experience and his belief that if it could help one kid out there, one ought to do it if one can. Then I had happened to spot the Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo in the locker room after their win in Foxboro, and I thought I couldn't live with myself if I didn't thank him for the way he had stuck out his considerable neck for gay people. I walked out of the locker room into the hallway with him, and thanked him, and that moment became the spur of the column. It's one of those things about life: You think about doing something for a long time, and then it feels like you do it in some whooshing hurry.
Doyle: I never wrote a formal column declaring that I’m gay, so I guess for some of my readers this will be the first they hear of my orientation. I’m completely out in my personal life. I’ve been out in the newsroom and on the beat for years. If I go out in West Hollywood with my friends and they take pictures, I post it on my Facebook timeline and don’t think twice about it. I haven’t hidden it for a long time. I always rationalized “it’s not about me” to compartmentalize my sexual orientation in my written work, even as I was out everywhere else. I want to simply be known as an accurate and fair MMA writer, not “the gay MMA writer.” While openly lesbian UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is headlining UFC 213 in July, there are still no out gay male mixed martial arts fighters of note. It’s past due time to change that. Since I’m already completely out in the rest of my life, it’s time to start using my voice to hopefully encourage others to come out and try to change the MMA culture for the better.
Hine: I had never come out publicly to readers despite being out in my personal life for over six years. But in March 2016, Giants cornerback Eli Apple said when he interviewed with the Falcons at the NFL Scouting Combine the first question they asked him was, “Do you like men?” I was at a bar with friends one night with some gay friends when we got to discussing the incident, and the emotions welled up inside me. I became angry at the culture that allowed this to happen. I went home and wrote most of a column in which I came out to readers that night. A few days later, it was in the paper and online. I decided the time was right because I was 29 and everyone in my life I’m close to knew I was gay. They had accepted it and nothing changed. Living in a progressive city like Chicago, I became more comfortable in my own skin with each year so when the Apple incident happened, I was ready to share my thoughts on how this incident was reflective of deeper problems in the NFL related to being openly gay without fearing any backlash personally or professionally.
Lin: I didn't formally come out to viewers/readers because I considered myself out long before I entered into this line of work. But when I used to write occasional columns about my experience as a photographer, I discussed my bisexuality as if it was already known. When I first started working in MMA, I would find myself arguing with hateful folk in the budding world of social media. I haven't really discussed it since, but often feel the need to come out more formally because I work in a field where I feel my visibility would be helpful.
Paul: It was June 28, 2015, two days after the Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage. I had a coming-out column written several months earlier that I spent a lot of time on and worked on with some supportive editors, but in the end, the timing just wasn't right for me. It felt cheap, like it was just for attention. I think I speak for all of us when I say that's absolutely the last thing I wanted, to seem like I was doing it just for attention. So we shelved it until the time was right. Late in the night of June 27, my buddy Brad Galli, a sports anchor for the ABC affiliate in Detroit, called me up and asked if I wanted to speak about the SCOTUS ruling during my appearance the following day on WYXZ's Sports Cave. My initial reaction was no, because I wasn't sure I was ready, nor was I sure I should make the news public on TV rather than in my newspaper. But a couple hours later, I called him back and said yes because the timing finally felt right. It was topical, with the historic ruling. So I stayed up until the wee hours writing and rewriting my script, which in typical me fashion was way too long, and sent it to the producer in the morning. I told him we could scrap it if they wanted. He wrote back that it made him tear up, and he was genuinely moved. That gave me the confidence I needed to finally go public, and I'm glad I did. The only regret was I didn't give my bosses at the newspaper any notice. Partly because it was so last minute, anyway. Fortunately, they were extremely supportive, as they always have been. I've since written columns on the subject for The News.
Scott: Oh man, I wish I'd pulled the clip all those years ago, because (San Francisco’s) KNBR-AM listeners still come up and tell me they remember it as one of the most raw, honest pieces of radio they've ever heard. It was back in 2011, less than two weeks into my six year stint at KNBR. I'd been hired to handle the sports and traffic updates for the Murph & Mac Show (5-9 a.m.) and the Gary Radnich Show (9 a.m-12 p.m.) Some quick background: My hire had already made waves here in the Bay Area. I was the first woman KNBR had ever hired full-time, I was much younger than Murph, Mac, and Gary, and I replaced a guy a lot of listeners loved, so I wasn't exactly in a rush to tell them yet another thing we didn't have in common. At the same time, everyone talked about their families on-air and I knew that soon enough they'd ask about mine. I'd planned to tell them I was gay off air, to allow them the time and space to process it, ask any questions they might have, and discuss how they'd prefer I talk about my life (since it was their show) on-air. Unfortunately, Gary beat me to the punch.
I still to this day have no idea how it caught his eye, as our studios were separated by about 20 feet, two panes of glass, and a board operator. But as I gestured while I talked, my wedding ring caught his eye and suddenly he was asking, "Kate! Is that a diamond on your left hand? Are you married? What does your husband think about having a wife who knows so much about sports?" And then my brain exploded. Or, at least, it felt like it did. I was out to friends and family, my former co-workers at Total Traffic-San Francisco and those at the Comcast Hometown Network, but this was different. This was the Giants, 49ers and Warriors radio flagship. This was hundreds of thousands of people, from all walks of life, many tuning in from outside of the big blue bubble that is San Francisco. This was less than a month into my attempt to find a space for my humor and opinion in the male-dominated pool of sports radio and I had less than a second to process all of that because in radio a second of dead air feels like an eternity. I quickly flashed on it, took a breath, and decided to cannonball into the deep end.
"Well Gary ... actually ... I'm ... married to a woman."
Now it was Gary's turn to overcome his shock and respond. (When listeners recount the story to me, they often say that this was their favorite part. That someone was finally able to shut Gary up. Ha! Love ya, Gare!)
A second passed.
"Oh ... well ... that ... that's great! What's she think about your new job?"
"Oh, she's stoked. She's a big sports fan too."
We then somehow steered the conversation back to sports and eventually made it to break, during which I walked over to his studio and apologized for catching him by surprise. He laughed, reiterated his support, and for the next six years I talked about my wife and my life fairly often on one of the biggest sports stations in the country. In my opinion, that's a credit to Gary, his eventual co-host Larry Krueger, Brian Murphy, Paul McCaffrey, our program director Lee Hammer, the majority of my coworkers at KNBR and the majority of our listeners too. They had my back from that first awkward exchange and in doing so granted me the freedom to learn and grow as a broadcaster without worry by creating a workplace where I could truly be myself.
Do you think viewers/listeners/readers care that you’re gay, positive or negative, and why?
Buckley: The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I received more than 4,000 emails, and those listeners who phoned in to WEEI that day were supportive and in many cases chose to have some fun with the whole thing, as in: “Really happy for you, man. Congrats. But your column still sucks.” I received a letter from a guy who posited that I must be a big fan of Damn Yankees, it being a marriage of baseball and the musical theater, yuck, yuck. (Disclosure: I really am a huge Broadway fan, but my favorites are Chorus Line and Gypsy. I am among that select group of people who can recite Russ Hodges’ call of Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” AND “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. Thomson hit the most memorable home run in baseball history. “Rose’s Turn” is the greatest 11 o’clock number in Broadway history. Debate me on this topic at your peril.)
Anyway...Sure, there were some nasty homophobic emails, but I was having too much fun to be caved in by that stuff. As for why people were supportive, I look at it this way: Everyone has gay people in their lives. Family. Friends. Co-workers. Even older readers and listeners were fine with it, and for the same reason: A lot of them have kids, or friends of their kids, who are gay. I noticed that younger readers/listeners are much more comfortable with the lingo—“coming out,” “LGBT,” “same-sex marriage,” etc.—whereas a lot of the older folks would greet me with, “Hey, good job with that … that … thing you did.” I LOVED that.
Culpepper: Every so often, someone will have gone rummaging around on Google and will mention it in an email, but that's about all, and it's always positive. I would almost the whole lot of them don't care at all.
Doyle: So far I’ve had more positive feedback than negative, so to the extent they care it seems more a plus than a negative. People still value authenticity in a writer.
Hine: Some don’t and some do. Some appreciate the different point of view when I have written about these issues in the past year. Others don’t see the big deal. A few think I should repent because I’m a sinner who is damned to hell and I’m disgusting to the human race because of my “lifestyle choice.” That’s the usual response I get when I write about gay issues in sports.
Lin: I don't think viewers care if I'm gay because they don't particularly care. Does that make sense? I get awkward, weird online interaction mostly because I'm a woman in this sphere, and a woman of color at that. I guess my bisexuality would just be one more thing to tack onto the laundry list of my "shortcomings." I hope that being more out will be a positive experience for readers/viewers of my work.
Paul: I'm not really sure if they care, nor do I particularly care if they care. I don't say that to be flippant. It's just that I came out because it was the right time, plus I already was out to all my family, friends and coworkers. Coming out to the public just seemed like the next step, and a somewhat important one, given the nature of the sports journalism business. There simply aren't many out sportswriters or sports broadcasters. And now there's one more. Maybe there was a college kid who saw my speech, and now thinks it's OK to pursue the field when maybe he didn't before. Or maybe it affected nobody on that level. I don't really know. I do know this: The reaction to the video was overwhelmingly positive. I was getting texts, tweets and Facebook messages before I even walked to the parking lot of the station, 99.9 percent of them positive, with only the occasional "Who cares?" comment. Which is fine. I heard the comments on the WXYZ website were vicious, but who reads the comments anymore anyway? One of the most interesting phone calls I got was from Bill Schuette, our Republican attorney general who fought against gay marriage. He called me after the show and commended me. That one, I wasn't expecting.
Scott: I think the majority of listeners and now viewers (I left KNBR in January 2017 to go full-time at the Pac-12 Network) couldn't care less. They've got enough stuff going on in their own lives to give a damn what I'm doing with mine. But I also know there's a small portion of the audience that does care and they're the main reason I'm out. I tell people all the time, I'm not out for me. I've got a wonderful wife, supportive parents, in-laws, and friends. I prefer my privacy when I'm not on-air. I don't need anyone to validate my life. But I'll never forget what my mom said to me when I first told her that I was gay. We were sitting on the rocks, along the shoreline on the south end of Sausalito's main drag. I was just a few weeks from finishing my junior year at Cal. As I told her, she started to cry. At first, I thought it was because she was disappointed in me, she didn't approve, something like that, so I asked, "Mom, what's wrong?" She looked at me and said, "Oh Kate, I'm just so scared. You've already worked so hard as a woman to get your foot in the door in sports and now you're going to have to deal with this too? I'm just scared that you'll never get a fair shot. I mean, name one gay broadcaster." I paused and thought for a moment.
"Well mom, I know there's plenty of gay people in broadcasting... "
"Yeah, but name one person who's out. And successful."
And at the time, I couldn't. I made the decision then and there that if I ever got to a place where I felt comfortable in my career being out, I would, because if I could alter that conversation for even one parent and their child, anything I'd have to deal with for being truthful about who I am would be worth it.
In your opinion, how newsworthy is it if a former professional athlete comes out following his or her career and why?
Buckley: It’s hugely important. Former pro athletes who come out confirm the obvious, which is that we naturally have gay and bisexual athletes on our teams. And these coming-out stories send a powerful message to younger athletes who might be considering an announcement of their own.
Culpepper: I think it has gone from extremely newsworthy to moderately newsworthy as the procession of stories has lengthened. There's a sameness to the stories by now. Their ultimate value now comes when there's a wealth of depth, as in the one just lately on Outsports.com about the former NFL lineman Ryan O'Callaghan. He shared the harrowing path through the years and through the corridors of his mind, and I think that can help not only somebody out there who is struggling, but can help with a general sense of understanding. There's always value in sharing how lives are actually lived if the subject is bold enough to do so, all in the name of that, well, here's some Dickens for you (!): "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."
Doyle: It would be more valuable if someone came out during their career, but there’s still value when someone comes out after their retirement. Whether it’s David Kopay decades ago or Ryan O’Callaghan last week, you learn from their experiences and hope to build a better system from there.
Hine: It’s newsworthy and it’s important because any athlete who comes out sets an example for those that come after them. I think it’s important that people like former NFL offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan come out because their stories can help others going through what they went through. Maybe that’s not being “newsworthy” per se, but it’s still important. It doesn’t carry as much news value as if an active player comes out. It also depends on the name. If a big-name player comes out after retirement, it would likely be a bigger deal from a news perspective.
Lin: It's extremely newsworthy because the more athletes that come out and tell their stories about being in the closet and how that affected them during their tenure as a professional athlete, the more the public will know how hard it is to live and perform that way.
Paul: It's extremely important. Too many people will flippantly say, "Who cares?" when they read a coming-out story, like all the great ones by Cyd Ziegler and his staff at Outsports.com. But that's not the target audience. The target audience is typically kids, many of whom struggle to accept the fact they're gay—and those struggles far too often lead to tragic endings. In middle school, I had a feeling I was gay, and I hated it. So I hid it, played sports in high school, dated girls and on and on. By the time I got to Michigan State, I finally felt free, able to be myself. And while you don't choose to be gay—and anyone who says you do is a flat-earth numbskull—I wouldn't choose to be straight. I like my life, the people I've met, and the experiences I've had. I can only hope all kids grow up to fully accept themselves and live their life openly and happily. I will also point to one coming-out story, recently, that had to rock the sports landscape, and that was Ziegler's outstanding story on Ryan O'Callaghan, who planned to play out his football days and then kill himself because he couldn't face being gay. Due to a variety of circumstances, he finally came to accept himself, and his story, no question, already has had a huge impact on youth struggling with the same issues. And it will continue to have an impact. That's why it's important.
Scott: I think it's extremely newsworthy because as my fellow Cal Bear and former NFL tackle, Ryan O'Callaghan, so eloquently stated in his coming out story last week: "As long as people are killing themselves because they are gay, there's a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help."
Here's a guy voted best offensive lineman in the Pac-10 by his fellow linemen, a guy drafted by Bill Belichick and the Patriots, a 6-foot-7, 330-pound beast of a man, and he was planning to be one of those people because he was so scared, so certain of how folks would react to his truth. Someone who belonged to the brotherhood that we as a society often view as the "manliest of men" had decided killing himself was a less terrifying option than telling people who cared about him that he was gay. That, in and of itself, is newsworthy. Until that fear becomes a thing of the past, each coming out story, each positive reaction we see to those stories, matters. It's those stories, of public figures, of star athletes, of people we aspire to be, that have the ability to inspire a struggling person to live. If that's not significant, if that's not important, I don't know what is.
In your opinion, how newsworthy is it if a current professional athlete comes out during his or her career and why?
Buckley: Jason Collins will be remembered not just for coming out while still active in the NBA, but for the graceful, regal manner in which he handled it all. He posed for the pictures and did the interviews, and then he went back to work. Alas, Collins was at the end of his career by then, regrettably saying goodbye just as he was saying hello. If the next guy is an established player who then sticks around for a while—and does his job—that’ll be a powerful message for high school and college athletes dealing with their own coming-out issues.
Culpepper: That's still huge, largely because it is in this domain that we start venturing into how teams function and thrive. Teams often inspire people because they unify disparate sorts, and after we've spent years in this line of work, we all can spot the look and feel of a team which has aced chemistry. It's a reminder of all the untold mirth that lurks within collaboration. It's intoxicating to digest. Can that work the same way while incorporating different sexualities? Sure, especially with this generation, but probably even more so with the next and then the next. Surely there have been champions that already have coped with this along the way, and in sports in general, things turned somewhere along the line from, "We're good people, so we're not condoning this," to, "We're good people, so we're not excluding this." That happened mostly because, over time, almost everyone knew and loved somebody who had come out. As for teams, one player told me that within the locker room, his teammates were unfailingly respectful but, in general, just didn't ask about his personal life, possibly because they were squeamish or had no background with such a topic, or possibly because they feared saying something damaging. I would love to know where this might stand in general now. Are there good NFL teams on which a social night out, four couples out to dinner, might feature three women and five men? Have teams coped with this, but we have to guess and rely on rumor, because they just don't want to deal with all the attending noise? Inasmuch as some future athlete would navigate coming out within a team construct, that still qualifies as large news.
Doyle: Let me make this about my beat. Here’s where we come up to the great divide in LGBT MMA. It almost seems like it’s more of a story if a women’s fighter is straight than if she’s lesbian. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Nunes and her partner Nina Ansaroff; Tecia Torres and Raquel Pennington, who are engaged; Liz Carmouche; Jessica Aguliar; Jessica Andrade; Invicta FC bantamweight champ Tonya Evinger. That’s just off the top of my head.
On the men’s side ... *crickets chirping.* There was a fellow named Shad Smith a few years back who was profiled in the New York Times. No disrespect to him, but he was a minor-league level fighter who happened to have an interesting life story. Obviously the numbers indicate there have to be at least a few gay male fighters out there. If you use Nunes as a case example, I think it would be a boost for a male fighter if they came out. At UFC 213, her opponent is Valentina Shevchenko, who does not have the name recognition of her last two opponents, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. But even with a weak B-side on the bill, the UFC is still trusting her to carry the ball and headline the show. That demonstrates she’s resonated with fans and that the company doesn’t view her orientation as a detriment.
I also think the example of out gay boxer Orlando Cruz serves as an example. Cruz came out five years ago. He’s been allowed to succeed and fail on his own merits since. He challenged for a world title just last November. Unfortunately for him, he’s lost in his two world title shots, but you can’t say he hasn’t been allowed the opportunity to succeed based on his orientation. If it’s like that in boxing, which is more entrenched and conservative than MMA, why wouldn’t it be that way in MMA? To be a star in combat sports, you have to have the right combination of the ability to get the job done in the ring and you have to market your personal story. Being the first gay male MMA star is a spot just waiting to be taken.
Hine: It depends on the sport and the player. If a superstar in the NFL were to come out, it would be talked about for days on end. If a fourth-line winger in the NHL came out, you wouldn’t see the same kind of coverage. That’s why I think it’s going to take at least one major star, especially in the NFL, to start changing the culture and make it more comfortable for players to come out. That one star, someone who isn’t in danger of losing his job because he’s gay, could help get the ball rolling and encourage others that the time might be right to come out. And that star could reach more kids and teenagers who may be struggling with their sexuality. When people say “It doesn’t matter if athletes come out,” I don’t think those people understand the kind of impact out professional athletes could have on young people. It’s a big deal. Heck, after I came out last year, I even got a few emails from aspiring journalists and broadcasters who said my coming out helped them better understand they could be gay and work in sports journalism. Just imagine what a star athlete could do.
Lin: I think covering athletes coming out is very important, and difficult, but necessary for all of us out there that are brightened, helped by such visibility.
Paul: Again, very newsworthy. I expect this will happen more and more in the coming years, especially if the political climate stays the same or gets worse. Think about it. We have out professionals in all walks of life, from Apple, to television and movies, to music, to even the Catholic church. All of these men and women are role models, proving you can do whatever you want in life, and being gay should absolutely never be an obstacle. A big-name active athlete coming out would have a significant impact, as well, although I suspect the first one from one of the four major professional sports will go through the toughest of times from some teammates, or opponents, or fans, much like Jackie Robinson did when breaking the color barrier. The second one will have it much easier, and so on.
Scott: It's incredibly newsworthy and whenever an active athlete in one of our four 'major' sports finds the courage to join them, it will be even more so because of the power athletes hold in our society. Sports cut across every societal boundary we have. One of my favorite parts of the Warriors’ recent championship or the Cubs’ storybook win last year was seeing people from all walks of life celebrating with each other like they were the best of friends. If one of those men were to come out, imagine how many different groups of people would suddenly know someone, love someone, look up to someone who also happens to be gay. Imagine the impact that could have, the conversations that could start, the stereotypes that could shatter. It could alter perspectives on the LGBT community forever.
To what extent do players/coaches/owners, etc. know about or care about your sexual orientation?
Buckley: On the day of my coming-out announcement, then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona texted me, as did players Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Curt Schilling. The owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, called my cell. I received a very nice email from Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck. And Bobby Orr called me twice—once on the air, and then, a week later, on my cell. He also invited me to attend a Bruins game with a group of New Brunswick business people who were visiting Boston. I later had a wonderful talk with David Ortiz, who told me about a gay friend he had growing up in the Dominican Republic. So, yes, everyone knew what had come down. Now it’s important to note that this was six years ago and there’s been plenty of turnover since then. I’ll not flatter myself by suggesting that the newer athletes spend any time discussing my sexual orientation, but I assume most of them know.
Culpepper: I am unaware of any who know or care. One thing I consider is that I bounce around the nation, rather than settling around one team or several, so there's just not that same familiarity.
Doyle: This is probably the best spot to address the elephant in the room: UFC president Dana White, the most powerful promoter in the sport, got in trouble several years ago for using a homophobic slur during an angry rant. Can you imagine Adam Silver or Roger Goodell doing the same? But I truly believe White is not a bigot. It’s been eight years since the incident. He’s apologized repeatedly. He’s refers to it as his biggest regret of his tenure. Previous UFC owner Zuffa were generous supporters of the gay and lesbian center in the company’s hometown of Las Vegas, and stayed so long after the heat from the White incident faded.
White’s a promoter. If you can make him a dollar, he doesn’t care what race, creed, nationality, or orientation you might be. When Rousey fought Carmouche in 2013 in the first women’s UFC title fight, Carmouche’s relationship with her lesbian partner in San Diego was incorporated into the hype for the fight and pushed in a positive way. I’ve never been treated any differently by the UFC or anyone on their staff—and the same goes for rival promoter Bellator—because I’m gay. You can criticize White for a number of valid reasons, but I do think it’s time for people to let this one go.
Hine: I’ve noticed no difference in the way people around the Blackhawks or the NHL interact with me after I came out, and that’s what I had hoped when I initially came out. Of course, access isn’t what it used to be in this industry, so we’re not around players, coaches and owners as much as people think. But I’ve noticed no change.
Lin: A few fighters know, not many. I don't think any coaches know. Tonya Evinger has known for a decade now, and when I first worked with her at EliteXC, I had pitched to photograph her at Dinah Shore weekend in Palm Springs. In a strange turn, they sent a male colleague of mine to go with her.
Paul: I suspect they all know. It's obviously not a secret anymore. To the extent they care, I haven't gotten the feeling they care at all. At least, nobody's expressed it to me that they do. Although, perhaps it's a little tough to say, given I can have a rocky relationship with some executives and coaches for being a smart ass on social media, or "too negative," in their eyes. I certainly don't believe I've lost an ounce of respect over my coming out, however.
Scott: About as much as everyone else in my life, which means it simply depends on the depth of our relationship. Some follow me on social media, where occasionally I'll post pictures of my wife, so I'm sure they know. Some like, comment or reply to those posts; some don't. Some share things with me about their personal lives in our conversations, so I try to return the courtesy. In general, I approach my interactions with players, coaches and staff the same way I do with anyone. I'm gay. That's my normal. If they ask what I did over the weekend and I went wine tasting with my wife and some of our friends, that's what I tell them. I don't feel any reason to hide who I am, and if that's been hard for anyone, I've yet to notice. At the same time, I've been told by multiple people at both the college and pro level that they appreciate my openness and how freely and easily I talk about my wife and our life. "Well, it's so hard to find happiness these days, I don't see a reason to keep it a secret," I often respond. And just as any relationship tends to grow the more you share things with one another, I truly believe that openness has helped me to cultivate friendships with a number of the players, coaches, and staff that I cover.
What has been your experience on social media?
Buckley: About what you’d expect. Again, people were hugely supportive. But, yes, of course, the anonymity of many social-media platforms make it easy to put some nasty stuff out there, and in my case some did.
Culpepper: It has been 99.999 percent sanguine, and maybe even 100 percent, for there's a chance I misinterpreted the lone slight that comes to mind.
Doyle: This is going to be a bit of a roundabout answer, but it ultimately ties in. For the longest time, my biggest issue in terms of sexual orientation in the workplace was a matter of self-censorship out of fear of how people would react. I was an intern at the Boston Globe in the late 1990s. There was one guy on the desk who, it seemed, every other word out of his mouth was “faggot.” I want to make clear that he’s not representative of the rest of the Globe sports department. But the fact that this one guy was tolerated, at one of the most liberal newspapers in the country, made me fearful of what it must have been like in the rest of the business. Around the same time, I ran into another gay sportswriter, who’s since passed, at a gay bar. He was deeply closeted and seemed profoundly unhappy. That, too, made me wonder what I was getting myself into.
So I spent quite a bit of time over the first decade of my career simply getting my job done, and then vanishing. If I was on the road, I didn’t go out to dinner or to the bars with coworkers. I didn’t spent nearly as much time cultivating contacts as I should have. I never pretended to be straight, but I never let myself be put into position to have to talk about my personal life, either. It’s kind of a miracle I’ve gotten as far as I have in my career without properly networking for as long as I did. So to tie this back into social media, if dealing with Twitter trolls going forward is going to be the tradeoff for getting the rest of my business right, so be it.
Hine: Overall it has been positive, but there is certainly a loud corner that lets you know it doesn’t approve. When I wrote about former Blackhawk Andrew Shaw using an anti-gay slur, the response on social media was overwhelming. I had people threaten me or send me nasty emails. The positive reaction on social media outweighed the negative, but the negative can be nasty. I also think those people have felt emboldened since Donald Trump was elected. A few have told me as much.
Lin: Generally, my experience is fairly positive on social media because I make a point to clear out all the negative comments for my own mental health. Comments on work I do, especially on YouTube or Facebook, are mostly pretty awful, but I do what I can to clean it up for others. I also don't fight as much as I should—I let a lot pass or just delete comments because I've found that confrontation tends to amuse trolls.
Paul: For the most part, overwhelmingly positive. I get far more attacks for my sports and Tigers takes than I do for being gay. There are plenty of Twitter followers who don't like when I get political, but I just don't think the "stick-to-sports" mentality exists anymore. We're living in a game-changing time right now, where many folks' personal liberties are under attack. I don't feel like I should be just sitting on the sidelines, just because my "job" is to write about sports, which are so frivolous anyway. I've definitely gained a lot of followers because of the coming-out, including many gay sports fans. I know there are thousands of them in Detroit, and they appreciated what I did. If I lost any followers, it was too small a number to even notice. I lose way more for saying Brad Ausmus should keep his job.
Scott: Overall, I've been very lucky. There were a few awful tweets and emails after I came out on KNBR, but other than that, it's been nothing but "thank yous" and "it's fantastic for this straight dad with a gay daughter to a hear about what your life is like.” I feel very fortunate to live and work in such an accepting and supportive market.
How different, if at all, is the treatment you receive in different parts of the country?
Buckley: I haven’t noticed anything at all.
Culpepper: The whole country is more uniform than it used to be—the same stores and boulevards everywhere, and so on—so it is more uniform in this regard as well. I notice only a hint of a tiny difference, and there's every chance it's nothing more than a guess. I am more likely to get asked about my family life on the West Coast, or in New York, than in the American Southeast. That's it, and my evidence is far from scientific, and anyway, it bothers me nada. Personal-life topics also tend to come up more with female sportswriters, but that's probably because I have a lot of close relationships with sportswriters who are also female, and some of that probably stems from that I understand, in my bones, how they always have to steel themselves at least somewhat before going into the fray of the stadium or arena or course.
Doyle: This is going to be a little different for me than most of my colleagues because of the nature of my beat. MMA is basically a traveling carnival. I see mostly the same people on fight week regardless of whether we’re in Las Vegas or New York or Corpus Christi. As far as getting out to the various gyms, I mean, MMA’s kind of a misfit culture. Everyone has a story how they ended up in it from the fighters to the trainers to the reporters. You could be the nerd who took up jiu-jitsu because it challenged you intellectually, the jock whose amateur wrestling career was done, the woman who took up martial arts for self-defense, and you’re all existing under the same roof. Add that sort of vibe to being based in Southern California where everyone just sort of does their own thing anyway, and I’ve never encountered any issues dealing with fighters or trainers on a one-on-one basis. I don’t want to sound myopic here, because there are probably some meathead gyms out there in other parts of the country where maybe I wouldn’t be welcome. And there are some vocal right-wing extremists in the sport. But I’ve yet to personally experience it. I just put my head down and go to work, you know? It’s not like I’m showing up waving a rainbow flag and drawing attention to myself. So I act like a professional and by and large have been treated professionally everywhere I’ve been.
Hine: I haven’t noticed it much from city to city. In covering the NHL, I tend to only go to major cities. I’m not covering smaller college towns or high schools in parts of the country that may not be as welcoming to gay people. Since I’m mostly in major cities, a lot of which have gay bars or gay districts, the treatment doesn’t really differ.
Lin: Not different at all, because I pass, which is also that I am invisible. Treatment is definitely based more on my race and gender. Though, as a photographer, it's always been my own personal working philosophy to shoot without being noticed.
Paul: No difference, whatsoever. I mean, Grindr's a little busier in Orlando than, say, Raleigh. Does that count?
Scott: So far, I've been treated with kindness everywhere that I've worked.
Have you ever sensed different treatment from different teams based on your sexuality?
Buckley: No. None. I’m a local sports columnist—in Boston—and it’s easy to ruffle feathers. I’ve had run-ins with athletes. But not once has my sexual orientation been dragged into the conversation. Not even a purpose-pitch eye roll. I’ll always be enormously grateful for the treatment I’ve received from the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox.
Doyle: Skipping this one, since there aren’t “teams” per se.
Hine: No. You can see me walking down the street and you likely wouldn’t realize I was gay, or so my gay and straight friends have said. So if I’m interacting with another team they’d never know I was gay unless they Googled me or it came up in conversation for some reason. If I go into an opposing dressing room for a quote or an interview, the players likely don’t know who I am either. I’m just another annoying reporter looking for a few quotes.
Lin: I don't think enough people know.
Paul: None. That said, the Tigers have been annoyed, at times, with me for my continued push for an official Pride Night. Metro Detroit has a large gay population, and much of that population is big into sports—and no team here has more gay fans than the Tigers. I just wish they would recognize that. Instead, Pride Night is unofficial, sponsored by the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which essentially just buys group tickets for the annual night at the ballpark. There's practically no acknowledgement by the Tigers, which is disappointing. The Red Wings held an LGBT night this year, which was cool. Interestingly, the Tigers and Red Wings are owned by the same family.
Scott: Not yet, which I think speaks to how accepting our athletes are and would be if/when a teammate or opponent were to come out. The more I talk to athletes about acceptance, the more it seems everyone knows someone who's gay and thus if a teammate or coach came out, as long as they kept being the great teammate or coach they were before, nothing would change.
Does the acceptance of a gay sports media member differ from sport to sport?
Buckley: Not that I’m aware of.
Culpepper: I haven't noticed any.
Doyle: We’re off in our own little world in MMA. We even refer to it as the "MMA bubble.” It’s been more than a decade since I’ve been involved with stick-and-ball sports other than occasional freelance gigs, so I don’t feel like I can comment on other sports. I can tell you from within MMA media, I’m the only out gay male I know of, and my wonderful co-worker, photographer Esther Lin, identifies as bisexual, and we’ve both been long since been accepted by our colleagues and our careers have flourished.
Hine: I’ve only been covering the NHL since I’ve been out and my experience has been a very good one. The response from other media members in Chicago who cover different sports has been nothing but supportive as well. So I haven’t seen any difference, but I might not be the best person to gauge that since I’ve only been out professionally for a year.
Lin: I don't think my media colleagues wouldn't be as friendly, but I certainly hear enough disparaging talk from some of the fighters when they're not on the mic—since I am a photographer I'm documenting them in moments they don't think anyone is listening. But since I've only worked in combat sports, boxing and MMA, I can't speak to that. I can say that for the most part, those involved in boxing are far more old-fashioned.
Paul: My job is almost all-encompassing. I cover the Tigers mostly, but also cover a lot of Lions, Michigan and Michigan State football, Michigan and Michigan State basketball, golf, hydroplane racing (a cooler assignment than you'd think) and mid-major college sports. I have been treated no differently, from sport to sport. Of course, I'm not sure how much college kids pay attention to reporters' lives, nor really do I think they care much. That generation is so enlightened, and that's very encouraging.
Scott: I can only speak from my experience, but so far I've covered MLB, the NFL, the NBA, MLS, the NHL, NPF softball, WPS, minor league baseball, college football, men's and women's basketball, women's soccer, women's volleyball, women's softball, men's and women's rowing, men's rugby, and a variety of high school sports, and I've been accepted everywhere that I've worked.
Do you feel threatened by the current political climate?
Buckley: Yes. These are tough times. People on both sides of the aisle are angry, and people on both sides of the aisle are abandoning decorum to a degree that’s scary. I’ll be frank: The current presidential administration is no friend of the gay community.
Culpepper: Only vaguely, and an unexpected thing has happened across the last 10 or so years on that front. Several women have told me lately that they believe that as anti-gay sentiments have receded, it has left the anti-female sentiments in place and in the lead, or at least up there with the racism. I know women who do feel threatened more than I do, so I have been trying to listen well to them.
Doyle: I feel more motivated than threatened. It was easy to assume the battle had been won after gay marriage was legalized, and delude yourself into believing you didn’t need to speak up. I don’t think Donald Trump hates gay people, but we’re one Trump coronary away from having an unabashed homophobe running the country in Mike Pence. It’s more important now than ever for people from all walks of life to be out and visible, especially in areas not usually presumed to be particularly gay.
Hine: I don’t feel threatened, but I do worry what may happen to gay rights and by extension, my rights, even if the Supreme Court has made gay marriage law of the land. As I said earlier, I think Trump’s election has emboldened some of the negative voices on social media and in my inbox. They see his election as a revolt against the “PC” culture they say I’m pushing in writing about gay issues, and they feel emboldened to speak out. And whenever those voices get louder, others tend to stay in the closet, and that’s what’s probably unfortunate about the current political climate. But it’s also encouraging to see so many people who aren’t gay be outspoken and passionate in their support of gay rights.
Lin: Yes. Very.
Paul: I'm not sure "threatened" is the right word. To quote our president, "SAD!" would be better. This gay rights movement came a long way in lightning speed under the previous administration. I mean, think about it. In 2004, President George W. Bush was re-elected, essentially, because the GOP made a fear-mongering push to get anti-gay rights measures on ballots in several states, including swing states, like Ohio and my state of Michigan. And it worked. The fear was real, as the country wasn't ready for gay marriage. Yet, barely a decade later, gay marriage was legalized, and many of my friends started having and adopting children, with little resistance. Now, while we have a president who has said gay marriage is "settled" because SCOTUS ruled, it's hard to take the man at his word. Also, health care was settled during the previous administration, and look at what's happening on that front. We also have a vice president who allegedly supported conversion therapy, and definitely supported legislation in Indiana that would've made it legal for some mom-and-pop pizza shop to deny service to not just gays, but anyone they suspected to be gay. On second thought, maybe I should feel threatened.
Scott: More saddened than threatened, really. As a member of a community that someone, somewhere will always hate, the threat that a person could do or say something awful to me never goes away, regardless of who's in office. But it is sad to me that we currently seem to be regressing as a society when it comes to accepting, supporting, and at the very least being kind to people who are different than us.
Do you think a big-name player in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, world soccer, or NASCAR will come out within the next few years and why?
Buckley: A year ago, I’d have said yes, absolutely. But now? Let’s go with maybe. It’d be wonderful, of course, and history-making. I do believe that fans are ready for it, and we’ve seen examples of front-office types who have gone the extra mile in terms of being supportive. The eye-popping story within the story of the O’Callaghan was the treatment he received from then-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli when they had the “gay talk” several years ago. Pioli and the Chiefs’ medical/training staff emerge as true heroes in this story.
Culpepper: When Jason Collins came out in April 2013 and then Kobe Bryant tweeted what he tweeted, the leading voice in an armada of support, I would have told you it was not even a matter of question. Now, my guess would be no. For any person considering that process, there would have to be an equation, weighing the value against the coming noise and the considerations of teammates relative to the noise. And remember, while the media storm would be loud, it would be loud because the American public is riveted by matters of sexuality and gobbles it up online and elsewhere. Perhaps this traces all the way back to the Puritans.
Doyle: I hope so. We’re this close. We’ve made so much progress. If anything, the fact that big money has sided with LGBT folk pretty consistently—think the corporate backlash to anti-LGBT laws in places like Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia—should be a telling factor. Leagues like the NBA have made it clear they’re gay friendly, so many teams across the board host LGBT nights, all the pieces are in place. It’s just a matter of someone having the courage to step forward.
Hine: That’s the big-money question, isn’t it? I hope so. Do I think one will? Maybe in the next five years, but I think Michael Sam’s experience with the NFL was ultimately a step backward in that sense. I think other gay athletes were watching his trials and tribulations. He has the courage to come out of the closet and all of a sudden his draft grade dropped about two rounds. Then he almost doesn’t get drafted. Then he doesn’t make the team that drafted him and then he’s out of football without ever playing a down. Regardless of if you think his failure to stick in the NFL was purely based on his talent or not, it had a negative effect. If you’re a gay athlete who’s worried about your job security if you were to come out, and you see Michael Sam never play a down in the NFL, what would you think? You’d stay in the closet as long as you could. Similarly, if you’re a young athlete who sees that happen, maybe you think you can’t come out because if you do you may never be able to make it in a professional league. That’s why I think an out star athlete currently playing in a pro sports league could go a long way to affecting change.
Lin: I hope so. I hope we in the media and in the world are able to create a healthy, friendly, loving enough climate to facilitate an environment where that is possible.
Paul: Yes, it's only a matter of time. The circumstances surrounding the coming out could vary, though. Perhaps it will be a player who's always led an open life and is plenty strong enough to withstand the pressures and the taunts, and maybe even a jerk teammate or two. Or perhaps it will be a player who had been thinking about it, but something finally happens that pushes him over the top—maybe a tragedy, or, hopefully, an event more positive. Like march on Washington. A superstar player coming out makes sense, perhaps already with millions in the bank and less to lose than, say, a minimum wage rookie. Again, there are out folks leading all sorts of industries, big and small. Athletics shouldn't be any different. You could make a case that an out athlete has more of an impact as a role model. If I had to rank the sports from most likely to least likely, it'd go like this: World soccer, NHL, MLB, PGA Tour, NFL, NBA, NASCAR. Wait, is hot dog eating a major sport? Come on. Laugh a little.
Scott: I've given up trying to guess the answer to this question, but I truly hope someone or some group of players finds the courage to do so because I think the positive impact on the future of their sport would be massive. I've spoken to countless athletes who've shared stories about the best players at their high school, stars in their travel leagues quitting because they had no gay professional athletes to look up to and had used that fact to convince themselves they'd never make it because they were gay. To hear things like that? It's devastating. So I don't know when a star will join Robbie [Rogers], Jason [Collins], and Michael [Sam], but I sure hope they do so soon.
Anything you wish to add?
Buckley: I cringe when people ask, “Who will be the Jackie Robinson” of this or that sport. It sounds like a great analogy at first glance, but it’s a big miss on so many levels. Jackie Robinson couldn’t hide who he was. And when he walked into the Brooklyn Dodgers’ clubhouse in 1947, a lot of his new teammates didn't want him there. But I assure you that the next openly-gay athlete has future teammates tapping their feet and waiting for him to show up. Again: They already have gay people in their lives. They can handle it. Sure, there will be those who grouse and complain, though mostly privately. They will be in the minority. Despite the current political landscape, I remain an optimist, if perhaps a cautious one. I explored the Jackie Robinson angle in a piece I wrote for ESPN The Magazine in 2011.
Culpepper: Coming out in a column, as opposed to just to the scores of people I knew (scores of those in press boxes), provided me an unforeseeable byproduct. I realized that for years and years and then decades, I had been walking toward American stadiums with a twinge of dread and of fear, a feeling so common that I never even knew I had it. I should add here that I have romped the world a bit, and I realize that on the grand scheme of laments, this one is not only minor but exceedingly so. The world can make you spot the frivolity of your so-called woes. And I still loved the job far more than not. But does anyone remember that time long, long ago, in 1999, when Ellen DeGeneres came out and said she noticed a removal of fear because nobody could use her secret to harm her anymore? After my column, I knew precisely what she meant. I suddenly noticed myself walking in with an unearthed tranquility, just as if I were going to work.
Doyle: There’s still too much casual homophobia in MMA. Too often, when there’s some sort of homophobic incident, we collectively let it slide or look the other way, in a way we wouldn’t if someone had slurred another group. I’d like to see more pushback going forward when these things happen, from fans and reporters and people in the business. On my end, I’m no longer going to be complicit through silence.
Hine: Even if you are supportive of gay rights, please don’t disregard the importance of professional athletes publicly revealing their sexuality. They can have such a big impact on kids growing up. If I had that when I was younger, maybe I wouldn’t have waited so long in my life to reveal my sexuality and I wouldn’t have gone through the torment, the years of “what if?” wondering how my friends and family would feel if I came out. Athletes can also diminish the untrue stereotype people have that gay men aren’t tough or aren’t “masculine.” Gay men come in all shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. Professional athletes can do so much to change people’s preconceived notions and perceptions of the LGBTQ community.
Lin: Now's a good time to remind people that I am a queer woman of color, working in combat sports. I am happy that I have coworkers that are supportive, that SB Nation is also extremely supportive. I'm in an LGBT social group at Vox, and it's been so refreshing and a relief to be around other out journalists.
Paul: Just want to say it's really quite a thrill to be invited to participate in this frank discussion, especially with some media members I have so much respect for, including Steve, who was one of the first people to email me when I came out. That was really cool, as I had been a fan of his for quite some time, even if the mention of the word "Boston" sends chills up Detroiters' spines, especially since the 2013 American League Championship Series. (By the way, check out his Two Outs podcast with Alex Reimer. It's fantastic.) I also want to say, the most overwhelming reaction—and the most positive—came from my peers in the media, especially the people I work with on a regular basis at Comerica Park. Even the guys I know to be Republicans came up to me that day—I went from the studio to the park—and expressed some really kind words, one man in particular, a man who's long been a mentor to me. That meant so much, and turned me from a nervous wreck to a man confident and happy with the decision I made to go public