Legislative and social attitudes towards gay people have progressed immensely over the past decade — so why aren’t more pro athletes out and proud?

According to Gallup, 4.1 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ. With 1,696 players in the NFL, this would mean that, statistically, there should be 69 gay NFL players. In reality, only 11 NFL players have come out…in the entire history of the league. Of these 11 out football players, not a single one came out while active in the NFL.

While it’s possible that for various reasons (toxic masculinity, aggression, stereotypes, etc.) there simply aren’t as many gay people in the NFL, it’s practically indisputable that there are more than 11 players in the history of the NFL who have been gay — players who, for those same reasons, just never came out.

The lack of openly LGBTQ athletes extends far beyond football. While the 2016 Olympics did have a record number of LGBTQ athletes (56), the majority of those identified as lesbian or bisexual; there were only 11 gay men and zero transgender Olympians. The number of out gay men in all sports is hugely disproportionate to the number of out gay men in the world. But if lesbian and bi athletes are coming out in greater and greater numbers, why do gay male athletes still feel like they need to stay in the closet?

The Problem With a “Team” Mentality

In the last three summer Olympics, 60 percent of out gay women athletes participated in a team sport — where “team” is defined as a sport where you compete alongside more than one teammate — but not a single out gay man belonged to a team.

Why are gay men less likely to play on a team? Research shows that sports culture is a veritable breeding ground for toxic masculinity, which emphasizes conformity to certain traditional masculine behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition. When you combine this reality with the mob mentality inherent to belonging (or wanting to belong) to a team or peer group, you have an environment especially conducive to homophobic “locker room talk,” discrimination, and outright abuse.

It’s not surprising, then, that gay athletes often opt out of team sports for precisely this reason. According to research from the National Union of Students, 14.3 percent of LGBTQ students said that homophobia had prevented them from pursuing athletics at a college or university level. 46.8 percent of those who did not participate cited the sports culture as the reason, while 41.9 percent said they had been put off of sports by a negative experience at school.

Coming Out Can Cost Players Career Opportunities

It’s not just about team dynamics — for many athletes, coming out can cost them career-defining opportunities. An openly gay pro volleyball player from Canada wrote that at least one pro volleyball team did not sign him because he was gay, saying, “it’s important to realize the stigma that team sport gay men feel, prohibiting them from coming out.” Even if a gay athlete doesn’t fear harassment, they may be hesitant to jeopardize career opportunities by coming out.

Michael Sam, the first openly gay professional athlete to ever be drafted to the NFL, was similarly shafted. Despite finishing the 2014 preseason with 11 tackles and three sacks for the St. Louis Rams, Sam was beaten out for a roster spot by an undrafted rookie (who, unsurprisingly, was not an out gay man).

“Makes sense as to why they cut me and not Ethan Westbrooks, even though I outperformed him in our production,” Sam told the Dan Patrick Show. “Makes sense why Coach Fisher was very vague the day he cut me from the team.”

Cautionary tales like these can serve to dissuade gay athletes from coming out. It can cost the player’s entire career — from a spot on the team to the lucrative advertising deals that often accompany them.

An Aversion to Individuality

Out of toxic masculinity and culturally conditioned homophobia stem political and financial incentive to discourage individuality that may lead to a PR debacle. There’s a culture present in the NFL — and nearly every other professional male sports association — that punishes people who make statements about who they are. When Colin Kaepernick stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement by taking a knee, his reputation was dragged through the mud, his patriotism called into question, and he wasn’t signed to an NFL team for the entire 2017 season. In fact, it took opposition from Trump himself to motivate NFL owners and coaches to finally speak up in defense of their protesting players.

Coming out is similar. Teams are so desperate to avoid a PR crisis and accompanying questions about their political affiliations that they discourage risk-taking among players or overlook talented athletes whose names are associated with perceived controversy. They fear alienating brands, sponsors, and even fans.

Read More: Gay Men and Body Image: The Emotional Underpinnings. 

Supporting A New Generation of Athletes

While the number of out gay male athletes is extremely low in professional sports, the number of high school and college athletes who are coming out is rising. Just last month, Division 1 college football player Xavier Colvin came out to his team onstage at a team event. After battling bouts of depression, he began seeing a school counselor, who urged him to be more accepting of his own identity. “Finally, I became courageous enough to be myself,” he said.

It falls to high schools, colleges, and universities to take a visible and supportive stance in eliminating harassment in athletics, and to develop inclusive policies that welcome LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and other administrative personnel. Individuals will be more likely to be open about their sexual identity or gender identity when they know that the institution is supportive, and the earlier athletes come out, the more accurately professional leagues will reflect the greater population.

To expedite this process, administrators must go beyond explicit condemnation of outright harassment, and take seemingly smaller, arguably more meaningful steps like including sexual identity and gender identity in the athletics department’s student-athlete handbook, providing inclusive health intake forms for students and athletes, and providing appropriate and indiscriminate healthcare professionals for trans students and athletes.

Because gay athletes are — like everyone— socialized into a homophobic and heteronormative society, it’s important to give gay athletes the space to question and examine unfounded attitudes and beliefs that may have prevented them from embracing their own identity. For many gay athletes, therapy can be a life-saving measure. Schools and athletic organizations must take it upon themselves to ensure mental health services are not only available to every athlete, but encouraged and free of on-campus stigma.

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