2014 was a huge year for the LGBT community—not only do same-sex couples have the freedom to marry in 37 states, but athletes in multiple sports across different leagues came out, growing the LGBT athlete community. It was also the year of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, an event fraught with controversy due in part to Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda,” which was eventually addressed by the International Olympic Committee, and led to a change in the Olympic Charter.
The list of athletes who came out in 2014 includes fourteen swimmers, eleven football players, nine basketball players, and four baseball players.
Though these changes represent an unprecedented step forward for diversity and equality, many still wonder if the stigma remains for LGBT athletes—especially for those in high-profile professional leagues, such as NFL draft pick Michael Sam and the NBA’s Jason Collins.
The now-retired Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, told Sports Illustrated that he believes fear keeps professional athletes from coming out. Only when athletes are not “forced to live in fear” will society move forward, and athletes will not be forced to hide their “true self,” he said.
Michael Sam is the first openly gay player to ever be drafted into the NFL. He was eventually let go by the St. Louis Rams, despite being a highly coveted recruit who won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award during his last year with the University of Missouri. He became a free agent later in the year.
Some speculate that his inability to land a spot on a team was because of his sexual orientation, and Sam himself seemingly hinted at it, though he later struck down the rumors that he had said anything of the sort.
His story was a focal point of sports media this year, as well as throughout the LGBT community.
Jeff Kagan of Out of Bounds, a nonprofit supporting recreational and sports organizations in the LGBT community of the New York City area, believed Sam’s story was one of the most moving moments in the sports world this past year.
“I watched the draft, along with millions of people, waiting patiently for the announcement to be made that he was to be the first openly gay player drafted into professional football,” he said. “And then I cried watching him celebrate, so emotionally, kissing his boyfriend. That was a beautiful moment.”
Kagan said that Sam’s sexual orientation, in his opinion, played a part in the decision to release him from the Rams team.
“I feel that the owners worried that Sam would be a distraction because the press scrutinized everything around this incident. They pushed for stories, they asked dozens of questions that they wouldn’t have asked of the heterosexual players on the team, who just blended in,” he said.
Brian Kearney, a 23-year-old college student at Rowan University, said, on the other hand, that it’s “nonsense” to say Sam had been let go because of his sexual orientation.
“My hope for 2015 is that athletes feel comfortable in their skin and come out when they’re ready, whenever that may be. I think the media and news covering LGBT athletes coming out is important because it’s a civil rights issue win, and that deserves to be noticed by people,” Kearney said. “Saying ‘who cares’ or ‘this isn’t news,’ is the equivalent of covering your ears and shaking your head back and forth.”
For Kearney, the most important moment in sports this year for the LGBT community was what happened during the Sochi Olympics: “The International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to approve a recommendation which adds non-discrimination language to its policy regarding sexual orientation.”
Celebrities such as Cher and Lady Gaga publicly spoke out against Russia’s LGBT policies, causing some uproar, and perhaps aiding in the eventual changes to the Olympic Charter toward the end of 2014.
Now, with the change in language, Olympic host cities will have to agree not to discriminate on behalf of “race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Marie Houzeau, co-president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA), also said the Sochi Olympics were one of the most influential moments in sports this year. GLISA aims to nurture and grow LGBT athletes worldwide and provide “best practices” for other similar organizations around the world.
“This may sound ironic, however, even though the Olympic Games in Sochi were considered as being the least LGBT friendly games, they brought a lot of focus onto the role and participation of LGBT people in sports,” Houzeau said. “And, through the participation of several LGBT communities in several cities, the Pride House events brought the message home that LGBT are an important community and that they should not be excluded from fully participating in every aspect of society.”
Still, Houzeau believes there is still a stigma “or else we wouldn’t be counting individuals who came out last year.” Though there were many progressive changes this year, there is still a sense of unease about LGBT athletes in the locker room.
Justin Peligri, a senior at The George Washington University said, “There’s still a clear double standard regarding what people are comfortable with. Even people who vote in favor of same-sex marriage and support gay rights are tepid about certain forms of gay expression.”
He cites Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on television as a “great, honest moment that created an important dialogue,” but “even in the age of increased LGBT inclusivity and widespread marriage equality, openly gay behavior – even simple stuff, like a kiss – is still stigmatized and makes many people uncomfortable.”
Out of Bound’s Kagan echoed Peligri’s comment as he noted that Sam had talent but “his talent wasn’t able to outshine the ear in the minds of the NFL owners.”
But Kagan believes that for non-professional athletes, it is becoming easier to come out, because there are more organizations for them to join and that helps to bring about “safety in numbers.” The more athletes that come out, the greater the pool of role model-athletes is, which would hopefully spark a push to bring more LGBT athletes into the professional ranks.
In 2015, LGBT activists are hoping the media coverage surrounding LGBT athletes changes and becomes more fair and encouraging, so that eventually athletes will feel more comfortable coming out, even if they are members of high-profile leagues.
“I’d like to see a continued focus on athletes who come out: Media coverage of openly gay athletes is important because it inspires young, closeted athletes to feel comfortable in their own skin,” Peligri said. “However, it is important that gay athletes are treated like any other athlete and are covered objectively based on their athletic aptitude.”
Major League Soccer star Robbie Rogers was met with disappointment after his own coming out, as he expected there to be a “chain reaction” in the league after his announcement. Rogers is still the only openly gay athlete in the MLS.
Sports culture also needs an equality upgrade before young athletes can feel comfortable in revealing their sexual orientation to their teammates and coaches. Former NFL’er Deion Sanders recently was under fire for comments suggesting Michael Sam’s sexuality “could be” a choice.
There is still change that needs to happen and conversations to be had, but it is the hope of many activists that big changes in policy and media coverage, specifically, will continue to happen and will flip the script for LGBT athletes to come.