GLAAD Media Reference Guide - In Focus: LGBT People In Sports

In recent years, the complex intersection of sports culture, homophobia, transphobia, and out LGBT athletes has become a hot topic among sports fans and in sports media. Anti-gay comments by athletes and coaches, speculation about athletes' sexual orientations, and the coming out stories of NFL player Michael Sam, NBA player Jason Collins, Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz, MMA fighters Fallon Fox and Liz Carmouche, WNBA star Brittney Griner, soccer player Robbie Rogers, Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, U.S. Olympic soccer player Megan Rapinoe, former NFL players Esera Tuaolo and Wade Davis, and others have sparked national dialogue on these issues. Competitors in sports like tennis, diving, and skating, such as Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, and Johnny Weir, have lead the way as out athletes have become spokespeople on LGBT issues.

Professional sports are more accepting than ever. Many coaches, managers and players are becoming aware that they probably have people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender on their team, and are taking steps to educate themselves and create a more welcoming environment for LGBT athletes. Allies like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe, Ben Cohen, Brian Burke, and Hudson Taylor have spoken out on LGBT issues, forming non-profit groups like You Can Play, the StandUp Foundation, and Athlete Ally to show their support for out athletes and inclusive professional sports teams. Hundreds of professional athletes have appeared in "You Can Play" or "It Gets Better" PSAs to express public support for LGBT teammates and fans. The corporate owners of many teams are following the lead of their business counterparts and showing official support for LGBT equality. The professional leagues are actively working to educate and inform their employees and players about LGBT issues, including at the rookie symposia for the NHL, NFL, and NBA. In July 2014, MLB appointed Billy Bean, a former player who is now openly gay, as a consultant in guiding the sport toward full LGBT inclusion.

However, some sports professionals still publicly say there are no gay people on their team, and enforce a negative work environment through locker-room jokes and innuendoes about gay men. In women's collegiate sports, negative recruiting – where coaches use anti-gay messages to deter potential recruits from attending a rival school – is a common problem. As a result, the vast majority of LGBT athletes remain deeply closeted due to a system of institutionalized intimidation. 

Allow players to play. While out athletes playing at the professional level is still relatively new and a groundbreaking step forward in destroying stereotypes about LGBT people - it's also important to acknowledge that their first and most important role is simply to play and excel at their sport. In an ideal world, an out NFL or NBA player will be allowed to play without constantly being asked to comment on LGBT issues.

Highlight players from every level of sport. Naturally there is a strong focus on professional and Olympic athletes, but players at every level of performance are coming out in large numbers. Please consider looking for stories of athletes at the high school and college level who want to share their experiences of being out. Stories like bisexual college football kicker Conner Mertens and transgender high school coach Stephen Alexander have the potential to illustrate people in local communities are accepting LGBT players and coaches.

When covering the issue of LGBT athletes in sports, expand your focus beyond those who claim that team sports are not able to deal with out athletes. Sports journalists, coaches, managers, and athletes sometimes claim it would be impossible for an out athlete to play in team sports. Journalists may contribute to this attitude by constantly framing their questions around the negative, difficult consequences of a player choosing to come out. When reporting on the topic, consider seeking out other voices in the sports world who would challenge the merits of this opinion. As more players come out, they will be able to speak about the positive response they've received, and the benefits of being able to play without the fear of losing their job should someone find out about that they are LGBT. Many of them are associated with the organizations listed in our resources section below.

Treat homophobic and transphobic comments from professional athletes, managers and coaches as you would similar remarks by other public figures. Just as anti-LGBT epithets would receive extensive coverage if uttered by an elected official or a Hollywood celebrity, antipathy toward LGBT people by sports figures should be publicly examined and discussed in a larger context.

Transgender athletes face uninformed opposition. Public and media reaction to a transgender person - particularly a transgender woman - competing in a sport is often extremely negative and uninformed by scientific fact. Commentators often espouse their "gut feelings" about whether or not a transgender person has an "unfair advantage." Gut feelings are not science. Sport governing organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the National College Athletics Associate (NCAA), as well as the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), have looked at the actual science associated with medical transition and made clear statements in support of the right of transgender athletes to participate in a way that is fair, equitable, and respectful to all. When writing about transgender athletes, please use up-to-date expert legal and medical knowledge about the effects of medical transition on athletic performance.

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