Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports

by Andrew Billings (Author) Leigh Moscowitz (Author)
©2018 Textbook XII, 228 Pages


Never before have we lived in a time in which sport and gay identity are more visible, discussed, debated—and even celebrated. However, in an era in which the sports closet is heralded as the last remaining stronghold of heterosexuality, the terrain for the gay athlete remains contradictory at best. Gay athletes in American team sports are thus living a paradox: told that sport represents the "final closet" in American culture while at the same time feeling ostracized, labeled a "distraction" for teams, dubbed locker room "problems," and experiencing careers which are halted or cut short altogether.
Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports is the first of its kind, building upon the narratives of athletes and how their coming out experiences are shaped, transmitted and received through pervasive, powerful, albeit imperfect commercial media. Featuring in-depth interviews with out-athletes such as Jason Collins, Dave Kopay, Billy Bean and John Amaechi; media gatekeepers from outlets like ESPN and USA Today; and league representatives from Major League Baseball and the National Football League, this book explores one of the starkest juxtapositions in athletics: there are no active out players in the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL, yet the number of athletes coming out at virtually every other level of sport is unprecedented. Interviews are fused with qualitative media analysis of coming out stories and informed by decades of literature on the unique intersection of sport, media, and sexual identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Arduous Ascent of the Openly-Gay Male Athlete
  • Chapter 1. Inside the Sports Closet: Tensions of Hiding, Passing, and Outing
  • Chapter 2. Telling Your Story: PR Firms, Strategic Media, and the Power of Mass Messaging
  • Chapter 3. Anatomy of a Gay Sports Story: Assembling and Advancing the Coming Out of Jason Collins
  • Chapter 4. Playing “Out” in the Media: Framing Gay Athlete Stories
  • Chapter 5. Identity Politics: Gendered, Racial, and Religious Performativity
  • Chapter 6. The Floodgates Open? The Future of the Openly-Gay Athlete
  • Appendix: List of Interview Respondents
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


← viii | ix →


For the two of us, this project was synergy at its finest. We had known each other since 1991, when we competed on the Indiana University Speech Team. Our families knew each other and interacted well. We both had received doctoral degrees in communication-based fields and both sought to understand ways that media shaped narratives of identity. For Andrew, this was largely in the realm of sports; for Leigh, this was largely in the realm of the equality movement. We continually discussed potential areas of overlap and then the NBA’s Jason Collins came out in 2013—and we quickly realized that both of our scholarly fields were having a mediated moment. Five years—and several related projects—later, Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports comes to fruition. We are pleased to share it and, perhaps even more fervently, we are honored to be able to play a small part in telling these stories.

Our support throughout this project has been tremendous. The list of interviewees can be found in the Appendix, but they still need to be the people we thank first. Their stories range the spectrum from athlete to public relations representative to media content producer and well beyond. Moreover, it was their willingness to tell their stories that made this a compelling narrative. That courage and devotion to the project cannot be understated. ← ix | x →

However, there are many more people to thank throughout this process, including many people who served as the conduit for our being connected to the voices we needed. Sometimes that included people already part of the interview pool (particularly Cyd Zeigler’s willingness to not only connect us to athletes but to vouch for our credibility to render these stories fairly); sometimes people outside of the interview pool aided greatly, including ESPN’s Chris LaPlaca and former Sports Illustrated senior writer Lars Anderson. Those connections were invaluable.

We also must thank people at various stages of the writing process, including Dr. Eric Anderson for his exceedingly helpful comments on an earlier draft of the work and our research assistants (at various stages, Lauren Anderson, Kelli Boling, Natalie Brown-Devlin, Khadija Ejaz, Coral Marshall, Jane O’Boyle and Fei Qiao). We also had a terrific team guiding us through the publication process at Peter Lang, including Dr. Lawrence Wenner and Dr. Marie Hardin as series editors and Kathryn Harrison as acquisitions editor. We could not have asked for a better support system.

Turning to our institutional support, Andrew wishes to thank the College of Communication & Information Sciences and Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama as well as the donors for the Ronald Regan Chair of Broadcasting, as each provided resources crucial to advancing this book in the manner it deserved. Leigh is grateful for the continued support of her colleagues at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, with special thanks to Carol Pardun, Laura Smith and Andrea Tanner for their guidance and mentorship.

Finally, we must thank our families, including Angela, Nathan, and Noah for Andrew and David, Amelia, and Eli for Leigh. Their understanding as our interviews took us from Los Angeles to New York to Las Vegas and countless conference calls in between was always steadfast, always encouraging, and always supportive. We simply could not ask for more.

← x | 1 →



Gay athletes can continue to push sport…in a revolution through the evolution model.

—Eric Anderson

The revolution will not be televised.

—Gil Scott Heron

The hope was real.

It was 2013, and the moment for the gay male athlete was taking shape.

The revolution was, indeed, about to be televised.

It was also going to be streamed, live-tweeted, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and simulcast on the ESPN family of networks. The revolution had come in the form of various mini-episodes over the course of many decades in a variation of live and delayed moments, ranging from the active athlete competing while openly and publicly out to the closeted athlete revealing he was gay decades after his celebrity peaked.

In 2013, the series finale was scheduled and about to air.

The historical markers would remain—the NFL’s Dave Kopay, who came out in 1975; MLB’s Billy Bean, who came out in 1999, and the NBA’s John Amaechi, who came out in 2007, all waiting until they had retired from their ← 1 | 2 → sport to share their stories publically. Yet, this contemporary moment would be defined by new trailblazers. NBA journeyman Jason Collins. Soccer player Robbie Rogers. A highly-touted NFL recruit from the University of Missouri, Michael Sam.

Time and cultural shifts had loosened some of the resistance to gay athletes over the course of many decades, yet what made these contemporary stories even more compelling was the size, scope and enhanced interactivity of the media spotlight. When Kopay came out, there were only three major television networks; in 2013, there were over 300. Fuse that with the advent of social media and the ability for millions to become their own mini-media producers and stories like those of like Collins, Rogers, and Sam seemed like more than just isolated cases; they began to sound like a steady drumbeat of coming out stories never before told in American media.

The emergence of the gay male athlete in American team sports appeared to accompany the simultaneous revolutions (or, at minimum, evolutions) of the lesbian and transgender athlete, yet they occupy uniquely different spaces and tensions—female athletes fighting gender normalization as presumed lesbians, male athletes fighting gay stereotypes through the performance of hypermasculinity and heternormativity, transgender athletes fighting for recognition in a sports world that casts to the margins those failing to “fit” cleanly into one of two biologically assigned gender binaries. Their experiences are entangled within multiple complex and contradictory binaries of gender and sexual performance. These moments would also unfold differently for the sport these athletes played, as well as their myriad ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and religions.

The momentum was real. Affleck (2017) claimed that, “from late April 2013 to early May 2014, gay and lesbian athletes welcomed breakthrough after breakthrough in the historically closeted world of sports” (para. 1). Contrary to some (see Mandell, 2013), this moment did not appear to be happening suddenly. Rather, it was both sporadically and methodically unfolding, with some sports advancing equality far earlier than others. The variable gendered dynamics of specific sports (Koivula, 1995) resulted in gay athletes having markedly different story arcs. Figure skater Johnny Weir’s coming out story was demonstrably different because of the culturally-constructed feminized nature of his sport (Angelini, MacArthur, & Billings, 2014) when compared to the story of gay European rugby player Gareth Thomas, who indicated his hyper-masculinized environment created such conflict that he was close to committing suicide (Thomas, 2015). ← 2 | 3 →

Individual sports led early iterations of the emergence of the gay male athlete, while the resistance within team sports would remain until much later. Athletes in solo sports, such as diving’s Greg Louganis, competed at the peak of their careers while being openly gay; team sport athletes, such as John Amaechi, evaluated the environment and determined he had no choice but to wait until retirement to come out publically. Whether mid-career (for many solo sport athletes) or post-career (for all team sport athletes until 2013), they told their stories despite having much to lose, navigating fault lines threatening their careers, legacies, families, and personal lives. Because of the newfound ubiquity of media, local stories were fused with national ones, such as the case of Kenneth Walsh who, after coming out to his junior high tennis team, was ostracized at the year-end awards ceremony where his teammates voted him “Most Likely to be a Fag” (Walsh, 2014).

Yet the hoped-for revolution would be driven in no small part by media coverage. When University of Missouri star Michael Sam publicly came out as gay in early 2014, arguably the bigger story was what had happened months before. Sam had already come out to his teammates, who largely embraced him, even joining him at a gay pride parade and accompanying him to gay bars (Knapp, 2014). A team of over one hundred players and coaches kept Sam’s secret—even though some were reportedly shocked by his decision to come out publicly. Nevertheless, in doing so, the team gave Sam the privacy and autonomy to decide when—and how—to come out publically through the media.


XII, 228
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XII, 228 pp., 10 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Andrew Billings (Author) Leigh Moscowitz (Author)

Andrew C. Billings (Ph.D., Indiana University) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting and Executive Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication at the University of Alabama. He has published over 150 journal articles and book chapters along with 17 books, most of which pertain to the nexus of sport, media, and identity. Leigh M. Moscowitz (Ph.D., Indiana University) is an associate professor and Head of the Public Relations Sequence in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of The Battle over Marriage and co-author of Snatched.


Title: Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports
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242 pages