In 2020, sports somehow triumphed and managed to offer millions of people an outlet to entertainment through one of the more difficult periods in history. There was progress that paved the ground for more athletes to come out and continue playing in the coming future.
Whether out of bigoted ignorance or out of newfound acceptance, from the Super Bowl to various television networks, LGBTQ people were a major influence in sports throughout the entire year. Here are the top eleven examples of that.
Thom Brennaman, a color commentator for FOX Sports Ohio calling the first game of a Cincinnati Reds doubleheader, was abruptly yanked off the air mid-game in August after he was caught using an anti-gay slur.
Brennaman did not realize that the broadcast had returned from a commercial break and he was live on air. Before exiting, he made an on-air apology, which he stopped giving midway to announce a home run had been hit.
Brennaman went on to say he is a “man of faith” and claim “that’s not who I am. It never has been.” Within days, he further apologized in an online editorial, and ultimately resigned after he was dropped from FOX’s NFL coverage as well. He has since signed on to work as a play-by-play announcer for the upcoming season of the Roberto Clemente League in Puerto Rico.
Patrick Mahomes’ brother fends off anti-LGBTQ snide while traveling with his brother to the Super Bowl
Jackson Mahomes, the younger brother of NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, has become a popular TikTok creator and entertainer in his own right. While he is not publicly out, he is constantly attacked with anti-gay hate, and it reached its boiling point after Jackson celebrated his brother’s Super Bowl victory this February.
Within days of Patrick’s Super Bowl win, multiple videos — and even compilations — had been dedicated to social media users making fun of Jackson and his sexuality. Media outlet Barstool Sports championed the ridicule with several articles and tweets about him.
“[A] lot of people DM me hurtful things then be like ‘you get 1000s of DM you will never see this’ … Literally about to start blasting all these people,” Jackson tweeted a few days after, even suggesting he would report the harassers to their employers. This led him to receive “over 300 DM’s of positive things” instead.
Nick Heath had a lot more time on his hands in April, as every major sporting event around the world was being cancelled or suspended. He had to find a new outlet for his love of sports, and thankfully for us, he did – a series of videos where he energetically describes actions happening on the field into describing commoner’s activities, such as dogs chasing each other, or a woman crossing the street.
Heath, an out sports commentator and journalist from England, who has worked as a play-by-play announcer for events such as the Rugby World Cup and the Gallagher Premiership. “I’ve sort of referred to it a little bit as almost being the placebo for real sports,” he said on the videos.
Idaho passed House Bill 500, a law that allows schools to subject young athletes to invasive medical examinations in order to sideline them if they’re found to be transgender, that went into effect on July 1. As a result, the NCAA began considering moving its sporting events outside of the state, potentially costing The Gem State tens of millions of dollars.
They denounced H.B.500 as “harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals.” This is similar to their response to move events from North Carolina after that state passed H.B.2, a law that banned trans people from using bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity, which was eventually repealed.
A lawsuit filed against Idaho has resulted in a federal injunction on the law in the meantime. The Trump administration argued in favor of the law in court briefings. In the meantime, the NCAA has “agreed to continue to monitor” the situation before committing to relocating part of their upcoming March Madness competitions.
In September, world-renown track athlete Caster Semenya lost an appeal against a rule that would force her to artificially lower her testosterone levels in order to compete at next year’s Olympic games.
This signaled the final legal avenue for the South African 29-year-old, who has been involved in legal fights to participate in women’s sports for years. She is a cisgender woman – she was assigned female at birth and she identifies as a woman – but an intersex condition means that she has high levels of testosterone in her body.
“I am very disappointed,” she said. “I refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am.”
World Athletics issued a rule in 2019 requiring participants in three women’s races to have a low level of testosterone in their bodies, and to undergo six months of hormone therapy if their natural testosterone levels are high. All three races are the ones Semenya competes in.
The UN has condemned such rules. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history,” Semenya said.
A favorite excuse that anti-trans activists use for targeting transgender athletes, is that somehow allowing them to compete in sports in accordance with their gender identity will disadvantage cisgender athletes or put them at risk. This trope is most often directed at trans female athletes, or athletes that compete primarily against cisgender women.
But earlier this month, over 170 women athletes came together to refute that. They signed an amicus brief in support of transgender girls and women playing sports as their gender identity, and against Idaho, for the upcoming Hecox v. Little lawsuit.
The women “believe that every young person, and especially youth who are transgender, or intersex, should be able to participate fully in sport alongside their peers and gain the benefits that sports participation brings.”
Out sports leaders Megan Rapinoe, Billie Jean King, and Katie Sowers were among the scores of professional athletes, college athletes, and sports administrators to sign the brief. WNBA stars Candace Parker and Layshia Clarendon, Olympic athlete Rachel Dawson, and Paralympic swimmer Sophia Herzog also put their name on it.
All Elite Wrestling (AEW) made Nyla Rose, a trans woman of Oneida descent, the first known transgender professional wrestler in North America in February 2019.
In 2020, the AEW – which now airs weekly on TNT – made Rose one of the faces of its league. This February, Rose became the league’s second Women’s World Champion. She would go on to reign for over three months before losing the title in May, but she continues to be a fan favorite.
Rose has become the subject of hatred for fans, but most of her wrestling peers have welcomed and only supported her. After having her as a guest on his podcast show, wrestling legend Chris Jericho slammed back at transphobic comments attempting to disrespect Rose. He told online haters to educate themselves before talking trash.
Katie Sowers, a lesbian woman, is in her fourth season as an assistant offensive coach for the San Francisco 49ers. She became just the second woman to coach full-time in the NFL, and the first openly LGBTQ coach in the league’s history.
“I’m not here to just be the token female. I’m here to help us win,” she said in a commercial for Microsoft that aired throughout the 2019-2020 playoffs. She became the first LGBTQ coach, first woman coach, and first out participant to take part in a Super Bowl, after the 49ers qualified for the biggest NFL game of the year with their victory over the Green Bay Packers in January.
Sowers headlined a record level of LGBTQ representation at the Super Bowl this year. The 49ers would eventually lose to the Kansas City Chiefs, but her rise in profile made for a great motivation story nonetheless, as she had been denied the opportunity to coach in women’s basketball due to her sexuality.
WNBA players openly revolted against anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black Lives Matter U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), and made their support for her opponent in an upcoming election very clear with some help from WNBA player Sue Bird, the girlfriend of U.S. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe.
Loeffler co-owns the women’s basketball team Atlanta Dream. After she complained multiple times about the WNBA’s support for Black Lives Matter, players began openly championing Loeffler’s opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock.
“When we realized what our owner was doing and how she was kind of using us and the Black Lives Matter movement for her political gain, we felt like we didn’t want to feel kind of lost as the pawns in this,” Dream player Elizabeth Williams said, crediting Bird for the strategic decision to endorse Rev. Warnock.
Bird earned our nomination for Celebrity Activist of the Year for the move. Meanwhile, neither Warnock nor Loeffler had the required “50% plus 1” margin to win the initial special election, so they are facing off again in a runoff January election.
Rapinoe & Bird revealed in October that they were hitched to get married. They began dating four years ago, shortly after meeting each other at the 2016 Olympics, and went public the next year. “Love will always win. Congratulations,” Joe Biden tweeted in response to their announcement photo.
The couple, in addition to quarantining together, has shared the big stage together as the first gay couple to be cover stars for ESPN The Magazine‘s Body Issue of 2018 and co-hosting the 2020 ESPYs with NFL quarterback Russell Wilson. Bird has even defended Rapinoe from attacks from soon-to-be-exiting President Donald Trump, who offered no congratulations of his own.
Out WNA forward Breanna Stewart named Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsperson of the Year
Speaking of out WNBA stars, Breanna Stewart was chosen as one of five Sportspersons of the Year by Sports Illustrated. Stewart is Bird’s teammate on the Seattle Storm, the team that won the WNBA championship this season. She dedicated her season in honor of Breonna Taylor, a Black paramedic killed by police in her own home. Stewart was profiled for the magazine by Rapinoe, Bird’s now-fiancée and last year’s solo choice for the honor.
Amidst criticism for selecting a white player from a mostly-Black athletic league, Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Cannella said in a statement, “Breanna Stewart was the top player for the WNBA champion Seattle Storm and was named Finals MVP. She did all that less than a year after suffering a career-threatening injury.”
Stewart is only the fourth woman athlete to receive Sports Illustrated‘s top honor.
NFL veteran Ryan K. Russell came out as bisexual in an ESPN article in September 2019. After an injury led to his release from one of the league’s teams, he stated that his goal is to get back in the NFL and to do so openly and honestly.
Since, Russell has worked with the league, guiding its LGBTQ-affirming policies and outreach. He even appeared in a league-sponsored PSA, where several active players and front office personnel made it clear that they are ready for LGBTQ athletes. Still, Russell waits, working toward his desire to become the NFL’s first out player to play in a regular season game — even penning an article calling for his own hiring.
“I’m not just sitting here like, ‘Yeah, it’ll happen’ – it will happen because I will make it happen, because I’ll finally get an opportunity,” he told LGBTQ Nation in an exclusive interview in November. “If I didn’t [believe], I would call my agent, retire right now, and start doing the other thousand things that I feel like I am f**king great at.”
San Diego’s professional men’s soccer team walked off the field mid-game after a Pheonix Rising player used a homophobic slur during the match. The team, coached by champion soccer star Landon Donovan, was in the lead at the time, 3-1.
The slur was directed at the San Diego Loyal’s midfielder Collin Martin, the only out player in any of the big five American sports leagues. After leaving the field for halftime, the players returned, took a knee, and refused to play. The decision to take a forfeit ultimately contributed to their failure to make it in the Major League Soccer (MLS)-affiliated league’s playoffs.
“The team came into tonight needing a win to stay alive,” sportscaster Jack Croni said. “The sacrifice that they are making, taking away their own points, made it that much more powerful.”