What's the sound of a good story smothered? Ask Sheryl Swoopes. Swoopes is the most prominent women's basketball player of her generation: a five-time all-star, three-time Olympic gold medalist and the WNBA's only three-time MVP. And in a tribute only corporate America could render, Swoopes is the only female player to have her own basketball shoe: Nike's Air Swoopes.
The 34-year-old Houston Comet veteran just delivered what could be the most significant body blow to homophobia ever weathered by the athletic-industrial complex. She has come out of the closet with pride, defiance and a palpable sense of joy.
But Swoopes's announcement has been met in the sports press with what the Associated Press correctly described as "a shrug of indifference." San Jose Mercury News columnist John Ryan wrote, "Let's face it: On the list of shocking headlines, 'WNBA player is gay' falls somewhere between 'Romo took steroids' and 'Steinbrenner is angry.' "
The muted response to Swoopes's revelation flows from the sexist treatment of women's athletics on sports pages, where the WNBA faces regular derision and the accomplishments of even elite female athletes--from Mia Hamm to Serena Williams--are downplayed or ignored.
The Swoopes story hasn't been ignored so much as reframed. Sports pundits have shifted the conversation toward how "easy" it is for Swoopes to come out compared to a male athlete. Jim Rome, whom no one is about to confuse with Harvey Milk, said on his sports yak-fest Rome Is Burning that Swoopes "is in a fringe professional sports league and is anything but a household name in this country. [Male athletes] have a lot more to lose because they have a lot more at stake. Bigger league. Bigger profile. Bigger dollars. Bigger backlash. Bigger ball. Bigger everything." Ummm... paging Dr. Freud.
Bill Plaschke, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said on ESPN's Around the Horn, "Sadly, I don't think it's going to make much of an impact because, for whatever reason in this country, lesbians are viewed differently than gay men. There's not the stigma against lesbianism that there is against gays and men. Especially in athletics."
And this is just a sampling.
Swoopes responded to this line of questioning perfectly, saying, "I don't see [a male athlete coming out] any time soon. But you know what? I didn't really see this happening, either--at least not now--and it did."
It should probably go without saying that looking to Around the Horn or Jim Rome for a serious discussion on sports and sexuality is like reading Ann Coulter for a history of Islam. But tragically, many writers and voices that should be celebrating this moment are choosing to be little more than a fun-house reflection of the mainstream sports blather, concentrating on what Swoopes is not: a man.
The most painful expression of this came from someone described on ESPN.com as a "Closeted Division I-A sports administrator." He said, "I and every other gay guy in sports live every day with the fact that it's OK to be a lesbian in sports but not a gay guy. It hurts like hell and is life-altering and causes you to live with fear.... We gotta be in the closet and they don't."
This entire approach accepts the myth that it's somehow "easier" for a woman athlete to come out than a man. It adheres in canine fashion to the sports radio stereotype that somehow, in this homophobic society, female athletes are magically turning women's sports into a rainbow paradise. This is simply untrue. In the WNBA for example, a whopping two other players have declared themselves lesbians.
Of course there is tremendous homophobia in men's sports. But the moment belongs to Swoopes. Especially because, in addition to being the most prominent team athlete to ever come out, Swoopes happens to be African-American. As she said, "You have Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell, but you don't have your well-known gay African-American who's come out." If you don't think this took guts, see the sick, homophobic rants against gays and lesbians--against black lesbians in particular--by the Rev. Walter Fauntroy and DC Reverend Willie Wilson. You can also ask Keith Boykin of the National Black Justice Coalition, a prominent civil and gay rights organization, who was denied the opportunity to speak at the Millions More March in October.
For African-American women athletes, especially in the WNBA, the closet can be a cavernous, lonely, chamber of depression. Many come from small Southern towns and communities where homophobia is as thick as the humidity. They then go to college programs where learning to stay in the closet can be as much a part of the coaching drills as lay-up lines and the three-person weave. Swoopes's courageous stance has the potential to begin to move that weight in the other direction. It also has the potential to reach out to young African-American lesbians, made to feel like the twenty-first-century version of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. As Selena Roberts wrote in the New York Times, "There is no diminishing the importance of each female athlete who publicly declares she wants to love freely in a homophobic culture, to live truthfully in a society divided on gay rights. Somewhere, a girl may feel less alone and less of an outcast because someone like Swoopes--an African-American woman--has further diluted the taboo."
We should stop looking for the gay Jackie Robinson. We found her.