Sports & Equality Column 2 – November 2014 – Coming Out Gay In Sport

You can read the Gay Star News version of the article here:

http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/michael-sam-proves-coming-out-gay-sport-can-still-hurt-your-career051114

In my previous Sports & Equality column I asked if the NFL were being homophobic in its treatment towards Michael Sam?

This was directly after he had been cut from the St Louis Rams and was just about to be been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys to be part of their practice squad.  At the time it was quite apparent that this was not a good position for Michael to find himself in, so for him now to have been cut from his second team in only a matter of weeks it leaves some serious questions to be answered?

To say this is damaging for his career is an understatement, as being dropped twice could be taken by other NFL franchises as a reflection of his inability to secure himself a place. But hold on one minute here? This is a player that was one the most talented defensive linesman of his year in college football and only a few months ago was knocking down opponents as if they didn’t deserve to be on the same pitch.

I can’t help wondering  if this is the NFL’s way of saying after that famous “Gay Kiss” on NFL Draft day with his boyfriend that Michael Sam doesn’t deserve to be on the same pitch? …

History is littered with gay athletes that have been treated unfairly by their sports, or have suffered both in their careers and financially for being openly gay.  The most prominent case in the UK was Justin Fashanu who courageously came out as Bi Sexual in soccer and was then hounded by the tabloid press up until the point that he took his own life in 1998.

Justin’s story effected a whole generation of athletes, with LGBTI athletes not daring to come out due to the fear of similar treatment. There have been many examples of where LGBT athletes have suffered financially throughout their careers with the most high profile of these being Martina Navratilova, Billy Jean King and Greg Louganis.

With the treatment of Michael Sam by the NFL it is ever wonder that many gay athletes still decide to come out after their competitive career has come to an end. Most recently we have seen Ian Thorpe, the Five Time Olympic Gold medallist confirm his sexuality after what has seemed an age of speculation and secrecy.

During his interview with the television presenter Parkinson he said “What happened was, I felt that the lie had become so big that I didn’t want people to question my integrity”.  The big question is of course is why did Thorpe feel it necessary to lie in the first place? Was it the fear of losing commercial endorsement deals, or maybe fear of losing big money sponsorships due to his sexuality?

Throughout my own sports career there have been a number of times that I’ve missed out on sponsorship or endorsements because I’m an openly gay athlete. At the time these rejections are painful and you are left wondering if your decision to be openly gay in your sport was a wise one? However, you then find a way to keep going and each time come back stronger after rejection.

I can remember one leading sports supplement company actually saying to me directly “We don’t think an openly gay athlete would fit well with our branding”. At the time they sponsored a number of other international athletes who were at the same level as myself and were not part of a whole community of LGBT fitness mad consumers, that they could of marketed their products too.

Without doubt the issues around LGBT Sports have moved on in some ways recently, with a number of new athletes coming out in their sports and securing endorsement deals. Tom Daley, Matthew Mitcham, Nicola Adams and Casey Stoney are all showing that some progress has been made in individual sports and women’s soccer.

The way that Tom and Casey came out over this last twelve months really has the power to inspire a whole generation of athletes with the message that being Lesbian Gay Bi Sexual Transgender or Intersex is in absolutley fine. However, for macho team sports like NFL the Michael Sam story illustrates there is still a long way to go before all athletes can come out without any fear of discrimination.

Undoubtedly the Michael Sam affair leaves more questions than answers, with him now left facing a difficult search for a third franchise in less than three months. The most searching question that needs to be asked of the NFL is how they can allow someone with so much talent potentially slip through their recruitment process because of the fact he is gay?

The NFL Draft itself is designed to offer fairness each and every year in particular to the teams that finish bottom of the championship system in the previous year. It is a system that effectively penalises the team that wins the superbowl, as they get to pick from the new crop of college players last. So, the system it appears is fair – that is of course unless you are openly Gay.

The teams that have looked at Michaels Sam already will of course argue that they gave him a chance and he didn’t make the grade. Michael like always has been has been gracious replying thanking them for the opportunity that they offered and has stated he will continue in his quest. For the moment all that Michael can hope for is that a place becomes available on another practice squad soon.

I truly hope Michael will find himself another team, but I can’t help thinking that the NFL deck is completely stacked against him and I’m fearful that the Michael Sam saga has the potential of becoming a modern day Justin Fashanu style story which could have a negative impact on LGBTI athletes in team sports for a whole generation to come.

Chris Morgan is a seven time World Champion in Powerlifting and a Global Ambassador for the Federation of Gay Games. His News Blog can be read at www.chunkymuscle.com

 The next Gay Games are scheduled to take place in Paris in 2018. For more information about the Gay Games visit www.gaygames.com  and www.paris2018.com