Joey Starling never imagined one of the first words he’d hear in the locker room would feel like a stake through his heart.
It was 2013. The high school pitcher from Bartow, Florida, was graduating and as he fielded offers to play college baseball, he was looking for a refuge. Through his school years, Starling had become increasingly aware he was gay. But growing up in a rural pocket of the Deep South, he’d heard nothing but jokes and slurs about gay people.
As his teenage pitching career progressed — including making all-district lists in Florida and garnering the attention of pro scouts — he figured he’d end up playing for one of the big-time college programs in the South: Auburn, Florida State, Clemson. And offers to play came from all of them.
When Stanford University came calling, though, it felt like a lifeline: Stanford’s baseball team had traditionally been a powerhouse, a source of many major league players. And it was in Palo Alto, less than an hour from San Francisco.
Off the diamond, Starling had heard stories about California, how “everyone’s gay there.” It was delivered as an insult, but Starling had heard it as salvation.
He accepted the offer.
Just months earlier, in April 2013, NBA player Jason Collins had come out publicly — one of the first active male athletes from the five major North American pro team sports to do so. Collins had starred in basketball at Stanford, and Starling watched from afar as the university’s athletic department praised Collins’ courage.
Starling was filled with hope. The world was changing.
His first few days at Stanford lived up to expectations: He wasn’t the only gay in the village, and he felt confident the campus was a place where his whole self could blossom.
“It was predominantly international and queer students in the dorm,” Starling told LGBTQ Nation. “There’s a part of me that thought the school read my dorm-placement essay and somehow knew exactly where to put me.”
It was a teammate who first crushed his spirit with a single slur.
“I told them if they placed me with a fa–ot I’m going to transfer,” Starling remembered a fellow freshman boasting in the locker room just as he walked in.
Over the next four years, Starling would be tormented by teammates with the nickname “Big Gay Joe,” after a male student had asked him out.
He battled depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and a growing desire to quit the sport he’d loved all his life.
Even as a national conversation was playing out about making sports more inclusive for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, Starling felt tormented and wondered where he could turn. Advocates were trying to make baseball, from Little League to the Major Leagues, more welcoming. But real change would remain elusive.
From Zero to ‘Love and Support’
With the experiences of prospects like Starling, who ultimately relinquished his dream of pitching in the majors, reflected across America, it is little wonder there is a dearth of out male athletes in elite team sports in America.
Close to 5,000 athletes play in the five major professional male sports leagues — the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer — yet only four athletes have ever played in a regular-season game after publicly coming out as gay.
That’s in stark contrast to the number of publicly out players in professional women’s sports: This year’s WNBA playoffs saw at least 24 publicly out LGBTQ players. The Women’s World Cup in 2019 had at least 40 publicly out players from around the world, and more have come out since.
The reasons for the disparity between men’s and women’s professional sports are myriad — from the intense public scrutiny male pro athletes face, to the pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes, to the fear of losing contracts or paid endorsements. Athletes often have only a few years to establish such deals, so an interruption in that process can take on exaggerated importance.
In addition, women’s sports has a long history of queer women at the highest levels. Their presence has created a more welcoming environment within women’s sports.
“Women’s sports has been a haven for so many queer people, even as women’s sports has had to deal with its own homophobic and transphobic systems, so it would make sense to me that there’s an overrepresentation of queer women competing in the women’s category,” said Katie Barnes, a writer at ESPN who has written extensively about women’s sports.
But at the same time, change is starting to take hold, and it’s happening quickly: This summer, both NFL defensive lineman Carl Nassib and pro hockey prospect Luke Prokop came out publicly, joining, via their pronouncements, an elite group of former athletes, gay and allied, working to make sports more inclusive from within.
In an Instagram video posted during Pride month, Nassib, who plays for the Las Vegas Raiders, opened with a casual “What’s up people?” before confidently sharing his story with the world.
“I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay,” said Nassib, 28. “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest. I really have the best life, I’ve got the best family, friends and job a guy could ask for.”
Describing himself as a “private person,” Nassib said he was eager for the day when the coming out process won’t be necessary.
“But until then I am going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate,” he said.
Weeks later, Prokop posted an equally forthright note on Instagram, also emphasizing his desire to bring his whole self to his game.
“It has been quite a journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out,” wrote the 19-year-old Nashville Predators prospect. “From a young age, I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the ice, which will improve my chances of achieving my dreams.”
Both men were embraced, at least publicly, by fans, executives, players and teammates.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr told ESPN that no one on the team “has treated [Nassib] any different.”
“He may have a different story; I don’t know. I don’t know what his story is,” Carr said. “But from my point of view — his locker is just a few down from mine — and I just want to make sure that he knows that, man, we just want him to play as hard as he can so we can win a Super Bowl. That’s what we’re here to do.”
However, Carr and Nassib’s longtime coach, Jon Gruden, would not have agreed. Gruden resigned in October, not long after Nassib came out, following the revelation of racist and homophobic emails he sent to friends around the league from 2011-18 while he was working on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. In one of them, Gruden calls NFL commissioner Roger Goodell an anti-gay slur, showing just how far the league’s culture still must improve.
Gruden stepped down hours after the emails were publicized. Though the NFL has made significant strides towards inclusion, the messages were a sign of the atavistic clubby culture that still exists in NFL circles, making it hard for athletes to come out and be themselves publicly.
The NHL is trying to evolve as well. Commissioner Gary Bettman praised Prokop “for sharing his truth and being so brave,” adding that the league “[does] not take the meaning and importance of this announcement lightly.”
Prokop and Nassib joined a growing community of players eager to make sports more accessible and provide the kind of role models that they have largely lacked.
In 2014, shooting guard Derrick Gordon came out while playing for the University of Massachusetts, making him the first openly gay player on an NCAA Division I basketball team. Gordon recently signed with the Gladiators Treves in Trier, Germany, where coach Marco van den Berg praised him as “the type of leader that we missed so much.”
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Jaden Vazquez, a linebacker for the Division I Fordham University Rams, said he hasn’t heard a single negative comment since he came out as bisexual almost two years ago.
“My teammates are very accepting,” Vazquez told Outsports in September. “Many of my teammates are more comfortable talking about it and it’s not really a taboo subject, which is great. And I feel like moving forward it will be more of a normalized thing. The team atmosphere is more accepting.”
The tipping point for change?
It’s hard to say when the tipping point came, but 2013 was a pivotal year: On February 15, just weeks after being released by Leeds United in England, 25-year-old winger Robbie Rogers announced his retirement from professional soccer.
He also came out as gay in a 408-word blog post.
“I’m a soccer player, I’m Christian, and I’m gay,” Rogers wrote. “Those are things that people might say wouldn’t go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in.”
Rogers said he had to leave the sport he loved to be his true self.
“Maybe a lot of fans aren’t homophobic. But, in a stadium, sometimes they want to destroy you,” he told The Guardian. “In the past I would have said: ‘They don’t know I’m gay so it doesn’t mean anything.’ But, now they know it, am I going to jump in the stands and fight them?”
He also worried about getting caught up in a nonstop media circus.
“Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys — how’s that’’” he told the paper. “If you’re playing well it will be reported as: ‘The gay footballer is playing well.’ And if you have a bad game it’ll be: ‘Aw, that gay dude … he’s struggling because he’s gay.’ [Expletive] it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
But less than three months later, on May 1, 2013, he returned to the game, signing with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy.
Rogers said his “a-ha” moment came while speaking to about 500 queer young people at the Nike Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland, Oregon, that April.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
In his first match with the team, the Galaxy scored a 4–0 victory over the Seattle Sounders. In 2014, the team won the MLS Cup, and Rogers became the first out male American athlete to win a major professional team championship. Rogers retired in 2017 after a career notable for its success on and off the field. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his husband, the noted producer Greg Berlanti, and the couple are raising two kids, Mia and Caleb.
“The time has come”
Collins also came out in 2013, writing in an essay for Sports Illustrated that he “didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.”
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different,” he wrote. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Almost immediately, the NBA’s top stars publicly backed him: LeBron James told reporters he had the “utmost respect for Jason” and Kobe Bryant, who had been fined in 2011 for using a homophobic slur against a referee, tweeted that he was proud of Collins, writing, “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.”
Los Angeles Laker Steve Nash simply tweeted, “The time has come.”
The following season, the Brooklyn Nets signed Collins and on February 23, 2014, he became the first out athlete to play in an NBA game, when the team beat the Lakers at the Staples Center.
Photo of Collins playing in this historic game
Collins now works with the NBA on inclusion efforts and said he hopes his story shows closeted athletes that they can share their truth with teammates and fans.
“I do hope they find inspiration from Robbie Rogers’ story and my story and seeing what the reaction to Carl and Luke has been,” Collins told LGBTQ Nation. “Just people going out, making their announcements, and still going out and doing their job and helping their team win games.”
About a year following Rogers and Collins, football player Michael Sam came out publicly a few months before the NFL Rookie Draft, saying at the time he wanted to be drafted by a team that wanted him for who he was. Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, but he never played in a regular-season game as he was cut by the team and failed to make a roster anywhere else. Still, he did become the first publicly out gay athlete to play in the Canadian Football League, with the Montreal Allouettes.
“I have tremendous respect for him,” Allouettes teammate Luc Brodeur-Jourdain would later say of Sam. “There’s always a first one in any type of story . . . and when there’s a first one, the barrier is shattered and if the barrier is shattered our world gets better.
The first pro athlete to come out publicly was far ahead of his time: NFL running back David Kopay in 1975, two years after he retired. Kopay had expected to transition to coaching, but he believes he was rebuffed because pro- and college teams were uncomfortable with his being gay.
Glenn Burke was not far behind Kopay: The outfielder was not out publicly when he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 to ’78 and the Oakland Athletics in ’78 and ’79, but some teammates knew he was gay. So did manager Tommy Lasorda, who reportedly traded Burke to Oakland because he wanted nothing to do with gay players.
“Glenn was living with one eye over his shoulder at all times, wondering what was the reaction going to be from any particular person at any one time,” said Andrew Maraniss, author of the recently published book Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, told LGBTQ Nation.
Burke suffered a knee injury before the 1980 season, and the A’s sent him down to the minors and eventually released him.
While Burke said most of his teammates didn’t care about his sexuality, he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Out at Home, that some refused to shower with him and that the Dodgers offered him $75,000 to marry a woman.
“My mission as a gay ballplayer was the breaking of a stereotype … I think it worked …,” he told People in 1995. “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”
Burke died from AIDS-related complications in 1995 after a stint of homelessness and drug addiction.
Outfielder Billy Bean came out in 1999, four years after his last season with the San Diego Padres. Coming out while still in the game wasn’t an option, said Bean, who had been married to a woman briefly in his 20s.
His breaking point came one day before the 1995 season started: His partner, Sam, had just died of AIDS complications, and since Bean was closeted to everyone in his life, he grieved alone.
“It just [expletive] destroyed me,” Bean told LGBTQ Nation in an interview. “I started to really have incredibly low self-esteem — like I just failed everywhere. I didn’t even go to my partner’s funeral because I had a [expletive] baseball game.”
Flash forward to 2014, when Major League Baseball hired Bean as its first ambassador for inclusion. He said it’s an opportunity to make the sport he loves more welcoming for the next generation.
“Every drafted player from 2017 has seen me in a room somewhere, talking about my life experience,” said Bean, 57. “I think inclusion is everywhere, it’s touchable. None of that was in place when I started.”
More than anything, Bean wants to help ensure no more gay athletes experience the mental anguish he did. His work is focused on educating teams and players about tolerance, and destigmatizing the topic of sexual orientation in locker rooms.
Sometimes, that just involves listening. Bean maintains contact with many closeted male athletes, trying to help them along in their journey any way he can.
“I want them to have all the information that they need to make the best decision, the safest decision, the healthiest decision for themselves,” Bean said. “We’re constantly communicating, and I’ll just say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How’s your Monday?’ You know, not like we’re not getting into specifics, but just to know that someone is out there.”
Over the last seven years, Bean has seen an increasing number of MLB teams embrace Pride. He was at Oracle Park on June 5 for the San Francisco Giants’ Pride Day, when the team became the first in the league to hit the diamond wearing Pride colors on their uniforms.
Giants manager Gabe Kapler called it “an exciting moment” for the team.
“I think it’s an important step, and I think we’re all standing behind the community,” he said.
Kevin Gausman, the team’s ace right-handed starter, put it this way: “The anthem before the game. The palm trees out front. Really, everything. It was pretty cool. Obviously, this is a city that’s very inclusive, so it was fun to be a part of. I’ve never worn a hat like that before, so that was cool.”
The Turning Point?
For most of the history of professional sports, the leagues didn’t attempt to make inclusivity a priority. That, too, has changed dramatically since 2013.
In part that’s because America has changed: Some 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage and equality. A 2014 Seton Hall survey found that 89 percent of sports fans didn’t think an athlete’s sexual orientation should determine if they get a contract. And Generation Z, the future of sports fandom, are far more likely than older generations to both identify as LGBTQ and support full equality and representation.
Today, all Major League Baseball teams but one (the Texas Rangers) have held events acknowledging Pride, as has every NHL and MLS club and numerous NBA teams.
In October 2020, the NFL produced a National Coming Out Day video that saw gay and bisexual players like Ryan O’Callaghan, Jeff Rohrer, R.K. Russell, and Wade Davis encouraging players to come out.
The 30-second PSA also featured numerous straight allies, including Rob Gronkowski and DeAndre Hopkins. “We got you,” Baltimore Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell told gay players.
The Detroit Lions held the NFL’s first Pride night in 2015 and several others have followed suit. The Atlanta Falcons and the Washington Football Team have scheduled their first events this season.
In June, the NFL turned its iconic shield rainbow-colored for Pride Month.
While it’s easy to dismiss the gesture as superficial, Russell, who played three seasons in the NFL before coming out as bisexual in 2019, said it was a big statement.
“Symbols are very important,” Russell said, “and I think people only say they’re not important when the symbols have served them their whole life, and they don’t understand the other side of that.”
Getting an assist in coming out
Erik Braverman, the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president of marketing and broadcasting, came out publicly in 2015, becoming the highest-ranking out executive in Major League Baseball.
Braverman, who played high school ball, said he and many in athletics let the need to belong be their driving force when it should be much more than that.
“I was taught that in order to fit into a team environment, I had to adapt to my surroundings,” Braverman told LGBTQ Nation. “I was taught that the people who create the distractions, the people who don’t fit in, when changes need to be made, those are the people who are going to be moved first.”
It was a straight man who changed Braverman’s perspective: In 2012, Lon Rosen, who was instrumental in helping a group including Magic Johnson purchase the Dodgers, became Braveman’s new boss.
Early in his tenure, Rosen, who happened to know Braverman was gay because he worked with him, sat him down and asked why he was closeted at work.
“At the back of my mind was this fear that there is somebody coming after my job,” Braverman said. “And I think that’s a fear for a lot of people.”
Rosen connected Braverman with Rick Welts, the president of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and, in 2011, the first major pro sports executive to come out as a gay man.
“In the first five minutes talking with Rick, he made me realize all the concerns I had about obstacles and insecurities about my own abilities were all in my own head,” Braverman said.
O’Callaghan, a former tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, came out in 2017. He was so certain there was no life for him as an openly gay man that he planned to kill himself after leaving the league. Now he works to change that mentality and recently counseled a pro athlete struggling to come out.
“I told him about my conversations with the NFL and former teammates,” O’Callaghan said. “And I tried to give him some hope. That’s really what I try to do with everyone I speak to. I don’t need to sugarcoat it because the reality is, things are way better. There is tons of acceptance.”
A survey conducted earlier this year by Outsports, the University of Winchester in England, and the Sports Equality Foundation found a quarter of young athletes who came out to their teammates reported “perfect or near-perfect” experiences, while less than 5 percent said they had a “bad” experience. The survey reflected 1,000 team coming-out experiences by 820 different high school and college student-athletes, some reporting on their coming-out experiences on both their high school and college teams. It’s the largest-ever study of athletes who have come out to teammates.
Even in the “big five” sports — baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer — less than 8 percent reported having had a bad experience.
“It reflects what I’ve learned as a coach and an academic — that young athletes, particularly in 2021, really don’t care that their teammate might be gay or bi,” said Eric Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Winchester who helped conduct the survey.
“They care most about their teammate’s well-being and success,” he said.
One of the biggest obstacles to a more inclusive environment in pro sports is pervasive homophobic language — the anti-gay slurs that have been flung around in locker rooms for generations.
“If anything, I would join in on some of it,” O’Callaghan said. “In my paranoid closeted mind, if I didn’t use homophobic slurs, they’d suspect something of me.”
But if, as Callaghan says, “there is tons of acceptance,” why do so many athletes continue to use anti-gay slurs?
Brock McGillis, a former goaltender with the Ontario Hockey League who came out in 2017, said the culture of team sports prioritizes masculinity and conformity.
In his case, Canadian youth hockey players were typically organized by skill and age, placing them in an environment where they’re surrounded by people exactly like them.
“You’re isolated in an arena with 20 of your peers who look like you, sound like you, talk like you, and you’re with them six, seven nights a week,” he said. “It reinforces the problematic issues within the culture over and over again because you’re not exposed to anything besides each other.”
But even in the insular world of hockey, there’s been a palpable generational change. Prokop, who was born in Edmonton, grew up playing in the parochial environment that McGillis references.
Yet, Prokop still came out this summer and received widespread public support from the NHL. McGillis, who’s close with Prokop, says his example can trickle all the way down from the pros to youth leagues.
“Luke came out for Luke, and showed tremendous courage and maturity far beyond his 19 years on this planet to do so,” McGillis said. “I think there’s a lot of people in hockey, in hockey culture, who want to be inclusive and supportive. I just don’t think they necessarily know how.”
Often it’s not even a conscious thing. Vazquez said after he came out, a lot of his teammates apologized for things they had said. “They weren’t meaning it,” he added, “just joking as a lot of guys in locker rooms do.”
Almost two years later anti-gay language has vanished — at least when Vazquez is around.
“I’ve addressed what it means and people understand that,” he said. “I don’t get homophobic comments at all on my team, and I don’t fear the jokes coming from my team.”
Scoring With Solutions
It’s clear there has been a massive shift in pro sports, but the homophobic language and the small number of out players make it clear more needs to be done.
Many LGBTQ former pros are using their platform to be the change they want to see: Some, like Bean and O’Callaghan, have written frank memoirs sharing their difficult journey.
Vazquez is part of a campus organization, Fordham Connect, that’s focused on making sure everyone feels welcome in sports. “I find it very rewarding knowing other people can feel like they’re not alone,” he said.
Wade Davis, who came out in 2012, is the former executive director of the You Can Play project. The nonprofit works to eradicate homophobia in professional sports with training across numerous leagues.
“There still needs to be education, there still needs to be conversations,” Davis told Sports Illustrated in June. “Coaches are going to have to talk about this with a lot more fluency and sophistication. They’re going to have to be comfortable having these conversations.”
Collins, an NBA Cares ambassador, said the key is reaching players while they’re still young.
“If we can help educate their coaches, then the coaches can help educate the players at the youth level,” he said. “Then the trickle effect happens — the ripple wave effect of increasing people’s education and awareness to eliminate sexism and homophobia in sport.”
For his part, Starling, the Stanford pitcher who felt he had to give up the game he loved as the price of homophobia, hasn’t found his place in the conversation about inclusion yet, but he’s working on it.
After he came out publicly on Facebook he said many of his former teammates told him they wish he’d come out while they were playing together, saying they would have supported him.
“I do think they would have accepted it,” Starling said. “I think the reason they felt so comfortable joking with me is that they liked me as a person. And I think that would have transcended any issues.”
Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of Outsports and a member of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists Hall of Fame. Alex Reimer is a digital content producer for Audacy Sports and deputy managing editor of Outsports.